MARKÉTA Derdáková entered the University of Veterinary Medicine in Košice with the dream of owning a farm in Australia one day with her then-boyfriend.
But things changed during her university studies, when she gradually realised that she was more interested in research and pre-clinical disciplines than in practical veterinary medicine.
After finishing university, she began a PhD study at the Parasitological Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Košice, where she worked on a thesis about the epidemiology of Lyme disease. That was when a prior dream of studying at a respected university in the United States became a reality.
In 2000, she received a Fulbright scholarship to do part of her PhD research at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut.
"I was invited by a professor from the Ecology Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island," Derdáková told The Slovak Spectator. "But when I told him that I would come with a six-month old son, he stopped answering."
Fortunately, just a month before she was to leave for the US, she received an invitation from Yale's School of Medicine.
"I was very happy and surprised, because Yale is one of the best universities in the US," she said. "And besides, it's the place where Professor Steer started to study Lyme disease."
Old Lyme, a small town where Dr. Allen Steer first described the symptoms of Lyme disease in children in the 1970s, is only 30 miles from New Haven.
"I had always wanted to study at a respected university in the US, but I never even dared to dream that it would be Yale."
Derdáková had already studied in the US prior to her Fulbright. In 1992, she spent a year at a high school in Minnesota. And in 1997, she spent a summer with the family of a veterinarian in Wisconsin through the Lions Club student exchange. As a Fulbrighter, she spent 10 months conducting experiments at Yale's Vector-Ecology Laboratory for her PhD thesis. After that, she extended her stay for six months to finish the project she was involved in.
Derdáková credits this stay with jumpstarting her scientific career.
"I met people from many cultures and made many friends there," she said. "It helped me broaden my horizons."
She feels she also benefited from experiencing a completely different academic environment. Students and academia in the US take their study and work more seriously, she said.
"They know that they don't get anything for free or too easy, so they are more diligent," she said. "They never cheat on exams and they are honest."
Despite the many advantages of doing research abroad, Derdáková said she plans to stay in Slovakia. Her family is here, her husband has a good job, and the opportunities to receive grants are much better than nine years ago, when she finished university.
Derdáková's work in Košice is at the joint laboratory with the Institute of Zoology in Bratislava. Her main projects are focused on studying tick-transmitted diseases, such as Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and tick-borne encephalitis.
Together with a team of colleagues, she studies the genetics of tick-borne diseases, their transmission to humans, and the interaction between the disease, the tick, and the human. Part of their work is devoted to studying the effects of a changing environment on the occurrence of tick-borne diseases and their spread to new areas.
After her return from the US, Derdáková and her research fellows received grants to build a new laboratory at the Department of Zoonotic Diseases at the Parasitological Institute, where she uses all the methods she learned in the US and at home.
"I think that the biggest success for me is that everything I learned during my stay abroad, I was able to implement at the laboratory at home and impart to students here," Derdáková said.
In 2006, she received the Young Scientist of the Year Award from the Slovak Academy of Sciences and the Visegrad Group Academies Young Researcher Award.
Derdáková said she's very happy to have a job she loves and that interests her.
"I love the feeling that at the start of trying to find a solution to a problem, I have no idea what new questions and problems the solution will raise," she said.
Currently, she is only working part-time because she is enjoying maternity leave. She lives in Bratislava with her husband Juraj, son Jakub, and daughter Karolína.
"My biggest project right now is my family," she said.
16. Jun 2008 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani