News | Feb. 2, 2021

Research abroad in the time of COVID

By Cathy Vandermaarel DASA (DE&C)

Moving to a foreign country can be a difficult and anxiety-inducing experience because of language barriers, different customs, new colleagues and many other factors. A global pandemic isn’t usually one of those—until now.

Army research chemist Dr. Irene MacAllister arrived in the Czech Republic for a yearlong tour on Feb. 19, just weeks before the country declared a state of emergency in response to the spread of the coronavirus throughout Europe.

A BUMPY LANDING

MacAllister spent a brief time handling some administrative matters at the U.S. Embassy in Prague before heading to Hradec Králové, about 70 miles east of the capital, for her assignment on the faculty of military health sciences at the Czech Republic's University of Defense.

“Luckily, I had arranged a number of things before leaving the U.S., and all the intense planning—and to some degree ‘over-planning’—before my actual arrival paid off,” MacAllister said. “I have incredibly supportive Czech peers, including one colleague who had had a past research assignment in the U.S. and who knows exactly what it’s like to arrive alone in a foreign country. She had prearranged an apartment for me which turned to be in an ideal location.”

But even over-planning didn’t prepare MacAllister for what the pandemic would bring. She’s the first Army employee to participate in the Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program in the Czech Republic, and the only American at the facilitywhere she’s assigned. In the early days, she wasn’t sure if she should work according to the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command – Atlantic protocols for teleworking or those of the university where she was assigned. She didn’t know if she’d be allowed to move into that perfect apartment. She didn’t even know if she’d be recalled to the U.S. and have to completely give up the opportunity to work abroad for the year.

THE BACKSTORY

When the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center was tasked to identify potential candidates for an exchange program with the Czech Republic, the request included three different position descriptions relating to immunology, microbiology, proteomics, gene editing and bioinformatics, one of which seemed tailor-fit to her skills. “I was very excited about the prospect of reinvigorating old skills, learning new procedures and techniques and getting back to full-time laboratory work,” said MacAllister.

Her research focus during the exchange is laying the groundwork for the future development of a vaccine against the highly lethal bacterium Francisella tularensis for both the warfighter and civilian populations, in the event it is weaponized and deployed.

Not only did it seem the work would suit her, but she was excited to live in Europe again and for the opportunity to travel. Having grown up in Lampertheim, Germany, and having a German mother, MacAllister is fluent in the language and had made plans for her octogenarian parents to visit from Illinois.

THE IMPACT

Despite the restrictions and uncertainty, MacAllister was eventually able to move into the apartment and begin her research in Hradec Králové. She lives just across the street from a forest, which, she said, “was a godsend during the initial phase of the state of emergency, during which I teleworked and admit I was getting a bit of cabin fever.” Her Czech supervisor ensured she was included in group picnics and other outdoor activities to stave off any feelings of isolation.

In late April, MacAllister was finally able to start working in the lab instead of teleworking from her 400-squarefoot apartment. Since then, she has noticed more similarities with her Czech colleagues than differences. “Most government researchers—U.S. and Czech—tend to grumble, at least a little bit, about administrative activities which we see as distractions from actually doing the fun stuff,” said MacAllister. She also noted a shared dedication to the research mission.

Dr. Klára Kubelková, a captain in the Czech Army, was part of the team that selected MacAllister for the exchange, made arrangements for her arrival, and works alongside her regularly. “Dr. MacAllister provides valuable advice in solving the scientific questions in selected projects and provides her personal opinions on the studied issues,” Kubelková said. “It is also a great benefit for the staff of the department, who have the opportunity to communicate with the researcher in English.”

While the Czech facility has hosted exchange scientists before, those programs were from other European countries and for a much shorter time than this one, according to Professor Jiri Stulík, who was responsible for preparing MacAllister’s scientific program at the university. “Previously, we had collaboration with people from Fort Detrick [Maryland] funded by [the Defense Threat Reduction Agency], so we are used to work[ing] with scientists from [the] USA,” Stulík said. “I think this program is very useful, as any other program concerning the exchange of scientists from abroad. Definitely both sides gain new experiences and there is a good chance for further scientific collaboration.”

As restrictions started lifting, MacAllister was able to do more than just go to work or walk in the forest, and she found so many others in town to be just as helpful. She had hoped her German and English fluencies would help her learn Czech, but unfortunately it doesn’t resemble the other languages at all. She’s finding, though, that people are incredibly patient and willing to help when she needs it. “I learned to say, ‘I don’t speak Czech. Do you speak English or German?’ in Czech,” MacAllister said of her efforts to reach out. When she hears other Americans or native English speakers also living in the college town, she takes some time to chat with them.

LOOKING AHEAD

During a press conference in August, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said he and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had discussed scientists and defense cooperation. “We can cooperate in science and development. We have great scientists that are also active in the United States. So we have excellent scientists and I see a great potential,” Babis said. MacAllister, as the first Army scientist in Czech Republic under this exchange program, is laying the groundwork for that future cooperation.

The U.S. Embassy in Prague has recognized the importance of MacAllister’s exchange and of the program. “We are delighted that she is cooperating with outstanding Czech scientists at the University of Defense Research Laboratory in Hradec Králové,” said embassy spokesman Griffin Rozell. “Her work in infectious diseases is timely and her presence has been noted and appreciated at the highest levels of the Czech government. We look forward to continuing the exchange program by building on this experience and also hope to facilitate an exchange for a Czech researcher to the United States. Cooperation through military exchanges improves allied readiness and solidifies our strong military-to-military relationship.”

In addition to the scientific outcomes, MacAllister knows the potential for her exchange to have an even bigger impact by reinforcing the enduring U.S. relationship with the Czech Republic—which is recognized internationally for its expertise in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense—and facilitating the future placement of Czech scientists in U.S. Department of Defense research facilities. In hopes of paving the way for future U.S. Army exchange personnel, MacAllister will take the lessons learned from her exchange to help the U.S. Embassy in Prague; the Science and Technology Attaché at the Czech Republic Embassy in Washington; U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command – Atlantic; and the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Defense Exports and Cooperation develop standard procedures for more U.S. Army research scientists to take part in the Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program with Czech Republic's Defense Ministry.

MacAllister has approval to extend her exchange through June 2021. Though her parents likely won’t be able to visit, and the cultural experiences aren’t exactly what she thought they would be, she said this experience is “one that I will think of fondly (despite the pandemic) for many years to come, and I would encourage everyone to seek out an ESEP assignment.”