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Ed Curtis: A change of scene, fresh inspiration, new people, new perspectives

Ed Curtis:

A change of scene, fresh inspiration, new people, new perspectives


So how did you come across that ad?

The ad was sent to the mailing list at Harvard, where I was doing my post-doc, so one day I simply checked my email, and this was there, and I thought “oh, wow! That would be amazing,” so I sent the application off that night! It was a kind of impulsive thing. I didn’t really expect to start my independent research career in Europe.

Did you know Prague, or the Czech Republic, before that?

Yes, I had come to visit, just one time, and I was really struck by it. I have pretty much loved everywhere I’ve travelled in Europe, but Prague was one of my favourite cities. After I found out about the job, I started to seek out Czech people in Boston, and they made me feel better about coming here.

So did they give you a bit of practical help, with the language and the paperwork?

They offered, but in the end I think EURAXESS was really the one that helped me out. This was the one down side – the paperwork was quite difficult, there were many rules, and I wasn’t always quite sure if I had done the right thing. Even styles of handwriting on the documents are different, so it can be tricky to work out what is what. What made my situation more complicated was that my wife came along, and she didn’t have a job, and there was a special process to get our marriage certificate notarised, which we never do in the States, to prove she was married to me. So getting all this co-ordinated was quite rather difficult, and at the same time we were moving out of our apartment in Boston – lots of things were happening all at once.

What were your expectations, after you’d come for the interview and had a look around?

When I look at the sort of career trajectory of a typical scientist, my impression is that at the beginning you may have really crazy ideas, but you don’t know enough to be able to say whether they are realistic. You are very creative, but you can’t yet make a contribution. Then you reach a period where you know enough to decide if this is a good idea or a bad idea, and you are still being creative, and I this is really where you are at your peak. And then finally you get to the point where you think you know everything, and you’re pretty much done. You may be a distinguished scientist and people consider you a great expert, but you’re not going to do any more. So, I think it’s very important to think about how I can stay in the second phase as long as possible, and it seemed to me, coming to a new country would be a way to keep my mind flexible, and even better, coming to a country where the language is totally new; I’m trying to learn Czech, and I believe this is something that could really help me. It’s a change of scene, fresh inspiration, new people, new perspectives.

Also, I knew it was a beautiful city but I had no idea just how beautiful, I think. Even after being here for six months I’m still feeling like I haven’t really scratched the surface – and I still haven’t travelled much outside of Prague, so that’s another whole area of exploration!

How did you find somewhere to live in Prague?

The institute where I’m working put us up at a special hotel for scientists, Hotel Mazanka, in Prague 8, until we could find an apartment. And then it happened that while we were on holiday in Costa Rica and Panama, just before we moved, we met somebody who worked in real estate in New York, whose company has an office in Prague. So in Prague we met up with a lady from that office, and really got along well with her, and she basically found a place for us.

That’s a great story! Are you happy there?

Yes! We ended up living in Prague 7, right between Stromovka and Letná. My wife really likes being close to Stromovka, it makes a big difference in her quality of life, and I like the fact that it is literally a five minute walk to the Letna beer garden, where I have this wonderful view of the centre. It’s also convenient for work, it takes me about fifteen minutes on the tram, or half an hour to walk. So it’s a practical place, and beautiful too.

How is the size of the city, compared to what you were used to before?

I would say it feels a bit bigger than Boston, but certainly not as big as New York. There are two things that probably make Prague feel a bit bigger to me – first, it’s much more cosmopolitan, and second, Boston really shuts down early, whereas here people are out and about at all hours of the day and that is something I really like.

So do you feel like you’ve found your feet here with a new social life as well?

Yes, I would say so, though I feel like I don’t need that as much as some people. When I first came to my institute someone told me people would take a bit of time to warm up to me, and this was exactly how it went –for the first month or two I would see people in the hall and say “Dobrý den” and they would say “Dobrý den” and then after two months I would say “Dobrý den”, and suddenly there was a ten minute conversation. But I am also quite happy spending some time alone, so this wasn’t so much an issue. I would say that people are definitely more reserved here than they are in the United States, but on the other hand people have always been extremely nice.

One other thing to say is that there are a lot of Americans here, so I think that if we had wanted to plug in with a group of them here it would have been quite easy. In fact, both of us want to learn Czech and are really interested in experiencing the culture, so we haven’t sought out the Americans. Interestingly, I’ve found that I’m more outgoing here than I am in the States, because I am so keen to discover the culture, and I’ve found that people are so incredibly open to foreigners trying to speak Czech. When I’m talking to strangers in the city they are always willing to listen to my terrible Czech, and try to understand, so I think it’s a fantastic place to learn a language. I don’t feel self-conscious at all about walking up to a stranger and asking a question.

Do you find you sometimes feel homesick?

After a couple of months here, we went back to the US for one week, and I was quite interested to see how I would feel. And I actually missed Prague as soon as I got to the United States! That was quite interesting, it’s like I’m the opposite of homesick. The first challenge will be in a few weeks, though, because Halloween is my favourite holiday, so I might have to find some Americans to celebrate with!

How about your wife? How’s she getting along and what did she feel when she arrived in the Czech Republic?

Before we came, I was open to the idea of staying longer – my job is for five years but could be renewed – whereas my wife didn’t really feel like staying for more than five years, partly because she couldn’t imagine ever speaking Czech as fluently as she speaks English or Spanish. But now that we’re here, both of us like it even more than we thought, so I think we are doing well.

She hasn’t really been looking for a job yet, but I think she will – when she arrived, she really wanted to get settled, and get straight into the language. She’s very high energy, and everyone who knows her said it was a terrible idea for her not to be working … surprisingly, it’s been going well, but she is getting to the point where she will want to look for a job. She teaches maths, and has also taught Spanish at one point, and English as a second language, so I feel like it should be pretty easy for her to find a good job here.

Have you been going to Czech classes?

Our classes just started about a week ago, so we’ve been studying on our own until now. I think the class is great because it focuses on speaking, and that’s really going to help – I’ve noticed, I can understand a lot of things on the menu at restaurants, but I still can’t have basic conversations with people. I think my wife is better at languages than I am, so she’s a bit more advanced and also has had a bit more time to study, and has really been throwing herself into it.

Tell me about Czech culture – how do you find it?

I would say that I feel very comfortable here, and my wife as well, and it’s a bit hard to understand why. It seems that people are very laid back and sort of leave you alone, and that’s something that is important for me – I like the fact that I can walk into a place, and even if I’m sticking out like a sore thumb, nobody really cares. I also think that people are really into the outdoors, which is something else that I like.

Are you into sports?

Yes, I am, and I have discovered that many of the sports that are popular here are sports that are quite unusual in the States. For example, the student who’s going to be joining my lab is really into rock climbing. She’s invited me a few times, and I couldn’t believe this – there’s a bar in Prague, called Boulder Bar, which is a bar and a climbing wall – it sounds like the worst idea ever, I imagined there are people with cracked skulls and sprained ankles every day, but in fact people are responsible, and climb first and go to the bar afterwards. Other people I work with are also into climbing, and I don’t know anyone who does this in the United States. Also I’ve never seen people playing soccer in Stromovka, which is what you’d think everyone would be doing, but I’ve seen people fighting with swords, walking on tightropes, and juggling.

Have you got involved in any sporting activities already yourself?

I’d like to. The student definitely wants me to become a climber, so we’ll see if that happens. I really like soccer, so I’d really like to play here. In Boston, I was always biking to work, but before I came I did some reading, and it sounded like it was quite difficult to bike in Prague, so I sold my bike. But it’s something I miss, and I’m thinking I’ll buy one here, and I can at least bike in Stromovka, even if I can’t use the bike to travel around. It seems to me that Prague has great potential as a cycling city, and I’ve heard that there are lots of good opportunities for cycling just outside the city. I noticed there’s a bike path that goes from Prague to Vienna, and I think this could be fantastic.

One other thing that gives me a sense that people might be moving in the right direction with cycling, but still have some way to go, is that near where I live there’s a street that goes from Stromovka to Letenské Náměstí, and that street has a bike path – imagine, you’re in Stromovka and you want to leave, and there’s this wonderful bike path…except the bike path only goes to the intersection, and then it just abruptly stops! It lasts for about a block, and goes nowhere!

Do you have a favourite place in Prague?

That’s a difficult question. I can’t really pin it down to one place. I really like Mala Strana, just wandering around, and I really like Vyšehrad, to me there’s something really special about going to a place where there used to be a castle, and it’s just sort of crumbling. I really like Petrin Hill, and Stromovka too.

What’s your impression of Czech food? How do you like eating here?

Well, before I came I had some reservations. When I visited, the food seemed very heavy to me. I also knew that the beer was much better here than it is in the States, and there I generally didn’t drink beer, but I knew that I was going to here, so I thought I’d have to exercise a lot. Well, now that I’ve been here for a while, I’ve realised that the Czech food really agrees with me! I’ve lost about twenty pounds since I’ve been here, and I’ve basically been eating whatever I want. So I’m quite amazed. And I think it is that high fat food is OK for me, but high sugar food is a problem - my sense is that the food here has much less sugar than it does in the United States. So the food has been great for me, I really enjoy it, and it seems to be agreeing with me.

For my wife, it’s a bit more complicated because she’s a vegetarian. So in Boston, we would enjoy going to fancy restaurants, and here we generally don’t, because there aren’t too many restaurants that really have good choices for her. My work has a cafeteria (that is pretty common here), where they give you a proper home-cooked meal for a hugely discounted price. So I have my lunch there, and that is when I eat meat and have traditional Czech food. It’s funny, because most of my colleagues complain and complain about the food there. Maybe I I’ll feel that way at some point, but for now I’m really enjoying it. And then I come home for dinner and we have vegetarian food. My wife usually cooks for herself, and she hasn’t had any trouble with getting the ingredients for that – it’s just when we go to a normal restaurant there’s not too much available for her. We did go to a vegetarian restaurant, actually, that I thought was outstanding – and I think she liked it, but not as much as I did. I really liked it, and before I met her, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a place like that! I thought if the meal doesn’t have meat in it, it’s not a real meal!

That’s a very Czech attitude, so I’m not surprised you’ve got on quite well here! Have you tried any Czech wine?

It was very interesting, I knew nothing about Czech wine when I came here, and I think the white wine is really quite good. I still haven’t been here for a full year, so I’m experiencing new things all the time – a few weeks ago I had burčák for the first time, again something I’d never even heard of, but was quite good I thought!

Do you find that the Czechs have a good sense of humour?

Yes, and I like it. It is definitely dark! Before we came, we were trying to learn as much as we could about the Czech Republic, and part of this was watching Czech movies. A lot of the movies were described as tragicomedies, and when I read that, I think the movie is going to be funny, but it’s also going to be dark. Well, I watched a few of these and at some point, I had to take a break, I couldn’t do it every night, because there was nothing funny at all! There was one in particular, it’s called the Cremator, and it’s about a guy who believes that the soul can’t truly be released from a body unless it’s cremated… it was just brutal! There was nothing funny about it, although it was a beautiful movie in some ways.

So that was a little dark, but I also think I am adapting. The other day I had to meet an architect – we talked for a while, and then at the end of the meeting, I told him I am trying to learn Czech, and he said to me, “life is not long enough to learn Czech”. I’ve heard something like this from almost every Czech person I talk to, and I think they can’t really be taking it seriously either. But I definitely like the sense of humour here, even if it’s quite different from what you find back in the States.

Do you go to the cinema much in Prague?

I haven’t been to the cinema even once! We live near a cinema called Bio Oko, and we went there for drinks once, but we haven’t yet gone for a film. It looks like they have a lot of interesting things on, so hopefully we’ll see something there soon. One of the highlights of the first six months here was going to see Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre, and it’s amazing to think I can walk to that theatre from my house, and it is where the opera actually had its first performance, and it wasn’t that much money, and it is a beautiful building, so that was really outstanding.

Tell me a bit more about the project you’re working on.

Most of the enzymes that are known are made of protein, but it turns out there are also some enzymes that are made of a molecule called RNA. One of the nice things about RNA is it’s much easier to make an RNA enzyme, than to make a protein enzyme. My area of specialty is making RNA enzymes, we will be looking for new examples of RNA enzymes in nature, and making new RNA enzymes that will have some sort of practical use. To give you an example, have you ever seen a firefly? It turns out scientists have identified a protein enzyme that produces their light. I’m working on making an RNA enzyme that can also catalyse a reaction that produces light. I can imagine using this as a sort of sensor, for example to detect a certain kind of pollution in a sample - you could make a variant of this enzyme that only produces light when that type of pollution is present, and simply read off by how much light is produced how clean the sample is.

How many people are working on that kind of thing?

I’ve just hired my first student, she’ll be starting in a couple of months, so at the moment it’s just me, but we will expand gradually. I have enough money to hire between three and five people, for the five years, and if I get grants, then I can add more. It’s an exciting opportunity for me.

Is this the kind of thing the Institute specialised in already, or have you introduced it?

As far as I know I’m the only person in the Czech Republic who does this kind of research. The kind of work I do is a good fit for the IOCB and there are a lot of opportunities for collaboration at the institute, and they are trying to become more international at the moment too, so many new people are joining the institute with more international teams.

What about the research structures – are they similar to what you were used to?

In general, the most pressing thing for me is understanding scientific funding, and that is something I’m still trying to figure out. When I first arrived, the IOCB said, look, we’ve given you enough money for five years, but at some point you need to be getting grants on your own, so what we want you to do is apply for a couple of grants now, and then don’t worry about it – maybe you’ll get lucky and get them, but if you don’t, then work for a few years, get some results, get some papers, and then try again. So I applied for two grants, one of them was an EU grant, so everything was in English, and I’m still in the running, but I won’t find out for a few months. But the second thing was a Czech grant, it’s one of the major ones, and what I’ve discovered is that it’s not very well suited to foreigners, because the instructions are only available in Czech, and some of the grant itself requires Czech, so it’s difficult. Of course, the people at the IOCB grant office and my colleagues helped, but it’s really not ideal to be in the situation where you’re applying for a grant and you simply can’t read the instructions. Some of my classmates from grad school are now working as group leaders in different countries in Europe, and they’ve told me most countries have these kinds of quirks, and you have little chance of getting a grant unless you figure out what they are, so it’s very important to find a mentor, someone who knows the system, to help you out. So that’s something I’m working on, developing relationships with people.

Do you think you’ll explore Europe a bit more while you’re here?

Absolutely - both of us really like to travel. So far we’ve only taken one major trip – some friends came to visit, and we flew to Dubrovnik, rented a car, and travelled around Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania. It was a very nice trip.

It’s quite difficult to go back to the States, so this year we’re thinking about staying in Europe for Christmas, and might take a trip somewhere. It’s wonderful that we can go to so many cool places just for the weekend!

Are you looking forward to the winter?

I’ve seen some very beautiful pictures, for example of the Charles Bridge after it snowed, so I’m looking forward to that. But I don’t really like cold weather. Before I came, I did a comparison of the weather here with the weather in Boston. Temperature wise, it looks pretty similar, and it seems like Prague gets about half as much snow as Boston, so that won’t be too much of a shock, but the thing I’m quite concerned about is the sunlight – when I was here in the summer, I was thinking, this is wonderful, it’s getting dark at 11pm! But then I started to think that there’s going to be a price to pay… so that’s the one part of it that I’m not looking forward to.

What advice would you give if there was another American thinking of coming to the Czech Republic?

Probably the best advice would be to try to have an open mind, because I think a lot of times, people will go somewhere and think it should be like the place they came from. So they are disappointed when they can’t get a certain food item, or people behave in a certain way. I think if you go to a place simply thinking there are going to be some things that are better than where you came from, and some things that may be worse, and you just want to see how people live in a different part of the world, that is the way to have the best experience.

Can you think of anything more EURAXESS could do to help foreign researchers when they come to Prague?

I’m very grateful I was given support with the visa, it was quite challenging and there’s no way I could have done it on my own. Once someone arrives, I think one priority should be learning Czech, and EURAXESS already offers Czech classes, so that’s great. The second priority is just getting your feet on the ground, so it could be useful for EURAXESS to offer some information about basic services in Prague. I just sort of tried to figure that out on my own, and talked to people at work, or asked the EURAXESS office by email, and every single time I got a response the next day, so I was really grateful!