Story of a 15-year old scientist: How it all began

Children and young adults these days have a wide range of possibilities how to spend their leisure time. Some of us like to watch movies, some of us enjoy playing a flute and some of us prefer to go laboratories, put on a white coat and carry out an experiment.  Zuzana Hudáčová, a 15-year old student from Slovakia, fell into the category of teenagers who preferred going to labs and make experiments. Even though this is just one story it once may be a story of hundreds of young aspiring students.

A girl that used to steal books

As a little child Zuzana was not much different from all the other kids in the kindergarten. She was playful, energetic and endlessly curious about the world surrounding her. However, curiosity diverted from the behaviour of her classmates. Most of the kids liked to explore the outside world, yet Zuzana was more fascinated about the things that could not be understood by just looking at them. She would spend hours and hours browsing through an old Encyclopedia, looking at the pictures of human body, homogenesis phases and even insect behaviour. Her restless mind caused her a great deal of problems in kindergarten  since she often refused to go to bed during the afternoon sleep-time and,  often, she would even take a book from the small kindergarten library and read it, hidden under the duvet, while other kids were sleeping. When Zuzana was five, her mother realised that the kindergarten was no place for her daugther, and therefore, with the approval of experts, Zuzana was admitted to primary school a year earlier than regular . That was where the real journey started, says Zuzana.

Ambitions are a ladder

The competitive atmosphere of school brought Zuzana‘s ambitions and her desire to thrive to life. Even though she was more than a year younger than her classmates, she always perfomed very well and was one of the best pupils in her class. Although Zuzana still preferred to read books, she felt a responsibility for the community and mediated with teachers and pupils about potential improvements to make; therefore she was elected class representative.

Until the age of eleven her  hobbies were pretty general: reading, playing the piano and dancing. Zuzana’s interests changed when she was in sixth grade, as at that time, biology and chemistry classes were added to school curriculum. Zuzana was fascinated by the two new subjects and used to spend several hours each day to read popular science books and magazines. At the age of twelve she performed her first study about  human body mass index (BMI) and obesity and took part in a  local competition.

Due to her ambition and success in and outside school, she got the chance to study at GBAS Sučany, a prestigious Slovak bilingual grammar school, where she started at the age of thirteen, and  joined classes with classmates 3 years older than her.

Photo courtesy: Zuzana Hudáčová

If there is no way, make one

During the biology classes, especially on the topics of neuroscience and genetics, Zuzana realised that although her desire for more knowledge was being fulfilled, her ambitions to do her own investigations and actually contribute to science were not satisfied. While looking for opportunities to collaborate with reasearch labs,  she discovered that in many Western countries it is not uncommon for young students to do scientific internships. She started  contacting  research institutions in Slovakia, but never was selected because of her young age. Consequently she started to apply outside her home country and was eventually  accepted as a summer intern at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic at the  Department of Histology and Embryology.

Summer fling with a microscope

The laboratories that gave Zuzana this opportunity was lead by Mgr. Dáša Bohačiaková, Ph.D. and focused on neurogenesis research. The project she worked on was the immunofluorescent analysis of in vitro neural rosette formation from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The aim of  her research was to analyse the markers of neural rosette formation, which is a 2D in vitro model of human neurogenesis. During the neurulation phase of embryogenesis there are many things than may go wrong, which can lead to neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spina bifida. NTDs are very dangerous and cause a lot of pain and suffering in an individual’s life. However, these days we are not only unable to treat these disorders, but we are not even able to observe the neurulation process non-invasively. That is why scientists are trying to developwith the in vitro solutions, which neural rosettes might potentially be.

Photo courtesy: Zuzana Hudáčová

One small step for a girl, one giant step for a generation

Zuzana‘s first laboratory internship marked  some new beginnings in her life such as the her first successfull research project, and a first scientific work that won the 3rd place at the  national Stredoškolská Odborná Činnosť (High School Scientific Activity). At the age of 15 she was  the youngest participant in history.

The success of her first project was the incentive for Zuzana to participate in more scientific activities; therefore during the following term she launched a biology club at her school, took part in an international DNA essay contest where she finished among the top ten participants and carried out more work in a laboratory and completed one more internship.

In spite of all her success Zuzana still feels the responsibility for her community  and she thinks that if she could achieve all of this, why not any other student in the world? This is the reason why she decided to publish her story

“I am certainly no better than any other child”, she says, “yet I was lucky, I had an idea and enough passion  not to give up, even though the circumstances were against me”.

Zuzana hopes that her story can motivate her fellow pupils and she urges parents to foster the curiosity and ideas of their children. Additionally she wants to send the message that is importnat to look outside your own surrounding and use the possibilities Europe of today gives to everyone.  

By Zuzana Hudáčová

Featured image credit: Zuzana Hudáčová

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