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Secretly evaluated by the Communist party


Competing for a place to study for a PhD
Jan Klein Scientist
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So I was at the school still naively thinking that I should... I will be able to do research but I had some doubts already as I saw the situation on the schools, I had some doubts. And of course it turned out that it was impossible. You were not supposed to just teach, you were supposed to be involved in all kinds of other activities, political and cultural and administrative and everything. They just kept you so busy that there was no possibility of doing research and it was simply just not done. Nobody did that and it was not possible, I realized that. So after three years I thought if I want to be a scientist I have to get out and have to get either a doctorate at the university or the other possibility was the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences which were purely research institute. But it was difficult to get into one or the other. I applied at the university but got a cold shoulder. There was a geneticist and by that time I was quite interested in genetics already, but there was no possibility that I would... I could go to the university, because they were taking students or applicants who, after graduation, stayed at the university or did already some research. I didn't, I was a teacher.  So you are teacher, so go and teach. Then I... at the academy there was three...  or, I think, two or three positions open for PhD student, that you could enrol in a PhD programme and do just research. I mean you did the university and now you went and did your thesis work, your PhD work. So I applied there, I didn't have any hope actually because, again, the situation was the same, they preferred applicants who had already research experience. I didn't. But there was an examination and they were choosing these three people out of, I think, there were 30 or 40 applicants and they were choosing from this on the basis of the examination. Well the questions were in genetics and I knew, by that time, genetics quite well. I was studying genetics... genetics was forbidden in Czechoslovakia, classical genetics, but when Stalin died in 1953, Lysenko began to lose power as well and so Lysenkoism was on the decline and the Russian... even in Russia they were publishing books that were translations from English to catch up on what they missed. It was a time when molecular biology, microbial genetics, molecular biology were exploding and they realized they were 50 years behind, because of Lysenko. So they were publishing books that they translated from English. They didn't pay anything for it, they did it like the Chinese I think might still do it today because they were not part of the convention, or they just ignored the convention.  They... if you wanted to read something in English you cannot... you could not get the books in Czechoslovakia, first because they didn't bring them into Czechoslovakia and second even if they did they were so prohibitively expensive that you could not buy them there. So the only possibility was to get these Russian translations. So I studied genetics ironically from Russian books. They were... they translated all the symposia on the phage genetics and everything. I knew it quite well and I did well at the examination and I was accepted.

Born in 1936, Jan Klein is a Czech-American immunologist who co-founded the modern science of immunogenetics – key to understanding illness and disease. He is the author or co-author of over 560 scientific publications and of seven books including 'Where Do We Come From?' which examines the molecular evolution of humans. He graduated from the Charles University at Prague in 1955, and received his MS in Botany from the same school in 1958. From 1977 to his retirement in 2004, he was the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biology at Tübingen, Germany.

Listeners: Colm O'hUigin

Colm O'hUigin is a senior staff scientist at the US National Cancer Institute. He received his BA, MSc and PhD at the Genetics Department of Trinity College, Dublin where he later returned as a lecturer. He has held appointments at the Center for Population and Demographic Genetics, UT Houston, and at the University of Cambridge. As an EMBO fellow, he moved in 1990 to the Max Planck Institute for Biology in Tübingen, Germany to work with Jan Klein and lead a research group studying the evolutionary origins of immune molecules, of teeth, trypanosomes and of species.

Tags: Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin

Duration: 5 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008