Destination: Prague – A Fulbright scholar's journey

Thursday, 01 July 2021 12:53

Tracy Okine, an American Ph. D. student and Fulbright scholar with Ghanaian and South African roots, began her scientific and cultural exchange in the Czech Republic in January 2021, during the third Covid-19 lockdown. In Forum, she writes about what inspired her to conduct research in Prague. She also describes challenges during year two of the pandemic.
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The author (second from the right) with friends and fellow foreign students at Charles University. In front of the historic Carolinum building.

It was the summer of 2017. My heart raced as I entered the campus of the United State’s National Institutes of Health. As a freshly graduated 22-year-old, I was both nervous and excited to begin the next phase of my professional journey to conduct neuroscience research into pain perception and drug development. Upon entering my new lab, I was greeted by a woman with bright red hair similar in tone to that of the cherry fruit. As she introduced me to each member of the lab, her accent permeated her words to disclose a familiarity with worlds beyond my own. I would learn by the end of the day that her accent was Czech. Her accent permeated her pronunciation of words and her perspective on science and life. From 2017 to 2020, I would receive valuable lessons in science, experimental design, mentorship, and Czech culture through being her mentee….  I applied to become a Fulbright Scholar in the Czech Republic to continue this valuable cultural and scientific exchange.

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A global pandemic and cultural exchange might seem like two disconnected concepts. Yet, they became the two themes that molded my arrival and first few months in Czechia. After a five-day quarantine and Covid PCR test, I was ready to officially begin! My research mentor and team are members of the Charles University Department of Immunology. My specific project is focused on the interaction of microorganisms with our brain and mental health. Through this project, I have also become more familiar with the work of Czech psychologists both in Prague and in Vestec at the Biotechnology and Biomedicine Center of the Academy of Sciences and Charles University (BIOCEV) in Vestec. The Fulbright Program is an international exchange program aimed at supporting artistic, lingual, scientific, and/or other forms of knowledge exchange between persons from the United States and those from other countries. Recipients of this award receive both tangible and intangible support through the program’s commissions and must go through a competitive selection process to ensure they possess the skills necessary to navigate both the obvious and subtle nuances of cultural exchange and intercultural interaction. Therefore, in seeking to learn more about the Czech culture and scientific enterprise, winning a Fulbright was the most impactful way to pursue this goal. After multiple rounds of application review, character interviews, and preparation, I was ready to begin my grant in January 2021.

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Outside of the lab, I was also interested in making connections between Czech culture and my research topic. During my first weekend, I quickly made my way to the famous landmarks: Charles Bridge, the Astronomical Clock at Prague’s Old Town Square, Petřín Hill, and the like. The quiet and empty streets that led me to these locations were a resounding symbol of the impact of the pandemic on the Czech people. In the grocery stores, I witnessed the protocols change about mask mandates. At the tram station, I saw the impact of physical distancing on social interaction.

As a junior scientist, navigating cultural and scientific exchange during a global pandemic was not easy. When we seek connection with others, our interactions are modulated by nonverbal cues present in our facial expressions and body language. Therefore, masks and virtual meetings became an unfamiliar but necessary obstacle that begot innovation. For instance, although I couldn’t begin in-person volunteering related to mental health organizations in Prague due to the mandates, I could virtually interview professionals and students in this industry to learn more about the current state of mental health discussion in the older and younger generation. Flexibility, thus, became the only way to prevail. 

Coming from a family rooted in Ghanaian and South African culture and an adolescent colored by the American way of life, naturally, my perspective sometimes differed from those of the people I met in Prague. A well-balanced mixture of enthusiasm, respect, empathy, flexibility, resilience, and open communication has allowed me to interact with strangers I now call friends and colleagues. On the other hand, however, I have been a first-hand witness to how a lack of enthusiasm, empathy, flexibility, resilience, and open communication can create barriers and stifle relationships.

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For instance, a misspoken word can lead to miscommunication which can only be resolved from a place of empathy and understanding. Cultural navigation takes both patience, enthusiasm, and respect to overcome. Coupled with the challenge of a pandemic, these cultural dances, so to speak, were sometimes difficult and emotionally challenging. Overall, I am happy to say that I have had very positive experiences during my time in Prague and I am very thankful to my peers and colleagues who contributed to this.

Tracy Okine

Fulbright Research Grantee-Neuroscience

Incoming MD/Ph. D. student

Author: Tracy Okine
Photo: Vladimír Šigut

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