2017/04/11

Get to Know a Grantee - Dr. Sarah Leupen

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Sarah Leupen
Dr. Sarah Leupen, a senior lecturer from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is serving this year as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Charles University, Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen. Dr. Leupen was trained both as a neuroscientist and as a physiologist, and teaches courses on physiology, nutrition, and reproduction. She is working this year at the Charles University medical school in Pilsen, teaching courses, and also offering faculty development workshops at both the Pilsen and Prague Charles University campuses, as well as at the University of West Bohemia, also in Pilsen. Read below to find out what it’s like teaching at a medical school in a foreign country, what Dr. Leupen loves about living in Pilsen, and why she is passionate about the Fulbright Program.


-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • U.S. Position: Senior Lecturer, College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD
  • Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen, Charles University 
  • Project: Evidence-Based Pedagogical Innovation in Health Sciences Education 
  • Discipline/Specialization: Biology/Physiology 
  • Academic Background: Ph.D., Neuroscience, Northwestern University, IL,
  • Favorite Czech word: (Sady) Pětatřicátníků
  • Favorite Quote: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” –Wendell Berry
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Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
My name Is Sarah Leupen, and I teach physiology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, UMBC. I also train other teachers in how to use evidence based teaching techniques in their teaching, which includes things like the flipped classroom and active learning techniques. I am originally from Ohio, and I got my Ph.D. at Northwestern University. I did a postdoc in Boston, and after my postdoc, I married my husband, and then we did volunteer work in the rainforest in Surinam for a year. That was amazing! Then, we came back, I got my first faculty job, we had twins, and a few years later, we moved to Maryland, where we are now.

And what work are you doing this year at Charles University, Pilsen?
I have two jobs there. One is teaching classes, and the other is to train faculty here in these evidence based teaching techniques. Every semester, I give four teaching workshops, and I do lots of other faculty development workshops at the flagship Charles University campus in Prague, at the University of West Bohemia here in Pilsen, and at some other places as well. I also help faculty individually, by observing their classes, giving them feedback, and helping them prepare their teaching materials.

For teaching, I’ve taught three classes, two last semester and one this semester. I was invited to give them on whatever I wanted to, specialty topics. Last semester, I taught one on the physiology of obesity, which is something I’m interested in, and the second one was on the physiology of pregnancy, and especially the partially conflicting relationship between the fetus and the mother, because we think of the fetus and the mother being aligned in their interests, but actually their interests are somewhat opposed, and that makes for a lot of interesting biology. Then the class this semester, is on circadian rhythms, so 24-hour rhythms and our biology, which ought to be leading us to give medical treatments at particular times of day, but in fact usually, we give medical treatments at times of day that are convenient, rather than those that are best predicted by the biology. That has been really fun, too.

I read that you are a certified trainer and consultant in a teaching strategy called Team-Based Learning. Can you describe what that teaching strategy is about?

Team-Based Learning (TBL) is one kind of what are called ‘the flipped classroom’ techniques. The flipped classroom means that students are getting some basic knowledge outside of class, whether from reading or videos or whatever, and then in class, you give students problems to solve. The specific thing about TBL is that first of all, the students work in teams in class, so they spend all of the class period working in permanent teams to solve problems. When they come to class, they take a little quiz on the reading or whatever it was, and then they take the quiz again as a team, and then they solve these problems. The result is that students are very motivated. They come to class prepared, because they don’t want to look stupid in front of their teammates, or fail the quiz, and because they’re prepared, you’re able to have really high level discussions about difficult questions. Basically, it’s a teaching method that incorporates everything that we know about how humans learn, or almost everything that we know. It’s one good way to put a class together.

What are some differences you have perceived between Czech and American university students, if any?
Well, I think certainly, my students at UMBC are much more diverse than the Czech students. That’s the biggest, clearly noticeable difference. Many of the Czech students are also from the immediate area, and often their parents are from the area as well, which is quite different from my students at UMBC. In terms of the classroom though, I think the differences are smaller than the similarities. It is true as we were told, that Czech students are often reluctant to give their own viewpoint about something, but I feel like in my classes, that’s often because they know that their English isn’t perfect, and they don’t want to make an error, even though what they have to say conceptually is often very strong. Mostly, it’s not a big problem in my classes, because my classes are structured around students working in teams to answer problems. They’re very happy talk to each other to solve problems, and they’re very good at it, even though I think they haven’t had much experience doing that. Afterwards, I do call on people to justify the teams’ responses. That’s harder for the Czech students. I get more responses from the international students, even though often the Czech students have better English than some of the international students. For example though, Portuguese, German, and Greek students don’t worry as much about whether their English is perfect when they respond. They don’t see that as important, which I agree with them about.

And on a university level, how is your host institution, Charles University Pilsen, different from your home institution, University of Maryland Baltimore County?
It’s a lot different, because this is a medical school, and at my home university, I teach in the undergraduate program, so I don’t teach medical students. The difference is smaller than it appears though, because the students I teach are the same age, and they’re planning to be doctors, many of them, at UMBC. It’s just that the system is different, where in the US, you go to university for four years, and then to medical school, and here you begin six years of medical school right after high school, as is true throughout Europe. So, not as different as it appears, but certainly my students at UMBC interact with students who are from many different majors and career plans, whereas here, the students are all focused on their goal of becoming physicians. That’s quite different, and then as I mentioned earlier, the diversity of the student body is quite a bit different, although 25 percent of the students here at Pilsen’s medical faculty are international students, so there certainly is some diversity at the university.

How do you think your year here in Pilsen will effect or influence your teaching back at UMBC?
I’ve learned a lot! I observed a lot of people’s classes, and I learn a lot from them. I didn’t come here just to tell people how to teach; I hope I learned things about how to teach, too. An example would be that, here even with large groups of students, they often do oral exams. Oral exams have their problems, objectivity, for example, but they have tremendously high validity, because you know from talking to people, that you can get a quite good impression very quickly of how well someone understands something when they’re trying to explain it to you orally. The way that they do oral exams is something we should consider doing at UMBC, and elsewhere in the US. I think we said, ‘oh, we have too many students, or it’s too subjective,’ and haven’t done them, but I think that was throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to think about ways to use oral exams, or at least oral discussions, as a method of assessment for students, so that’s just one example of things that I have had my mind changed about while observing education here. 

And how is living in Pilsen different from living in Baltimore?
Well, it’s much smaller, which I really like, so I love it that we can go to the opera, and be home in ten minutes on the tram. It has this cozy feel of being small, but it’s not so small. It’s still a city, but I love it that I run into people that I know around town, and you feel like you get to know it pretty well. I really enjoy living in Pilsen, and the public transport is about a thousand times better than it is in Baltimore, which is going to be the thing that I miss the most when I go back to Maryland, on a practical level. I’ll miss people, too, but in terms of practical things, I’ll miss public transportation. I love also all the free apples around town! There are so many apple trees everywhere, and I love that! I made my sons’ birthday pie from found, picked apples in the fall, and that means that in about two weeks there’s going to be apple blossoms all over town. I also like that we can take the tram to end of the line, and walk into the woods. We love to go for hikes and go birding, so to have the woods so close, and to have it so easy to live without a car, is really wonderful.

When you were looking at Fulbright, why did you choose the Czech Republic to apply for specifically?
My husband is a classical musician, and so we thought it would be exciting to be somewhere where we could go see a lot of performances, and be immersed in western classical music, but we also wanted to go somewhere that was very different culturally from the US, and that wasn’t an English-speaking country. So, we considered New Zealand, and rejected it for example, and we never wanted to go to Britain, or anything like that, because we wanted it to be different.

And what is your overall impression of life in the Czech Republic?
That’s a big question! Read my blog if you want to hear all of my impressions of life in the Czech Republic, because I have so many impressions of life here! We’ve just really enjoyed being here, and I could go on and on about the public transportation. We’ve really experienced so much kindness from people. I would say, that the three people I work with most closely at Charles, are like three of the nicest people I know at all, in the whole world, so just to know them has been tremendous.

It is a challenge that people feel very closed at times to strangers. It feels like it’s hard to get to know people that I don’t have any formal introduction to. Fortunately, I have had a lot of formal introductions, so I still have gotten to know lots of people, but I think that’s something that I now appreciate more about my own country, that people are really very open in the United States. Not universally, of course, but I really like that. I think people should talk to strangers more.

And why do you think international education and exchanges are important for people to experience?
Mainly because it widens your perspective of possible solutions to challenges that you have, in teaching or whatever your field is. We think we know of a wide variety of ways to address problems, but actually, it’s quite narrow until you go outside your own culture, and see how other people are addressing these problems. It just gives you more tools in your toolbox to improve education, or whatever your field is. Plus, it’s fun!

Definitely! And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
You know when I started, I wouldn’t have had anything useful to say about it. I would have said something boiler plate from the Fulbright website, and I’m not sure I would have really even believed it, but now I so believe in it! I so see how valuable it is to have a real, deep, months or year-long interaction with professionals from another place, because you really learn so much from each other. By getting the perspective of another place, you don’t just get new ideas, but you see how there can be a whole different perspective on the problem, or process, that you’re working on. Both sides can have such tremendous benefit from that. I’ve certainly seen that at the medical school, where some of faculty have said, ‘It feels like we’ve been waiting for years for someone like you to come!’ and then from my side, too, I feel like, I wish I’d had this perspective before, a broader idea on education. Even beyond education, ideas about how the world works and how nations should interact are viewed differently here, and I like learning these different perspectives.

And with that, what has been the most rewarding for you so far from this experience?
It’s a tie! On the one hand, I think my interactions with the faculty members of the medical school have been so rewarding. We’ve both really gained a lot from our interactions, and I feel like people are really grateful for whatever I’m able to contribute to improving pedagogy here. I’m also really grateful for what I’ve learned, so that’s been tremendous.

I would say the other half of it is being in a different culture and country with my family. That’s been so rewarding to travel to new places, learn Czech, and just take it all in together. It’s really bonded us more as a family, I would say. I’m really happy that we’re able to give this experience to the children, because I think it will make a difference on some level for the rest of their lives to have been here this year.

You are already three quarters of the way through your grant right now! What is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
I still have a lot more faculty development work to do at Charles University in Prague. I’ll be working to help one of the faculties there, who are thinking about changing their curriculum, as well as giving faculty development workshops. Also, most of my workshops at the University of West Bohemia are still to come, so I’m looking forward to interacting more with the faculty there, as well.

There are also some places in the Czech Republic that we haven’t been to yet. We’re going to Kutná Hora next weekend, so I can’t wait for that! We also haven’t been to Karlovy Vary yet, but we’re going there soon, and we’ll also be having lots of visitors in the spring! I’m looking forward to showing people Pilsen, because I love it here.

And what was it like relocating with two young children to another country for a year?
It was really easy, because they’re incredibly adaptable children, and I think being twins, they lose themselves in each other, so they can happily settle anywhere. They also really love new food and languages, so that’s been fun for them as well. Since they’re home schooled, they didn’t have a difficult transition to a new school here. So, that was quite easy for them as well. They love playing football with the local boys, which they do almost every day. It’s been easy.

Do you have any advice for people considering applying for a Fulbright grant?
You should do it! Of course for the professional reasons, but especially for how it will change and hopefully improve you personally, as a human.

That’s great advice! And how do you feel about everything right now, at this moment?
Mainly, I feel lucky. Just so lucky to have had this opportunity, and to be able to be in this situation where you go to a new country and everything is so new, interesting, and complicated. It really makes you better, and you learn to let go of the fear, and just enjoy the newness. I feel like it’s really made me better. It’s made me humbler, and more compassionate towards other people.

I just love all the novelty. I love that with the new food, new people, new language, and the new birds and trees, I’m learning so much! I love that feeling of seeing new things, and learning.

How would you sum up your Fulbright experience in one word?

Inspiring!

And is there anything else you’d like to add?
The people at the Fulbright office in Prague are amazing, and they make everything wonderful. Just knowing that they’re there, you know everything will be okay, because they are so kind, so competent, and so efficient! Big thanks to them!

Sarah Leupen with her family in Stary Plzenec

If you’d like to read more about Dr. Sarah Leupen’s experiences in the Czech Republic, check out her personal blog at https://czechinginblog.wordpress.com/

2017/03/29

Get to Know a Grantee - Becky Schwartz

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Becky Schwartz
If you look at a map of the Czech Republic, you can see an interestingly shaped deviation along the western Czech border, where the line breaks and forms a small pocket. This pocket area constitutes the most western reaching area of the Czech Republic, and is surrounded on three sides by Germany. And here within lies the border town of Aš, home for one year to Becky Schwartz, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to the Czech Republic. Becky, a music aficionado, spends her time teaching eight different grades in the local gymnazium, and experiencing an unexpected multiculturalism in this crossroads town. Read below to find out more about Becky, and her unique experiences living in a Czech border town.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: West Hartford, Connecticut
  • College, Major/Minor: Bates College, American Cultural Studies/Music
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium, Aš
  • Age: 23
  • Favorite Quote: “Life is a journey to be experienced, not a problem to be solved.” –Winnie the Pooh
  • Favorite Czech food: “Svíčková!”
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Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself, and tell us where you are from, what you studied, and what your interests are?
I grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut; I lived there my whole life. I studied American Cultural Studies and Music at Bates College, and was really involved in the music scene there. Music is one of my biggest interests and passions, and a big reason why I decided to come to Europe my first year postgraduate.

And what are you passionate about?
One of my biggest passions is definitely music. I play the flute, and whether it’s classical music, or jazz, or really anything in between, I would say that this is a really big passion of mine. Another passion would be social justice issues, especially women’s reproductive health, reproductive rights, and feminism in general.

Why did you choose to apply for a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?
I had studied music abroad in Vienna my junior year, so having been to Central Europe before, I knew that I really liked this region of Europe, that the location is great, it’s easy to get to a lot of other places, and generally, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany have a really rich history with arts and music. I love both the Czech composers Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana! And because I like Czech music and Czech composers, I decided to come to this country, in part because of the history of music that it has.

And how did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?

I heard about it my freshman year at Bates. A lot of people from Bates apply for Fulbright Fellowships, because the school is very supportive of it from early on. I thought it would be something cool to do, and then once I realized how much I loved studying abroad, I thought I should do that again a second time. The Fulbright was a good way to both get abroad, and also to explore doing something I had never done before, like teaching. I was ready for a new adventure.

How did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic?

I talked to Molly Pailet [Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to the Czech Republic, 2015-2016], who I knew from Bates College, about what to expect, and she was really helpful! I also did try learning Czech, because when I had studied abroad in Vienna, I didn’t know any German before going, and I didn’t like that feeling. So, I downloaded an app, and I was practicing Czech all summer. I learned about 300 phrases! And I looked up some lesson plans, but I didn’t really have a great idea of what my role would be here, or what level my students would be, so it was a little hard to prepare the teaching aspect, but I did try to learn Czech, and ask a ton of questions to the previous ETA.

And what is Aš, the town you’re living in this year, like?

It’s a small town on the German border. Germany is about 10 kilometers away from my flat, and there are about 14,000 people living here. It’s interesting living right on the German border, and culturally it has been cool living here, because there is a pretty big Vietnamese population and community. That’s been really cool to not only experience parts of Czech culture, but also to observe and partake in Vietnamese culture and tradition. For example, back in September, I went to a big Vietnamese celebration that the community has every year, where I ate great Vietnamese food, and saw fun dances and songs. It’s been cool being on the border, and never knowing if the people around you are Czech or German, but also having this Vietnamese community here as well. It’s more multicultural than I was expecting, in the best way possible. I also go grocery shopping in Germany.

Very interesting! And what’s the school that you’re working at this year like?

It’s an eight year gymnazium. It’s pretty small, it only has about 200 students. I work with every class from the youngest all the way up to the oldest, which is really fun! It’s nice to have a mix of younger students and older students, and have that constantly changing classroom experience. I also work with three other English teachers.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
My one consistent outside of school project is that I’m involved with the music school in town. I’ve taken lessons on and off with the flute teacher, and I’ve had a few concerts with the music school as well. I had one two weeks ago, where I played a duet with the other flute teacher and with the piano. It’s been nice to keep up with music to some degree while I’m here.

And what do you like about teaching English?
I would say one of my favorite teaching moments or experiences is when the students ask questions. Any question at all, is so great to see them taking in information, thinking about it, and coming back with a question, whether it’s a student in second class asking a question about what’s the difference between ‘have to’ and ‘must,’ or a student in the seventh year asking me how do we define music in today’s society. They don’t even realize how intellectual they’re being, so when they ask questions about anything whether it’s the younger kids, or the older ones, that’s really exciting and great. One other exciting thing about teaching English this past year, is seeing some of the quieter, or shyer students get more confident, and start to participate and speak in class more. Seeing that transformation happen is really, really inspiring.

What was one of your favorite things you have experienced so far during your grant year?
Back in October, I had a Halloween party for my students. It was only the second month into my grant, and I was still slowly getting adjusted to being here socially and culturally, and I had this party and didn’t really know if any students would show up, but it ended up being a huge success! I would say throughout the afternoon and evening, over 100 students came, and they all had such great costumes! It was great, there was so much chocolate, and sweets, and costumes! It was really exciting to see the students respond so positively to the event that I had. That was a turning point for me, with feeling connected to the community here.

That’s wonderful! And now you’re more than halfway through your grant already. What is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?

I’m really lucky, because in June I’m going to England with the school! it’s going to be a week-long trip, and I’ll be with students from all different grades. I’m really looking forward to that trip, as well as just continuing to grow relationships with different people in the town, and with students. In the past few weeks, I’ve done a lot of baking with students, and I’m thinking maybe I should start a baking club, because the students love all American sweets!

A baking club is such a good idea!
Yes! And it’s perfect, because I’ve been reluctant to buy all of the necessary baking supplies, like muffin tins and all of these things, but the students already have these supplies. So, I tell them, ‘hey come over, and bring this, and I’ll show you how to make American sweets!’ It’s been a good trade-off!

That sounds like so much fun! Food is the universal connecter, for sure.

Definitely!

But what would you say is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
At first I thought it would be the loneliness, because I’m in a totally new place, and I’m probably the only native English speaker for an hour and half all around, but what’s been more challenging for me is having to be dependent on other people for assistance, especially because of the language barrier. For example, if I need to go to a doctor, there’s not really any English-speaking doctors in the area, so I would have to have someone accompany to me the doctor’s. Or, even something as simple as going to the post office, can be challenging because of the language barrier. It’s tough having to depend on someone else to translate, or assist you with little things, and that can be challenging.

And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?

I would say that the most rewarding part is having new adventures almost every single day. Whether I stay in Aš, and have a teaching adventure, (because every day in the classroom is different), or going with the school on field trips, like in December, we went to the Nuremberg Christmas markets. I can also hop on a bus to Prague, so having the flexibility and the freedom to travel and connect with new people and places, has been really, really exciting and rewarding.

And with that, what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I would say the Fulbright mission means not just teaching the easy stuff, but also trying to address the hard stuff too, with the students. For example, I’ve tried to introduce feminism to my students, even if it’s sometimes met with pushback. But it’s planting seeds for different types of change, whether that’s showing what positive reinforcement in the classroom looks like, showing them new ideas or a new perspective about different politics, or teaching them about issues or topics they would otherwise not have exposure to in high school. It’s about showing lots of different parts of American culture, not just the simple stuff.

And why do you think international education and exchanges are important?

I think the best way to get to know a culture and really know it, is through meeting the people, and it’s totally a two-way street. So hopefully the students and people in Aš that I’ve met have new perspectives and insight on Americans or American culture, and I’ve definitely gained insight on Czech culture and Vietnamese culture too, which has been really exciting. I think international exchange is essential to understanding the relationships between people and countries, and really the whole world.

Well said. And how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?

I feel like I’ll have the confidence and the independence to try and do anything that I really set my mind to. After this year of living alone and ‘adulting’ by myself in a foreign country where I don’t really know the language, I feel like I’ll be ready to tackle any challenges that come my way with more confidence and excitement.

And what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?

It’s still up in the air, but I’ll move back to the United States, and hopefully work for a company that’s trying to improve women’s reproductive healthcare, and access to healthcare in general. That’s a social issue I feel really passionate about, and would love to be working for a company that addresses those issues. After Fulbright, I definitely realized I want a job that deals directly with people, and has some components of teaching and mentorships. I’m looking for a job that deals with women’s reproductive health, and utilizes the skills I’ve gained with Fulbright. That would be the dream!

That sounds wonderful, and do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright?

It’s an amazing opportunity, and just know that everyone’s experience is going to be so different, so go in with an open mind, and embrace the uncertainty and the unknown that you’ll have for a while. I also advise learning Czech before, and to really just love every moment. One other advice I have is to connect with the other ETAs. Whether that’s before, over the summer, or when you get to orientation, look to make connections with them, because the ETA community that you’ll have during the year also provides incredible and invaluable support throughout the entire experience.

And lastly, I want to know, how are you feeling about everything at this moment?

I’m feeling good! I can’t believe that seven months or so have already gone by of doing this, and I feel like there’s so much more that I want to do here. Whether it’s teaching or clubs or interviewing people that live here, there’s just a lot that I still want to do with the time left here, which is exciting. Overall, I feel good. I love teaching at the gymnazium, and feel really connected to every class, so I’m feeling happy about the teaching experiences, and I’m excited for spring to finally be here!

And is there anything else you would like to add?
I think the last thing I want to add is just how grateful I am for this experience, and also how grateful I am for the other ETAs on this program. Even though we all live in different places, we’re all in the same time zone, going through the same things, and having them makes this experience so much easier, and more exciting.


Becky Schwartz with students

2017/03/10

Get to Know a Grantee - Kelley Garland

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Kelley Garland
Kelley Garland hails from Wantagh, New York, and is spending the 2016-2017 school year serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to the Czech Republic, in the northeastern town of Nová Paka. In a town of about 8,000 people, Kelley devotes her time to teaching English in the local high school, while also involving herself in creating cross-cultural connections between herself and her students, colleagues, neighbors, and community. Read below to find out more about Kelley, a former class president of her college, as she speaks about her experiences living in a small Czech town, and why she considers international education and exchanges to be so important. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
  • Hometown: Wantagh, New York
  • College, Major/Minor: Providence College, Global Studies/Business Studies, French, Sociology
  • School in Czech Republic: Gymnázium a SOŠ pedagogická, Nová Paka
  • Age: 23
  • Favorite Quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”-Maya Angelou
  • Favorite Czech food: “I like svíčková, and the honey cake, medovník!”
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Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself, where you are from, what you studied, and what your interests are?
I am originally from a small town on Long Island, Wantagh, New York. I grew up about a ten-minute drive from the beach, and was definitely really spoiled from that. I went to school about four hours away in Providence, Rhode Island at Providence College. It’s a liberal arts college, and I really wanted to go there. I was very undecided about what I wanted to do in life, torn between traveling or teaching, and the college gave me the opportunities to explore a multitude of different paths there.

And what are you passionate about?
I am really passionate about traveling, and learning new cultures. I think the best way that we learn about ourselves is by seeing what people from other countries do. Even going somewhere just for a day, although you don’t really get the whole picture of a place or a culture, it gives you that tiny insight. It makes you really reflect on that, and with that as well, I’m a really reflective person. I love writing. I think it’s very important to jot down a few notes at the end of each day, and think about the best, or most challenging parts of your day. I also really enjoy blogging about my experiences here, so that my friends and family at home can have a little bit of Czech culture back in the U.S.

And why did you choose to apply for a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?
In the summer of 2014, I did an eight-week study abroad, internship program in Prague. I really wanted to have a complete culture shock, and a language barrier, and the Czech Republic was a country I didn’t really know much about. I wanted to come here to get a better understanding of this part of Central Europe, and I absolutely fell in love with it!

I wasn’t interacting with a lot of Czech people though, because I was living with Americans, and attending Anglo-American University, but there was one woman in particular, Ivana, who I met that made an impact on me. I sat next to her on a bus one day from Brno to Prague, and she told me about her life in the Czech Republic before 1989, and today and the differences, and even though it was in broken English, and I knew no Czech, it was so compelling. When I got home to the States, I felt like a there was this huge hole and emptiness… I knew that I needed to come back to the Czech Republic, and continue to learn about this rich culture, history, and people.

That’s wonderful! And how did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
In my Global Studies major, a lot of students in the past have gone on to be Fulbright Fellows, and basically within the week that I was home after coming back from Prague, I was online looking up every possible way for me to go back to the Czech Republic after graduation. Fulbright came up, and I had a few good friends applying for it, so it was great to have their guidance and support, as well as the teachers and faculty stateside, and my study abroad advisor in Prague helping me through that journey.

And can you tell me about the town you’re living in this year?
I am in Nová Paka. It’s in the northeastern area of the Czech Republic, and the town is about 8,000 people, so it really is a tiny place. I remember my first week wandering around Lidl, and running into someone that I had met, and that’s when I really understood what the small town culture would be like here! It really is a beautiful town, the people are so great, and we’re surrounded by forest and hills. We’re also located by the Krkonoše mountains, so everyone here loves to go hiking, and loves to be outside. For me, being from Long Island and so close to the ocean, it’s definitely a change of scenery here, but it really is a nice, quaint, small town.

And what is the school that you’re working at this year like?
It’s really interesting! There’s three separate tracks, or classes, at this school. There’s an eight-year gymnazium, a four-year gymnazium, and then a four-year pedagogy school for people who want to become kindergarten teachers. It’s really interesting going from the students in the gymnazium, who have a bunch of different interests for what they want to see and study, and then going to the girls and the one boy in the pedagogy school, who the second you walk in, they’re listening to music and playing piano. They are so creative and artistic. It really is a great change of scenery all the time, and although these classes are all separate, the students are only in classes with the students in their track, they still interact with each other in sports, and in the school musical. It’s a nice, communal experience.

And do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
I started my English conversation club with students on Mondays, and it’s really great because not only have the students been coming, but they also bring their friends who are home from university, or from other schools that don’t have access to a native English speaker. Also, twice a month I tag along with the head English teacher from my school to her women’s English club with some of the women in our community. They’ve been meeting for ten years now!

Wow, that’s amazing!
Yes! It’s really great. They come from all walks of life with different occupations. We were there yesterday, having wine and cheese, and talking. It’s been a great way to see other people in the community, that I wouldn’t have had interactions with otherwise.

And what do you like about teaching English?
I’ve really loved having students come to up me, and ask me about the present continuous, or the past-perfect simple, and all these grammar terms that I think as a native speaker I really take for granted. For example, when I say something, I just say it, but they’ll ask me all of these really detailed questions that I don’t always have the answers to. So, it’s made me more aware of the English language, and I think also seeing how much the students have changed already from September until now. Even if it’s students who don’t have a strong grasp of English, just having them come up to me and say, “Hi, Kelley!” because if that’s what they’re comfortable with, then we’ve already made a huge step forward. That’s progress that they feel comfortable saying hello to a native speaker, and that’s great.

Absolutely! And what is one of your favorite things you have done, or experienced so far this year?
There’s probably been two, I have to say! I was invited to go on a week-long exchange trip in Menen, Belgium with my school. I went with one of the mathematics and one of the German teachers, and about 20 students. It was great, because I got to interact with some of my colleagues from other departments that I didn’t know beforehand, and it was also this great meeting of Czechs, Belgians, and an American all coming together, sitting around a table, and talking about the differences, not only between Czech and Belgian cultures, but between American culture, as well. It was a great way for me to get to know some of the students outside of the classroom pretty early on.

The second favorite experience, was that I put together a Thanksgiving party, or as me and my students like to call it, the first ‘Czechsgiving!’ It was really cute! It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and we did it potluck-style. We watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade, and I was so overwhelmed by the students who showed up, and wanted to see this part of American culture. I definitely got a little choked up to see it, and that was a really special moment, because they share Czech culture with me every day, but as one individual, it’s hard to show them the depth and importance of different aspects of American culture. So, even though we didn’t have turkey or casserole, it was just great that they were so excited and enthusiastic to become part of this little tradition.

That sounds really wonderful! But what would you say is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
I would say the hardest part is being okay with being alone. When you go to these smaller areas in the Czech Republic, you’re not going to know anyone at first, and we teach 20 hours a week, so that gives you a lot of free time. It can be pretty daunting at first. I was coming from a situation at my university where I was the class president, and I was going from class to meetings with the president of the college, the board of trustees, and student affairs, and having a full schedule from nine in the morning until midnight every day. Now, I’ve really had to adjust to from, ‘okay, do I really want to sit on my computer all night and be on Netflix?’ Or, what can I do with my time that will really make my experience here memorable. You have to learn to put yourself out there in a way that I hadn’t had to do before. It’s been hard, but you definitely learn from it.

And the flip side? What is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
I think meeting all of these amazing people that I didn’t even know existed. I had no idea Nová Paka existed before getting my placement, and now I am here every day, having a routine, and talking to students. The people here have really made my experience and time here feel like home, and they’ve become not just students and colleagues, but friends and almost like family.

And what are some places in Czech Republic that you want to travel to?
Oh, I have a list! I haven’t been to Olomouc yet; I would love to go there. Also, Hluboká na Vltavou, and Litomyšl. But I think the best places I’ve been to so far, have been the places my students have taken me to, because I would never know about them otherwise.

So right now, you are about halfway through your grant. What is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
I’m looking forward to all of the experiences. Mostly, continuing to spend time with my students, especially the oldest students who are preparing for their maturita [Czech graduation exam], because starting in April, they’ll start coming to school less and less in preparation for the exam. Also the warm weather! My students and I already have some dates lined up to go hiking in the mountains, and they’re taking me to some of their favorite small towns. But I don’t want to have any expectations because every day has been a new experience, and a new surprise for me. I just want to enjoy every possible second I have left here. I don’t even want to think about leaving yet, it’s hard to imagine it’s already halfway through!

Definitely, it goes by so fast! And what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I really think the Fulbright mission is about transformation. I hope that by interactions with people at Lidl, in the school, at the cafes, on the bus, and by being a smiling, happy American, people will change the stereotypes and perceptions they have of Americans. I hope I am transforming the ways that the teachers might go about doing lessons in the future, but also, they’ve all really transformed my life in ways that I’m still trying to figure out, and process. I don’t think I’ll ever really understand how much until I’m back home in the United States, and I think that’s what Fulbright is all about. It’s about changing individual lives, and with those changes, those individuals can go on to do great things.

And with that, why do you think international education and exchange is important for students to experience?
That’s a great question! This was the subject of a debate I was having just the other day, about why the Fulbright program is so important. I always get the question, ‘Well, if program funding is cut, is it really going to be detrimental to Americans that you’re not going to the Czech Republic?’ and, I think it absolutely is detrimental. I think these programs everywhere around the world are so essential. If you look at our school systems, we’re only ever telling part of a very large story, in a very predetermined narrative by textbook companies. Our education system is all about teaching for a test and memorizing facts, and not appreciating cultures, people, and their stories. Americans need to go overseas, and people need to come overseas to the US. People think the world is such a huge place, and it really isn’t. Things that are viewed as differences should be celebrated, not viewed as threats. I think you really only get to realize that when you sit down with someone, celebrate a meal together, and realize that things aren’t that different. You can’t learn that in a textbook, or sitting on your couch watching TV. You get that by experiencing the world.

Well said, and how do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
I think for me, I have always lived my life according to a plan and the societal expectations like, do well in high school, and go to a good college. But early on, I decided that when I finished university, I would hopefully do a Fulbright. All of that has worked out pretty well for me so far, and this is the first time that I have that big question mark of ‘well, what’s next?’

I think because I live in a completely different culture with a different language, I have to deal with a lot of questions and answers, and have to be okay with not always knowing what to do day to day here. I’ve learned that I don’t need to have everything planned out, because things aren’t always going to go as perfectly as planned. Fulbright has taught me to really be adaptable, and because of that I’m going to have a much more stress-free life moving forward.

Speaking of ‘what’s next,’ what do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
I was debating about staying in the Czech Republic, or somewhere else abroad, but I have realized that I do really miss my family and friends at home. I don’t know what I want my next step to be. I really have loved teaching and being a part of education. I have been accepted into a few graduate school programs for that, but I haven’t felt that same excitement I felt when I received the Fulbright. So, I’ve taken that as a cue to put off graduate school until I am certain and excited that this is the next step that I want to take. I’m looking to move back to the Boston area, and I’m hoping my travel bug can be satisfied in the States. I want to test the waters in another field or industry, and hopefully within the following year, go back to graduate school. We’ll see!

And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
Yes, when you’re thinking about applying for Fulbright, or teaching abroad, even if you’re just thinking about it, do it. You can’t go back after an application deadline, so definitely just take the plunge and commit, and later on you can decide if accepted, whether to do it or not. I think my second piece of advice is to really think about the reason why you want to go to the place you are applying. You’re going to be living there for one year, and that’s a big change and challenge. You should do it because you want to get know that culture, that country, that language more, not just because you looked at the statistics, and thought, ‘okay, this is the best way for me to get a Fulbright,’ because that’s not what Fulbright is about. It’s not a statistics game, it’s about changing the way we see our world and changing the lives of the people you will interact with in that country.

For my last question, I want to know, how are you feeling about everything right now at this moment?
I’m feeling really great right now, and I think it’s because of the amazing and insightful conversations I’ve been having with everyone. I am so inspired to see the youth in this country so interested about what is happening not only in their country, or in America, but around the world, and how insightful their questions are. I don’t think I expected to have such deep conversation with my students, but I’m having them every day in the hallway, in the classroom, and on Facebook messenger. So, even though sometimes it’s hard to see what’s happening in our world, I think of the individuals I interact with, and they’re so inquisitive and interested. You have to really take a step back from all the news, to see there really is a bright future ahead of us. There’s so much potential, and great things are going to come.

And is there anything else you would like to add?
Just that I am so blessed and grateful to have had this opportunity! I hope that this Fulbright experience continues to happen, for many years to come, that many more Americans can come and experience Czech culture, and many Czechs can come to the States, and see what we’re all about.

Kelley Garland, first on the right, with students at their "Czechsgiving Party."

If you’d like to read more about Kelley’s experiences, check out her personal blog, https://kelleygarland.wordpress.com.

2017/03/01

Get to Know a Grantee - Rachel Landau

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Rachel Landau
Rachel Landau is a native New Yorker, who is serving this year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the small town of Hranice, Czech Republic. Having pursued Environmental Studies for her baccalaureate degree, Rachel was placed at a Czech high school specializing in the field of forestry. Along with her teaching duties, she has participated in as many activities as possible with her students, ranging from taking dance lessons, making home visits, to even going out on a hunt with students. Rachel works earnestly and dynamically to make the most of her grant year as possible, serving as an exemplar of what the Fulbright Program is all about, making lasting connections across cultures and countries- a message that’s as important as ever today. Read below to find out about Rachel’s myriad passions, and her experiences spending a year teaching English at a forestry high school in the Czech Republic.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------
    • Hometown: Hollis Hills, New York
    • University, Major: SUNY Buffalo, Environmental Studies
    • School in Czech Republic: Střední lesnická škola, Hranice
    • Age: 22
    • Favorite Quote: "Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man"- Pirkei Avot
    • Favorite Czech food: “I love koláč, especially the tvaroh koláč!”
    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Hello! Can you please give some personal background details? Where you are from, what you studied, and what your interests are?
    I am from Hollis Hills, New York; it’s a part of Queens. I studied Environmental Studies, but I also did a lot of pre-health related subjects, like microbiology, physiology. I’ve always been interested in healthcare, and I’m considering a career in this field.

    With my interests, I adore English and German literature, and I love languages in general. I love folk music, but the kind that’s 300-400 years old. I very much enjoy music of all sorts, and I like singing in different languages! I like history as well, specifically, medieval history. Also strange as it might sound, I enjoy talking to strangers. Just the strange encounters I have, and even if I never see them again, I like collecting all of these sort of, bizarre personages. These people you meet for five seconds, and the person on the bus who talks to you for too long… And aside from just making friends and getting to know people, I also love to be introduced to their families and see their home environments.

    And what are you passionate about?
    I love stories. I like to tell, collect, and memorize them. In some of my classes, if the students are particularly hardworking, and we finish working a little early, I will tell them a story. I usually choose something like a classic story from English literature. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is what I’m telling right now. I tell them in little episodes during the last five to seven minutes of class. It’s such a pleasure for me, because I get to tell people all about “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and do the gesticulations. They seem to really like it! So I’m passionate about listening to stories, and retelling them.

    I’m also passionate about- it sounds so horribly cliché, but I suppose its cliché for a reason- it’s very important to me to be immersed in people’s cultures. I want to know the pop culture references. I want to know what people eat for a regular Wednesday night dinner with their family. I want to be immersed, and I enjoy being as exposed to as many different ways of life as possible. Even in the United States, because it’s just as diverse there, in terms of how people live, and go about their lives.

    And why did you choose the Czech Republic for your Fulbright grant?
    It sounds very, very silly to say, but I didn’t know very much about it before I got here. Honestly, all I could remember from learning about it in high school was the Defenestration of Prague, and these dramatic, historical events that stuck in my head. I realized these things were sort of caricatures. It’s not really that deep, it’s kind of superficial, and I wanted the challenge of having to learn a language I literally had zero exposure to. I do know quite a lot of German, and people often ask why I didn’t go there, and I love Germany, but I wanted to be here, and see what it’s like here, to explore, and to make my own family and friends here, have my own roots. My curiosity drove me. I was excited by the challenge of having to start from square one, and learn as much as I could before and upon arriving.

    And how did you hear about the Fulbright ETA program?
    I saw it in one of the offices at school. It was the Office for Scholarships and Study Abroad; it’s this general umbrella, for opportunities to go abroad, and learn, teach, or work, somewhere else. I saw it in the office there.

    Did you have a moment of being like, “What’s that?” Like, “Maybe, I could do that?” Was it something you were immediately drawn to, or was it something you saw, and came back to later?
    Oh, I was drawn to it immediately. At first, I was a little intimidated initially; like there’s no way I could possibly get it, but I still wanted to try.

    And you got it!
    Yes!

    So, how did you prepare for your Fulbright grant to Czech Republic?
    Oh, that was fun actually! I figured okay, I don’t know if I’ll get it, but on the off-chance that I do, I should probably learn some Czech! So, I took a lot of pains to try my best to get some kind of foundational vocabulary. I downloaded two apps on my phone, I had my učebnice, my own little textbook and workbook, and I bothered the International Students’ Office ladies, “Can you find me a student who is originally from the Czech Republic who might want to sit and have coffee with me?” Eventually, I found two different ladies! They were wonderful. They answered all of my questions, gave me pointers, they would speak to me in Czech, just to help me tune my ear to it. And then before I came, I studied like crazy, reading about the history, and trying to learn as much of the language as possible.

    And can you tell me about the town you’re living in this year? What is it like?
    My town is called Hranice, and it’s in Moravia. It’s a town of about 22,000 people. The town is actually quite interesting because on the one hand, there are lots of housing developments, but if you move into the center, there’s this lovely, quaint town square and these winding pathways around it, and the baroque church! Then, if you go further south, it’s very green, quiet, and hilly, so you have kind of a taste of everything in this town. I like that; I like the very different neighborhoods, the vibe. I live in the center of town, and everything I need is within walking distance. What’s fun is that because the town is so small, I constantly see people that I know! Not just students, but for example, the lady who works at the bakery I like the most, my neighbors, my colleagues, and it’s really nice, and kind of foreign to me to bump into people I know all the time.

    It sounds wonderful! And what is the school that you’re working at like?
    My school is a forestry school. Most of the students live in the boarding houses, one for girls and one for boys, and they live there five days a week. They learn history, Czech and foreign languages, mathematics, and science, however, because it’s a forestry school, there’s a special emphasis on subjects like tree harvesting, forest stewardship, forest sustainability, forest pedagogy, which is teaching children and adults about the forest- why it’s important, how to protect it, and how to use it for economic gain while at the same time preserving the ecosystems. So, while it’s a very specialized training, they also learn about what students in other schools would be expected to know.

    They do a lot of practical education. They spend quite a bit of time outside. It’s built into their weekly schedules, and they do some pretty difficult, physical labor. Even now, in this bitter cold, they’re out in the school forest working and learning. And it’s like -8 or -10 degrees today.

    Do you have an extra project you are working on this year?
    I do a lot of after-school activities. I do coffee hours at the girls’ boarding house and at the boys’ boarding house. It’s not separate, it doesn’t matter what their gender is; I just go to the different boarding houses so it’s more convenient for students. I took dance lessons with my students, and was in a choreographed ball with them! I’ve been out on a hunt with students, and I’m quite frequently invited out to do things. I really enjoy the experiences I’ve had talking with students, hearing the names of their parents, where they’re from, some funny stories, or being invited to their houses. They’re from all over Moravia, so I’m getting this really comprehensive picture of life in the central and southern Moravia region, as well as the Moravia-Silesia region. It’s giving me a very holistic view.

    And what do you like about teaching English?
    I like teaching English because it’s something I’m passionate about, and it also is something that will be very useful for my students in their lives in terms of their careers, but also maybe it will facilitate them making friendships with people from all over the world, and having a broader view of the world from that.

    What is one of your favorite things you have done or experienced so far this year?
    Oh man, that is perhaps one of the most difficult questions so far!

    You can pick a few. It’s not so strict.
    Oh, thank you! So far, I suppose even the very simple everyday things. These little victories that remind me that I really do have a life here, and however limited it may be, I do have the ability to actually talk to people, and interact with them in a meaningful way. Really establishing a rhythm of life here, talking to people, and trying my best to make them smile. And the balls were wonderful! Hubertska was so nice! It’s like their maturitní ples [the Czech equivalent of prom and graduation], but it has a forester flavor to it, because during the ceremony, when the graduating seniors come in, they actually carry with them the animals they caught on the hunt into the ballroom!

    No way!
    Yes, really! Dead deer, pheasants, foxes, wild boar! And there’s trees, and pine needles everywhere, so it has a real forester flavor to it.

    That’s amazing! I’m impressed.
    Yeah, it was really cool. Something else I should mention, is that my colleagues at the school have contributed enormously to my experience. They have opened their homes to me, and I get to hang out with their children, and go to my mentor’s house for Sunday lunches... It’s domestic bliss, I suppose. I have a real soft spot for that kind of thing.

    That’s wonderful! But what for you is the most challenging part of living and working abroad?
    Well, unfortunately, my Czech is functional, but it’s not good enough to express myself wholly, and likewise, I can understand, but not well enough for people to really tell me things in great detail. So, the fact that I miss things, or it gets lost in translation, and I can’t connect as deeply as I could if I did speak the language fluently. It can be very frustrating. And of course, Czech legalese is frustrating; I had an issue with customs, and my mail. My friend helped me, but so losing a little bit of self-sufficiency because of language issues, is something I’m working with.

    And the flip side, what is the most rewarding part of living and working abroad?
    Just all of the unbelievable people you meet, and the experiences and things they share with you. Trying things I never thought I would do, things that were never even on my radar to begin with! And obviously being in a different place, with different customs. It’s nice to just notice the differences, the subtle ones and the big ones, and to enjoy them.

    What is something interesting you have learned about Czech culture?
    It’s very interesting to listen to people. I like asking people, especially older people, who have lived in both the old regime and the current socio-political environment, and it’s very interesting to listen to their stories, and in their estimation how the last regime has influenced society and people’s mindsets. I find that really interesting, and other things… I’m thinking of very small things. I love celebrating people’s svatek, their name day. We don’t do that at home so much, it’s not really a thing. Little things, like celebrating people’s name day, all of the wonderful beer there is to choose from, having people laugh because I can’t remember the name of a dish I like. I don’t know, these things don’t paint a very big picture, but-

    But sometimes it’s the little things that can make the biggest impression, that when taken altogether form a bigger picture.
    Yes, so just the little things that stand out to me. My students teaching me campfire songs, listening to all of these interesting folk singers; it’s really wonderful!

    You are about halfway through your grant now, what is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?
    I’m looking forward to more wonderful weeks at school, and more casual hangouts with students. Rewarding experiences in the classroom, but also fun, silly, memorable things outside of the classroom with students, teachers, and friends. Spending more time with them, and learning more from them.

    What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
    I take it very seriously. I really take forging lasting relationships very seriously. That resonates the most with me. Aside from being a good teacher, and motivating my students, and making English interesting, applicable, and enjoyable for them, I would say even more so I’m just really interested in forming lasting relationships. I want to have family and friends here forever. People who can come visit me in New York, and meet my family and friends at home, and I really like that we have so many opportunities to exchange things about our cultures. We ask each other questions, and it seems like we’re all learning a lot from the exchange.

    How do you think your life will change as a result of this year abroad with Fulbright?
    I have been flirting with a number of different career trajectories, and the question has been eating at me for months. Actually, it’s making me consider teaching a lot more than I had considered it before. But it has also given me the chance to really take initiative. I like that this is my life. I take care of my house, and all of these things for myself, and if I want it, I have to go and do it even if it’s difficult, because perhaps there’s a language barrier, it doesn’t matter, just try. So, just to step out of my comfort zone even more so, and to enjoy it, rather than worrying about whether I’ll make a mistake.

    What do you plan to do after your Fulbright year?
    I will likely go back to school and pursue either a Master’s degree, or I’m considering going to nursing school. I’m not entirely sure.

    And do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a Fulbright, or teaching abroad?
    Yes, keep an open mind. Do not be afraid of making really silly, or sometimes terrible, gaffes. Laugh at yourself, and be constantly aware of how incredibly special it is to be living somewhere else and to be taken in, and treated like a daughter, or like a friend by somebody abroad. These people who welcome you into their lives, they are really part of your integration, and even if you know a language perfectly, what is it if you don’t speak with other people? In brief, seize upon all of these different opportunities to get to know people, and to try new things. I’m sure everyone says that, but everyone says it for a reason, because it’s true and important.

    And for my last question, I want to know, how are you feeling about everything at this moment?
    I am profoundly happy with everything. Every day since I’ve been here has been somewhere between great, good, fantastic, lovely, or wonderful. I’m really happy with how things are at school, and with how things are outside of school. I’m just really happy.

    Rachel Landau, in a student’s backyard. Hranice, Moravia



    2017/02/20

    Get to Know a Grantee - Professor Mark A. Novotny, PhD

    By Maureen Heydt 

    This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

    Mark A. Novotny
    Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Mississippi State University Mark A. Novotny, PhD, is serving this year as a Fulbright Scholar and Distinguished Chair in the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University in Prague. Professor Novotny has cultivated a prominent career in physics that has seen him earn his PhD from Stanford University, teach and conduct research in four different U.S. universities, and work for two years at the IBM Scientific Center in Bergen, Norway as well. His contributions to the field of physics are great, including his discovery of a new nano-device that he has named quantum dragons. Here, Professor Novotny discusses his current research, the differences between his home and host institutions, and the importance of international education exchanges in today’s world.


    -------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------

    • U.S. Position: Giles Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Mississippi State University, MS
    • Czech Affiliation: Distinguished Chair, Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University, Prague
    • Project: Studies in Quantum Systems, Including Quantum Materials and Quantum ComputingDiscipline/Specialization: Physics
    • Academic Background: Ph.D., Physics, Stanford University, CA, 1978
    • Favorite Quote: “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”- Albert Einstein
    • Favorite Czech Food: Potato dumplings
    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?

    I’m originally from Minnesota, and grew up on a farm in the northern part of the state. I was one of eight children, and I went to a small school, about 22 kids in the graduating class. Very rural. From there, I went to North Dakota State University as an undergraduate, majored in Physics, and have enjoyed doing that ever since. I spent four years there, and then went to graduate school at Stanford University in the Physics department, and worked mainly at the interface between mathematical physics and experimental physics. After finishing my PhD, I got a postdoc position at the University of Georgia in Athens, and was there for three years. There I moved to what is now called computational physics, but back then was frowned upon as not really a way of doing physics, because it wasn’t experiment and it wasn’t theory, and computers were so small, that you know, what can you do on them? So, after three years there, I moved to Northeastern University in Boston, was there for five years and again doing computational physics and teaching, and then I went to work for IBM up in the scientific center in Bergen, Norway, and enjoyed working for them for two years. I then moved to Florida State University, and was there for a dozen years as a research scientist doing computational physics, and then in 2001 moved to Mississippi State University as the department head, where I’m still the department head. I’ve tried to do research there, as well as administration, and the research is still on computational physics. I’m getting more and more into working on the quantum aspects of things, both in the computing side, and what I’m actually computing for, so both the machine that I’m using, and the atomic, materials, and engineering systems studied.

    And what courses are you teaching this semester?

    I’m teaching one course in quantum mechanics, but it’s a non-traditional quantum mechanics. It’s a graduate course, but there are some undergraduates and some postdocs that are sitting in as well, so it kind of spans the gamut.

    What does your research focus on?
    Right now, focusing on two different things, one is quantum computing. In particular, focusing on adiabatic quantum computing. There’s one company in the world that makes a quantum computer; if you write a check to them, they will sell you one, and they just announced one that has 2000 qbits, so in theory, these computers can do calculations that no classical computer can do, but theory and practice are still flirting with each other, shall we say. That’s one thing I’m working on, and the other thing I’m working on is I’m trying to find dragons. I’ve discovered this type of nanomaterials that I call quantum dragons. After all, if you discover them, you get to name them, and I thought it was a cool name. So, I spend a lot of my time looking for quantum dragons. I discovered some before I came here, and now I’ve learned a different mathematical path to find the same ones, and looking for more.

    What are the quantum dragons you have discovered? What do they do, or what is their function?
    A quantum dragon is a type of nano-device I discovered. The nano-device is composed of atoms (in the picture below the spheres), and the hopping of an electron between two atoms (the cylinders in the picture below). The nano-device can be of many different forms, or in the lingo of the field, can have a lot of disorder. When properly connected to input and output leads, the quantum dragon has complete transmission of incoming electrons for all energies of the incoming electron. In other words, every electron in the input lead goes to the output lead, none are reflected back into the input lead. This property makes quantum dragons have zero electrical resistance (in four-probe measurements). Electrical resistance is the reason your smartphone gets warm when you use it. Quantum dragons can be made in many different styles, some interesting in engineering, and others just fun to look at.

    And what do you wish everyone understood about physics?
    That it’s really the basis for all of our modern technology. If you talk about your cell phones and your computers and electronics, it’s all based on quantum mechanics. But it’s based on quantum mechanics at the classical level, and the new computers, the quantum computers, are going to be quantum mechanics at the quantum level, bringing even more power, and probably changing the society we live in some more.

    I also read online that the time spanned by algorithms you have made for nanoparticle dynamics “is as many decades in time as the number of decades between the volume of a raindrop and all the water on Earth.”
    Yes. So, you really have to come up with advanced mathematical methods to be able to calculate things in a way other than a brute force method. A brute force method only allows you to look at things in certain time ranges, very short time scales, but if you use advanced mathematical methods and embed those in your algorithms, then you can come up with things that are exact mathematically, that get you the same calculations, but you’re essentially doing it in a much smarter way.

    How long does it take you generally to create one of these algorithms?

    Usually, it’s a couple of years to get there ultimately. Often, you don’t really know what you’re setting out to accomplish, you’re just setting out to accomplish something, and then you find something. That’s how I found the quantum dragons. I wasn’t looking for them, because I didn’t think that they could exist when I looked for them, because it goes against some of the ideas of disorder in physics, and those kinds of things. And it was also that you put together three different, very hard things and together each of them is hard, but you put them together, and it makes something that is easy, which is very unusual in physics and mathematics.

    So sometimes you just go off, and explore in the woods, and you find something. You’re just heading in a general direction, and when you get there, you say, wow, if I knew I was heading in this direction, I would have planned. But that’s the way research is. Actually, one of my favorite quotes by Albert Einstein is, and I’m probably paraphrasing, but it’s, “If we knew what we were doing, they wouldn’t call it research.”

    That’s very interesting! And how is your host institution, Charles University, different from your home institution, Mississippi State University?
    Mississippi State University is a land grant university. About a 150 years ago, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that allowed states to create one university which was supposed to be an agricultural and mechanical university, so in every state you will find at least one land grant university. The land grant university is really charged to be responsible for the engineering aspects, which means the sciences, and also the agricultural aspects. The emphasis is really on the education of the engineering and the agricultural sides, as well as on the science and social sciences, and so on. And even though there are some small branch campuses, there’s one main campus. Which means that if I’m sitting in the Physics building at Mississippi State, I can walk across the street, and I’m in the Political Science building. Whereas here at Charles University, to go to a different faculty, a different department, it’s a half hour ride away; so that’s one of the big differences. The building I’m in here really holds the Faculty of Physics, which includes material science in particular, and quantum systems and theory related to those, but there are other aspects of this science that overlaps that’s done in completely different parts of Prague, even though they’re at the same university.

    And how is living in Prague different from living in Mississippi?
    Mississippi State University is in a little town called Starkville, so living in a little town is different from living in a big city. I’m really enjoying my time here, and being able to attend concerts and events. Just walking and seeing the architecture is amazing here as well, it’s one of my favorite things to do.

    What are some differences you have perceived between Czech and American university students, if any?
    I think it’s much more dependent on the particular student. I’ve certainly met some students here that are extremely bright, extremely motivated, and hardworking, and they’re definitely going to succeed, and those students in the U.S. succeed as well. It takes U.S. students some time to find themselves, but since I’m teaching at the upper level here, I’d say the students at the upper level here are comparable to the students at the upper level in the U.S., because by that time they have already found themselves, and if they’re in a rigorous course of study like physics, then they are definitely motivated.

    And do you think your semester here in Prague will effect or influence your teaching back at MSU? How so?
    I think so, because here I prepared a brand new course in quantum mechanics. Typically, when people teach quantum mechanics, they start with the wave function, which is a mysterious thing that I would venture to guess that no physicist understands, but yet we use it all the time whenever we’re talking about atoms, or we’re talking about materials. I decided I was going to take a different tact, and try not to mention wave functions when I teach quantum mechanics. I didn’t know where this would end, because I lectured it every week, and every week I pushed it a little further. So, it will definitely influence the way that I teach quantum mechanics, and topics related to quantum mechanics when I return to the U.S.

    Why did you choose to do a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?

    Well, first of all, you’ve seen my last name.

    Yes, Novotny!
    Yes, so about 150 years ago, my great-grandfather came from Mala Strana in Prague, and went to the U.S., so the genes have come back! And it’s a great university and I knew it was a beautiful city, and so as soon as I saw they were looking for a Distinguished Chair in Physics or Mathematics, I said, it sounds like me! It was a perfect fit.

    That’s wonderful! And what is the biggest benefit of international education in your opinion?
    In my opinion, science is really an international endeavor. Everyone comes at it from their own perspective, because of their own background, but ultimately there’s a set of facts called nature that we’re all trying to understand, and to be able to meet with other people that are trying to understand nature, from different backgrounds, really allows you to get a better handle on what we are trying to understand in the sciences.

    And relatedly, what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
    To me, the Fulbright mission is really meant to encourage interaction between countries. Certainly, hearing the stories of people here talking about what happened when the Iron Curtain was still up, and having visited both Hungary and East Berlin when the Curtain, the Wall, was still up, and just seeing how everything has changed and progressed, to me it really means that you want to have this connection between people from different countries to be able to lay a foundation to essentially advance humanity, as opposed to erecting Iron Curtains.

    What is your overall impression of life in the Czech Republic?

    First of all, my overall impression of life in the Czech Republic is it’s an extremely nice culture. The mass transit is extremely functional, and something that I wish the U.S. would do more of. I think people have a nice balance between work and what that entails, and shall we say, living, enjoying life, family, those kinds of things. I very much appreciate seeing that. You see kids out with their parents all the time, in all weathers, which is very nice, being pulled on and off the trams. I think it’s a nice family atmosphere.

    What has been the most rewarding for you so far during your Fulbright year?
    I would say interacting with the faculty and students at Charles University, and discussing things with them. Mainly science, because we are scientists after all, but other things as well, and just getting to know new people, and seeing the culture as well.

    Have you given talks at any other universities in Czech Republic, or in Europe?
    I gave a talk at University of Lisbon; I was on my way to visit my son, so I stopped in. I’m scheduled to give a talk in Poland, and also a talk on mathematics of quantum computing at Charles University, but in a very different part of Prague. And at the beginning of the next semester, there’s a named lectureship I’ve been asked to give, so I’ll be giving that to essentially kick off the semester for the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics. It’s to me, a real honor to be asked to do that.

    That’s so exciting! And right now, you are halfway through your grant.
    Hard to believe!

    Yes, it goes so fast!

    It does!

    So what is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?

    I would say it really took one semester to get to know people, talk with people, find common ground and common ideas, so I’m looking forward to bringing those to fruition, and hopefully submitting a paper, or two or three, with people here.

    Have you been able to travel much in Czech Republic? Or, is there somewhere you would like to visit here?
    There’s a lot of places I want to visit! I’ve visited some places; we met Steve and Ellen [Fellow Fulbright Scholar Steve Doig and his wife] in Brno, explored with them some, and saw some of the small villages. But we haven’t really gone towards the German border from Prague, and that’s a part of the Czech Republic I want to see.

    And do you have any advice for people who might be considering applying for a Fulbright?
    Just to apply! Because it’s extremely rewarding. Yes, there are hoops to jump through, and you may or may not be selected, but if you are selected, then it’s a great honor, and a great chance to give something back to your discipline, and really the two countries you’re in.

    And is there anything else you’d like to add?

    I just feel fortunate for this opportunity, because I think it’s been fulfilling to me, and at the same time, I feel like I’m contributing to a better dialogue between the U.S. and the Czech Republic. To me, that’s really a large part of what the Fulbright grants are for, is to get people in sort of similar areas, but from different countries, different cultures, to talk to each other.