Photo: Liz and Geri at the Letná Park Beer Garden, Spring 2022
Elizabeth Clifton is a behavioral ecologist who studies termites. Why termites? They are interesting, social, extremely important, but also vulnerable. During the academic year of 2021/2022, Elizabeth spent five months studying the evolution of termite weapons at the Faculty of Tropical AgriSciences of the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague. Elizabeth loves traveling. The idea to study termites in the Czech Republic sparked during her conversation with another expert on termite behavior, Jan Šobotník, an Associate Professor at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague. They originally met at a week-long termite course in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Their shared scientific interest led to a field trip studying termites in Cameroon, Africa. Last year, they agreed on performing lab work in Šobotník’s lab in Prague. Five months after her return to the U. S., specifically to the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at The University of Connecticut, Elizabeth shares: “I am missing Prague. I miss the public transit system, the dog friendliness, the architecture, and the warmness of the people. The Czech Republic now has a special place in my heart and I cannot wait until I am able to visit again.”
What was her experience?
I love to travel. I arranged my PhD work to include travel. I travel to conferences in new places whenever possible. In the five years since I started my PhD, I added nine US states, four countries, and one continent to my list of places traveled. So naturally, when I came across the opportunity to work abroad with a Fulbright Fellowship, I immediately applied. At the time, it was autumn of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic taking hold of the world. I was unsure if I would even have the possibility to travel, however, I was also antsy to get out of Connecticut. At the time, I was nearing the end of my PhD work and needed to finish some lab work with experts in my field, so the Fulbright Research Fellowship was the perfect opportunity.
My plans to travel to Prague actually started in the summer of 2019. I should mention that I am a behavioral ecologist that studies termites. Why do I study termites? Great question; it’s because they are extremely interesting. Allow me to explain: you may think of them as pests, but only about 10% of all species are pests to humans. Termites are social insects, meaning they live in colonies like ants and bees. They feed on dead plant material, a habit that is very rare as it is difficult for most animals to breakdown the cellulose material in plants. Because they can break down these substances, they are extremely important for nutrient turnover in their ecosystems.
Termites are also very small and soft-bodied, and thus they are extremely vulnerable to animal predators around them. Due to their vulnerability, they have evolved a special group within their colonies known as “soldiers.” The soldiers have evolved all different shapes, sizes, and behaviors for defending their colony. However, even with this soldier caste, another group, called the “workers,” also can help with defense. This group is known as workers because they do most of the colony maintenance; however, the workers can still help with protecting their colony.
While I was doing research on termites in Costa Rica, I noticed that the workers of one species I was studying were performing an odd behavior: individuals were fatally rupturing their own bodies for the sake of protecting their colony. This behavior had been described before (known as either “autothysis” or “dehiscence”), but never for this species.
So, my plans to travel to Prague actually started in the summer of 2019. I was attending a Termite Course at the University of Florida in Fort Lauderdale (yes, such a thing exists, and they talk about termites for a full week! Awesome.). It was at this course that I met Dr. Jan (Honza) Šobotník, an associate professor from the Česká Zemědělská Univerzita v Praze (Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague) and expert in termite behavior. I showed Honza some videos of this behavior I had seen and he was extremely excited about it. We decided to collaborate on a project to understand how these termites were able to self-rupture. Honza does yearly fieldwork in Cameroon and invited me on a trip there to study the closest relative of my termite (yes, my exploding termite lives in Costa Rica, but its closest relative is in Africa; it’s a bit mind-boggling). He also invited me to visit his lab in Prague the following autumn to perform the necessary lab work. I was ecstatic.
The following February, I joined Honza and his Czech field team in Ebogo II, Cameroon to study termites. We worked there for three weeks, February 14th-March 6th, 2020. Yes, March 6th, 2020. See, as we were nearing the end of our time in Cameroon, staying in a village with no electricity and poor connection to the outside world, something was spreading across the globe: the coronavirus. When I returned to the US on March 6th, I found I was very lucky, as I had made it home a few days before flights were banned from Europe. At this point, the future had become very uncertain, especially for my project. We had been lucky to be able to perform the fieldwork, but now the lab work certainly was not going to happen in Prague that autumn.
That was when I came across the Fulbright Research Fellowship to work in the Czech Republic. No one was certain if it would be possible to travel by the next year, but it was worth hoping for; and that hope paid off because I was offered the Fellowship and accepted with a deferral of a few months. So, in January of 2022, I finally began my Czech trek.
Photo: Fields of rapeseed from the top of the Castle Žebrák, Spring 2022, Central Bohemia
When I arrived, I instantly fell in love with Prague. I cherished every minute of my time there. I am not a writer, so my words cannot do it justice. Prague is a beautiful, historic yet modern, illustrious city. I arrived in January 2022, at a time when KN95 masks were still required in public and a vaccine card was necessary to enter a restaurant; however, I was still greeted with a wonderful welcome committee of people I would be working with. The night I landed, they took me straight to a bar and ordered us all shots of every type of liquor they thought I should try… Needless to say, I did not remember much from that night, BUT, the next six months I spent there I will never forget.
I was lucky enough to already know my host, Honza, and a good friend, Jiří, from fieldwork in Cameroon. My second day there, they walked me all across the beautiful, old, winding streets of Prague, describing where we were, when each area was built, and the history behind important monuments. It was pleasantly overwhelming; the “City of a Hundred Spires” was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I was delighted to call this place home for the next few months.
Photo: Spring flowers in Letná Park, Prague, Spring 2022
These colleagues were instrumental during my time in Prague, opening my eyes to termite research techniques during the day and Eastern European life at night. I got to enjoy the swan boats on the Vltava River, the green beer for Easter, the Game Hunters Ball at my host university, the “Little Venice” of Prague, the enormous zoo, and of course all of well-known sites like Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle. Being biologists, I was also able to enjoy new wildlife, such as legless lizards on the way to Žebrák Castle and stag beetles in Petřínské sady. My favorite sites to see were the astronomical clock, the view of the city from Letná Park, and all of the beautiful flowers blooming in the springtime.
To my delight, I was able to connect with some of the locals via soccer. My colleague played with his neighbors every Friday evening and invited me to join. Playing soccer (or sometimes even soccer-tennis), was one of the highlights of my trip. This sport has helped me connect with people in a variety of countries, and I am grateful for the Czech friends that welcomed me into their community. My other favorite way to connect with people is through dogs. Anyone who knows me knows I absolutely adore dogs, and Prague felt like home to me with how dog-friendly it was. Dogs are allowed in restaurants and on public transit; every park I went to had dogs all off leash and playing with each other. I was able to join my colleague and his Irish Wolf Hound, Geri, for walks and playtime with neighbors, another highlight of my time there.
Even though I had the benefit of Czech colleagues that I already knew, the Fulbright community was also fundamental during my stay. I was so lucky to work with Czech Fulbright Commission, a group of amazingly kind and helpful people. It is obvious they love their work and love bringing people together. Thanks to Fulbright, I was able to meet some wonderful new friends; people that had come to the same place as me to study a host of fascinating topics. I connected with other scientists (Katherine, Erin I., and Katja), writers (David and Cynthia), mathematicians (Alex), historians (Julia), art historians (Erin D.), and musicians (Isabel, Bree, and Jason). With the Fulbrighters, I experienced the Jan Palach memorial, an eye-opening look into life at the end of communism. I was also lucky enough to see and learn about the Slav Epic from Erin D., an immense and gorgeous collection of iconic artwork by Alphonse Mucha. I am thankful for the connections I was able to make during my fellowship that I know will be lifelong friendships.
Photo: Green beer for Easter at Letná Park, Prague, Spring 2022
Five months later, I am missing Prague. I miss the public transit system, the dog friendliness, the architecture, and the warmness of the people. The Czech Republic now has a special place in my heart and I cannot wait until I am able to visit again.
Rozhovor vyšel v listopadu 2022 v rámci blogu Komise J. Williama Fulbrighta s názvem Elizabeth Clifton: My Long Overdue Czech Trek
Zdroj: Komise J. Williama Fulbrighta
Foto: E. Clifton