Hi, my name is Martin and I am a developmental biologist. I live in Cambridge with my wife and our little daughter. I love snakes, lizards, as well as birds, and love to travel abroad to see and photograph more species.
I come from a small spa town in Czechia, near the Slovak border. I grew up in a house with a large garden full of Sand Lizards and Smooth Snakes, and those became my first lifelong hobby. It was always clear that I loved nature, especially animals, so it was no surprise I went to study Biology in Prague. I then did a Masters and a PhD in Zoology in the same city. During my PhD, I spent about four months working with tropical fishes in Mexico, and six months in Vienna using a small CT machine (X-ray computer tomograph) that was able to create 3D images of tiny fish embryos. Then in 2017, I got a postdoctoral researcher position with Prof. Clare Baker in Cambridge.
I love living in Cambridge, especially the absolutely flat, muddy landscape around it. Since there are barely any snakes and lizards compared with my country, I started birdwatching, for which the East of England is really great. I especially love taking pictures of birds with my camera. I also record calls of migrating birds by sticking a microphone out of our window at night and then trying to figure out the species I recorded. That isn’t always easy, but I already recorded many species one can’t usually see around here 🙂
Me and my wife now have a toddler at home who just started walking, so I hope she’ll soon join me on my birdwatching trips! I mean, she joins now too, but I still have to carry her mostly, so there’s no space for my camera 😂
My pronouns are:
I am a developmental biologist interested in embryos of various species of vertebrates. Right now I study the embryonic development of organs that fish use to sense water movement and electric signals coming from other animals.
I am interested in the development of fish lateral line. This is an organ that forms early in fish embryos, and later in life helps the fish to sense how water moves around its body. Many fishes can also sense weak electric signals that all animals in water naturally create.
Interestingly, the cells in the fish lateral line are almost exactly the same as the cells we use to hear sounds or sense the movement of our head. While we cannot regenerate these cells and lose them gradually throughout our life leading to hearing loss and vertigo, the fish are able to grow new cells. So knowing how the fish lateral line cells develop might eventually be useful for helping people with hearing problems.
To understand the development of these cells, I use a molecular tool called CRISPR/Cas9, which allows me to change genetic information in fish eggs, switching some chosen genes off. I have to read the fish’s DNA first to find the best way the chosen gene can be switched off. Then I design a short string of RNA that matches the chosen DNA, attach it to a Cas9 enzyme, and inject it into a fish egg. The RNA and Cas9 find their way to the cell nucleus, attach to the matching DNA and cut it, which often causes the gene to stop working. I then look at how the lateral line cell development changes.
My Typical Day:
I usually start after 9 am with sorting out my emails, so that I have the rest of the day free for lab work. At noon I enjoy lunch and some chat with my colleagues, and then get back to work. It involves a lot of looking into microscopes and taking images. I get home around 6 pm and play with my daughter for a bit before her bedtime.
My lab work in Cambridge mostly consists of manipulating a lot of samples in small plastic tubes, figuring out if I synthesized what I wanted to synthesize for my experiments. I also use various ways to stain my fixed fish embryos to see where genes are expressed. Then I look at them under a microscope and take pictures to analyze later. Many times things don’t work, especially when tried for the first time, so I have to make changes in my experiment and try again. This is usually a fun challenge, but it can get a bit frustrating if you don’t figure it out after a few weeks 😃
A lot of my work is also purely computer-based. I can be reading the DNA and figuring out which bits to focus on. I can also be processing microscope images, or preparing scientific journal publications. As my work is quite flexible, I can do these things from home if I want. I prefer coming to the office though, as I can join others for lunch 🙂
To work with live fish, I travel to a hatchery located in Czechia, during which time the work is quite intense, working longer hours depending on how well the experiments go and how the fish embryos grow. My fish breed from February to June so this is the busiest, but also the most exciting time for me.
What I'd do with the prize money:
I’ve been sick with Long Covid for a while and am still recovering, so, to be fair, go ahead and vote for any other scientist! I am sure their projects will be great fun, and I am currently not able to create and run a further public engagement project! Thanks!
I went to elementary school in Luhačovice, Czechia. After finishing the Second Stage there when I was 15, I chose a Grammar School in Zlín, Lesní čtvrť in Czechia, near my hometown, where I gradually specialized towards life sciences. Although, despite some degree of specialization, Czech grammar schools teach you all subjects for most of the curriculum, including History, Geography, Social Sciences, Art etc. As I successfully participated in Biological Olympiad at a national level during that time, I was then admitted without entry exams to Charles University in Prague to study Biology. Undergraduate study of General Biology takes 3 years there. I then took a 2-years Masters in Zoology, followed by a PhD in Vertebrate Zoology.
We didn’t have a GCSE equivalent at the end of the Secondary Stage of elementary school in Czechia. In the last year, the subjects we took were Czech language and literature, Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geography, History, Electronics, English, German, Music, Painting, and PE. Rather than the final grades though, entry exams were most important for getting into the chosen secondary school.
We take four final exams roughly equivalent to A levels in grammar schools in Czechia. Czech language and literature, as well as a chosen foreign language (English in my case) are mandatory, the other two are chosen from the remaining subjects. I took Biology and Chemistry exams.
During my PhD I was employed as a research associate in the same lab (you are paid some stipend by the Czech government as a PhD candidate, but not enough, so many labs try to employ their PhD students at the same time). I also worked part-time in another lab that studied termites, and to earn some extra money I also worked as a mystery shopper.
Since 2017 I have worked as a postdoctoral Research Associate in Prof. Clare Baker’s lab in Cambridge.
University of Cambridge, Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
What did you want to be after you left school?
zoologist or paleontologist
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes, when I created a website with reviews of our teachers. They weren't all good...
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
don't have any favourites, prefer exploring new things all the time
What's your favourite food?
probably something Mexican...maybe flautas?
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
good health, more time to see friends overseas, more funding for science
Tell us a joke.
oh I don't know any from the top of my head...but a deer bit me in my bottom in Japan when I refused to share biscuits. I guess that's funny. Wasn't for me!