Michael Wrzaczek: It will always be a learning curve, regardless the place - interview for Vědavýzkum.cz
After 16 years in Finland and 3 years at the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Michael Wrzaczek answers questions about what it is like to be a foreigner at a Czech research institute or what challenges came with his position as Director of the Institute of Plant Molecular Biology.
After nearly three years in the Czech Republic, České Budějovice, what experience did you gain in respect to your management or scientific point of view?
It was interesting process to change the environment and come here. I had a functional research group in Finland, and it was just a me and my wife who came here. What’s more, she was pregnant at that time. The first challenge was to walk into an empty lab. It took nearly half a year to recruit my first student and now the group is up to size of 9 people including me. It just takes time to establish new working group. It is also necessary to comprehend the new administration system.
How would you compare the Czech and other systems?
In fact, some things work here better than in Finland, some not. Some things work equally smoothly here and there, only in different ways. And it is not really challenging to understand the Czech system. It is simply a must. Of course, I have to become familiar with the funding system in the Czech Republic. But these things have now after a while become routine. We are in a fortunate situation at BC having outstanding support for grants applications and human resources. For example, recruiting foreigners in many countries can be challenging, and it is equally challenging here. But the support is efficient and helpful.
You obviously navigated the system quickly.
Within one and half year after my arrival I became the director of the Institute of Plant Molecular Biology, which I totally haven´t planned. It was not my intention when I got here. That position means that I´m not responsible only for me or my team, but the whole institute and this is something which I starting to feel comfortable with only now. The four other directors of respective Institutes at BC are all Czechs, and we were all elected at the same time. So, it was equally new for all of us. We are on the same boat.
You mentioned some better or equally good practices comparing Czechia and Finland. What exactly do you mean?
Comparing to Finland, here I experienced easier communication with administrative support regardless it is some minor IT purchases or other things. The guys there are very helpful, they are capable to be flexible when I need something. For example, we are not allowed to buy the best computers for our needs but have to follow the arrangements and agreements. The same with travelling. These rules are made to make life easier, but in practise they really aren’t. The administrative support is then crucial to help you with resolving the matter and they are good at it.
I suppose the official language of BC is English than?
Mostly yes. Where I find the use of Czech language problematic are grant applications, because some providers and institutions use only Czech for the documents. Conversely, this is something where the Scandinavian countries are ahead and have made a leap in the right direction in the last fifteen, twenty years.
How do you balance your time between your directorship, your own research, and your family?
It changes during the weeks, but overall I try to split the work time fifty-fifty between administrative work as a head of the institute and the work with my team. Of course, some weeks are more intensive here or there. When in Finland it was just a work and then some sports. Now, my small daughter helps me to come to home and just be there. Because when she is awake, there is no chance to do any work.
What does the management of the Institute of Plant Molecular Biology involve?
The directors are responsible for determining the scientific direction of the institute. My responsibilities and duties include taking care of the financial stability of the institute, recruiting new scientists or entire teams, which actually allows me to influence the overall direction of the entire institute.
Why did you apply for the directorship? What was the deciding factor to try?
At first, I didn´t even consider it. But then we held a discussion with my colleagues at the institute and I did see, and I still do see a huge potential of the institute and I would like to be actively involved in shaping its present and future. At that moment I thought that it would be an interesting endeavour.
Is leading the Institute and your own research group similar or different?
Within the research team we can decide things very efficiently and quickly, but we are quite small group and I think it is suitable. Small-scale matters like what experiment we would do to bring us not only interesting data but a suitable “narrative” for our research and publications, are much easier to solve. At the institute level you integrate many people and different contexts, experiences, opinions, etc. That prolongs the process of finding the best way. You have to think in a bigger scale and not only for your narrow team, but the whole institute and beyond.
Your position as a research group leader, a supervisor, but also as an institute director certainly requires some soft skills. Do you train or educate yourself in this area?
There two things. I had to go through some courses on teaching skills, science assessment, etc. as part of the habilitation process in Finland. I must say that I was quite dissatisfied with these compulsory courses. It was the way these courses were conceived, and we agreed with other colleagues that this kind of organisation was inconvenient for us and somewhat incompatible with life sciences. The idea of these courses was not bad, but the execution did not match my philosophy.
On the other hand, there was a leadership course that was voluntary, I did it in Helsinki and it was in sharp contrast to the previous ones. It was challenging for me because I needed to change my views considerably when dealing with other team members with different personalities or cultural backgrounds. That really helped me to understand how I should perceive my colleagues and how I could be perceived by them. Here in České Budějovice, I chose to teach some courses at the university.
The emerging topic in academic area is also well-being, psychohygiene etc. Does this agenda belong to the duties of the leader or your position?
I started to think about this lately. And I would say again it depends. At the level of my research group, I tend to be very open. I expect hard work from my colleagues, but I also believe that tired, unhappy, exhausted people don’t do their best work. I appeal to them to work hard and smart, meaning that they take time and space to recover and refresh mentally. It was very insightful experience to work with a very talented Japanese postdoc at Finland. She would do everything I would ask and even more. It took our scientific and personal relationship to the next level when we settle a ground when she could tell me I ask too much. Then, we were able to negotiate on equal level and prioritize experiments, approaches and strategies. And this is something I try to integrate to the work here too. I expect hard work and commitment, but I also want my colleagues to be refreshed, happy and satisfied with what they do.
What about the institutional level?
There should exist tools to deal with e.g., bullying which comes not only from superiors but also colleagues and peers. I realized that it is very important do have the processes settled to solve these problems, to have a trusted place where people can go and discuss these topics or look for guidance. What I have seen already is that bullying is bullying, and it must be dealt quickly. But sometimes something is perceived as bullying by one person, but not the other one. In some of these cases the discussion can be more fruitful for both parties than a complaint and it can lead to both realizing how perceptions matter.
Michael Wrzaczek is a plant molecular biologist focused on plant molecular signaling. He received his PhD in genetics under the supervision of Dr. Claudia Jonak at the University of Vienna in 2004. Then, he spent 16 years at the University of Helsinki in Finland, first as a postdoctoral fellow in the group of Prof. Jaakko Kangasjärvi (2005-2010), later as a junior group leader and academic worker (2011-2021). In December 2020, Michael Wrzaczek established his research group at the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He is currently the director of the Institute of Plant Molecular Biology at the Biology Centre CAS.