Interview: CATRIN has a well-established team eager to compete and win

Physical chemist Pavel Banáš is an expert in molecular dynamics simulations of nucleic acids. However, recently, he has had to put his own research aside as in January 2021, he became Head of the Czech Advanced Technology and Research Institute (CATRIN), a university institute with huge ambitions.

Six months has already passed since you were appointed as CATRIN Director. How is it going so far?

Frankly, it’s been very hectic and demanding, especially the first few months were critical. We had to get a whole new part of the university going and set up its operation, from basic administration to the key areas of grant support and technology transfer. But it has also brought plenty of joy as it’s constructive and meaningful work.

What stage is the set-up of CATRIN in now?

In a recent interview, the former UP Rector Jaroslav Miller used sports terminology, pointing out that key scientists as well as key athletes cannot be easily replaced. I completely agree with that statement, and if I were to continue with this sports analogy, CATRIN has managed to keep its best players and has a well-established team with great enthusiasm to compete and win. What I‘m saying is that we‘ve reached a stage where the integration of research centres has opened up new opportunities for us to capitalize upon what we are best at — hard and honest work producing cutting-edge science.

CATRIN has ambitions to become one of the best science centres in Europe. What strategy are you following to achieve this?

We continue the trend towards internationalisation of the institution, with half of the staff already being from abroad. We also want to develop research teams around young talented scientists and set clear rules for the formation of junior groups. Priority will be given to international grant schemes, notably within the programme called Horizon Europe, and the systematic development of cooperation with excellent institutions abroad, as well as industrial partners. We are also planning an internal evaluation of the research groups by our international scientific board at the turn of the year.

CATRIN is an open structure emphasizing multidisciplinary research. What research lines now dominate?

At the moment, CATRIN focuses on nanotechnology, materials research, biotechnology, agricultural research, biomedicine and translational medicine. Thus, in the natural and medical sciences, we have covered the key areas of research in sustainable environmental issues and climate change adaptation, ranging from the development of new technologies for the extraction and preservation of clean energy and environmental remediation to the development of new, more resilient crops and technologies for the circular economy. The second important issue is the development of new technologies and practices applicable to biomedicine, including diagnosis, prevention and therapies for infectious diseases and cancer.

What are the biggest challenges facing you?

From an organisational and economic standpoint, the big challenge is the end of funding from operational programmes after the year 2022, when we will have to restructure our research funds and focus much more on international grant schemes, which we are already systematically preparing for. However, all three research centres that were integrated into CATRIN have easily coped with such situations twice before. From a scientific perspective, we need to improve our technology transfer capabilities. We do cutting-edge, fundamental and applied research, yet only a few technologies have been able to move beyond TRL 4 on the technology readiness level scale. We also want to deepen the multidisciplinarity of our research and build bridges to the social sciences and humanities. This is proving to be the broader and increasingly urgent challenge of all modern science. Although it’s fascinating when we manage to develop new materials and technologies, such as new hardier and nutritionally richer crops using modern genetic techniques, it would be futile work if society were not ready for them, unable to utilize them or even rejected them.

So you are optimistic about the future?

Absolutely. CATRIN is full of brilliant people with great enthusiasm, including scientists and administrative staff, who are determined to work hard to build an excellent world-class research institute. We have a number of top scientists, well-functioning research teams and are able to find new interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary cooperation across the entire institute. In addition, we are discussing future cooperation and possible partnership with several excellent institutions abroad. So, it is already clear that the integration of research capacities at Palacký University made profound sense from a scientific perspective.

doc. Mgr. Pavel Banáš, Ph.D. (*1980)

He graduated from the Faculty of Science of Palacký University Olomouc in Analytical Chemistry and Applied Physics with a focus on Instrument Physics and Metrology. He received a doctorate in Physical Chemistry in 2009 and became associate professor in the same field in 2013. Until 2020, he acted as an associate professor in the Department of Physical Chemistry and the Regional Centre of Advanced Technologies and Materials of the Faculty of Science of Palacký University. Between the years 2019 and 2020, he was a Vice-Rector for the Strategy of Science and Research of Palacký University. As of 1 January 2021, he has hold the position of the Director of the Czech Advance Technology and Research Institute.

During his doctoral studies, he completed internships at SISSA—Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati in Trieste (Italy) and Uppsala Biomedical Centre (Sweden), then also at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (USA). Between the years 2006 and 2009 he was a researcher at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague and since 2009 he has been a researcher at the Institute of Biophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Brno.

His professional interest is the theoretical study of the structure and dynamics of nucleic acids and the development of theoretical methods for describing the conformative behaviour of biomolecules. In his research, he collaborates with experimental and theoretical teams from a number of international scientific institutions.

He‘s married with three great children—Kateřina, Marek and Antonín. As a former member of the Scouts, he likes to go trekking in the mountains and enjoys rock climbing.

Martina Šaradínová
July 7, 2021