Jozef Madzo was born in Košice, eastern Slovakia, in 1976. He says that he had a ‘really nice childhood’ and enjoyed spending weekends with his family at their cabin in Slanec, a small town outside of Košice. Jozef was active in a karate club and computer programming club, and showed an affinity for science from a young age. He was in eighth grade at the time of the Velvet Revolution in 1989 which he says resulted in numerous name changes for the schools he attended. After graduating fromgymnázium, Jozef studied biology at Univerzita Pavla Jozefa Šafárika [Pavol Jozef Šafárik University] in Košice. Summers he spent working in construction. He recalls one particularly fun summer during which he worked in the Czech Republic picking hops.
In 1999, Jozef enrolled in a molecular biology doctoral program at Charles University in Prague and his research focused on childhood leukemia. During this time he attended several conferences in the United States; his first trip was in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Through contacts he made at conferences, Jozef applied for and was given a research position at the University of Illinois at Chicago. One year later, he transferred to his current position at the University of Chicago. Jozef says that he has two homes, one in Chicago and one in Slovakia, but that he finds it easy imagining his future in the United States.
“I was 14, so at that age you start forming ideas about the world, and we felt that there is something wrong with all the things they are telling us, and communism fell and it was like ‘Oh yeah, so this is what that is.’ We had been told that the communist system is the best system ever, but you can see that people emigrated from communism to Western Europe, but it never happened the other way. So we were like ‘There’s something wrong. Why all these people from Germany don’t come here and all people from Slovakia are trying to escape to Austria and Germany?’ We were like ‘Ok, maybe that’s not all true that this is the best system ever.”
“It was fun to learn new stuff. I was interested in biology, so I enjoyed it. It was a really good social life with your colleagues and classmates because you studied a lot together and after that, when passed the exam, you had fun together, and after that you study again. Because I studied biology, we used to have a lot of field trips and field classes, so it was kind of nice to get out of the city and still be in school, but be in the field.”
“There was no need to learn the Czech language. Of course, growing up in Czechoslovakia, there is mutual understanding, so I could understand everything. I just kept speaking Slovak because I would rather speak normal Slovak than broken Czech if they can understand me, and there was no problem. My thesis, I wrote in Slovak because I could have written it in broken Czech or decent Slovak, so I chose decent Slovak. There were some official documents that had to be written in Czech; of course I was using Czech in these official grand reports or emails, but for day to day work I used Slovak.”
Trip to America
“It was really interesting. The first time I visited the U.S. it was in late fall/early winter of 2001, so it was right after the attack on the World Trade Center. It was really chaotic because they had really chaotic security, and it was during the anthrax attack so everybody was freaking out about anthrax. They made us walk through sponges soaked with a lot of chemicals. They almost took all our clothes off. They went through all of our luggage. It took us forever. We almost missed connections; everything was late. So it was really chaotic. But when I was in the U.S. again, it was really interesting, because at the time, people were really patriotic everywhere with the American flag and ‘God Bless the U.S.’ So I thought that this was the U.S., but no, it was just a response to the terrorist attack.
“I remember really enjoying my time there in the U.S. because it was Florida, and coming from Prague (it was December) there was already snow, and I came to Florida and it was really nice weather. So I enjoyed that and thought ‘Oh, this is a perfect country to live.”