Ondrej Krejci was born in Prague in 1974 and grew up in the Smíchov district of the city. His father was a scientist while his mother worked in the accounting department of a Prague hospital. Ondrej was the oldest of two boys. While growing up, frequent trips to an airfield with his father (who flew gliders) inspired him to take up flying; he received his pilot’s license when he was 14 years old. He was also interested in science and belonged to a biology club that was part of the Pioneer youth organization. Ondrej says that while growing up he had trouble deciding whether to become a scientist or a pilot and, though he ultimately chose science, flying has remained a passion of his. Ondrej was 15 when the Velvet Revolution took place; he remembers following the events of the Revolution and participating in a student strike at his high school. One year later, he had his first introduction to the United States when his family traveled to DeKalb, Illinois, to visit his father who had found work there.
Ondrej says that a lack of career opportunities for scientists in the Czech Republic led him to study medicine at Charles University. After graduating, he worked as a pediatrician at Motol Hospital (FN Motole) for a short time before beginning a doctoral program in biology – also at Charles University. In 2003, Ondrej was offered a cancer research fellowship at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and moved to Ohio. After his four-year fellowship, Ondrej accepted the position of research fellow in a joint program with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University. Although he is happy in the United States, Ondrej says that his plan was never to settle here and, in fact, he had only planned on being in the U.S. for one year. He says that in the future he will go wherever his research takes him and is always eager to experience different places. Ondrej returns to the Czech Republic several times a year to visit his family and currently lives in Quincy, Massachusetts.
“I was born in 1974, so it was like the heavy, heavy communism. Not as cruel and not as raw or tough as in the 1950s, but it was still the deep normalization era, and being born as a child of that time, you actually don’t notice. Of course you get from your parents that things are not really okay, or ‘Yeah, it’s different in the West,’ but as a child, I think you are flexible; your mind is very flexible, unfortunately. So I guess I didn’t really mind. There are things you don’t like, but you don’t have the experience from the other side, so I could say I didn’t really mind.
“Speaking about the Pioneer movement, everybody speaks of the Pioneer movement as being very bad and influential, and definitely the idea behind it and the politics behind it was of course planned by the communists. But at the same time, I would say I think it’s a great idea – not a great idea, don’t get me wrong – but the attention the kids got was quite good. I was in a Pioneer biology club and the leader, I’m not sure if she was communist or not, but she didn’t really enforce any communist ideas. We were basically learning biology and she was very keen. She was showing us nature. She was showing us microscopes, how the cells look under microscopes. We were doing some fun experiments with chemistry, and so I actually did like this part of how, as kids, we had a chance to do something more than just go home.”
“I have fun recalling how my person was sucked into the anti-communist changes. So the student demonstration was on Friday, November 17, 1989 and the strike of the students was supposed to start on Monday. However, we had an early-bird class at 7:00 so we came to school – I was a sophomore in high school at the time – we came to school and we were sitting near the lockers. Actually, we didn’t know what was going on, so we were preparing for our classes and suddenly one of my colleagues came and she said ‘Ok guys, stay here. Don’t go anywhere. We are on strike.’ And we thought ‘Ok, is she joking? What’s going on?’ We had no clue. So we stayed at the lockers and we actually started debating and discussing what happened and what are the possibilities. At that time, we didn’t believe anything would happen to the Communists. We just thought it would be another strike and probably nothing would happen, but we didn’t go to class and our teacher didn’t know what was going on, but she didn’t force us to go to class, so we stayed at the lockers all day, talking and debating, and then all the changes slowly unfolded over the course of the week when there was a strike in the theatre and universities and high schools, and finally all over Prague and the surrounding areas and the whole Czech Republic and Slovakia started the movement against communism.”
“I came to the U.S. for the first time for a visit with my father – actually the whole family. My dad was a scientist and he was working west of Chicago in the small town of DeKalb. I remember more of how we left the Czech Republic. We took our luggage, we took the subway to a bus station, and from the bus station we took a bus to Munich, Germany, and then from Munich we flew to Chicago. The first time I came here, it was very different, I have to say. Coming from Prague, which is a big and busy city, to the small city of DeKalb, where the houses are small and made out of wood and there was so much field. Our first meal was in a gas station because it was Sunday morning and we didn’t know where the shops were so we just went to a gas station to buy some chocolate and crackers.
“It was of course a big difference between the Czech Republic and the U.S., but as a kid – I was a junior in high school – I was quite flexible and I think I blended with the American kids very well, and this made my second trip to the U.S. much, much easier. So when I came to Cincinnati, I knew what to expect, I knew about the mentality of the people and it wasn’t such a huge cultural shock, I guess, compared many other people who had to leave and had no chance to prepare and not an exact idea of what to expect.”
“When I first saw the lab, I wouldn’t say that it was really that different. The equipment in the labs in the U.S. and in the Czech Republic is surprisingly quite comparable. We are always whining that we don’t have enough money in the Czech Republic; we are always whining that we have no good equipment, but that’s not true. I think we do have definitely comparable equipment and we do have money to work. Sometimes what we are lacking is the drive. The motivation to work hard, to find new things. I hope it’s not true anymore, because always when people ask me what the difference is between work in the U.S. and work in academia in Czech Republic, I start to talk about these differences and then I stop myself and say ‘Hey, but my experience from Czech Republic is from eight years ago’ and I bet and I hope that it’s not true anymore. So I think the differences are probably more subtle than what I recall and now many people who did research in the U.S. are going back to the Czech Republic. I think the differences are kind of more and more subtle than what I would say.”
“Flying is our family hobby. As many people know, Czech Republic is, together with Poland and Germany, very well known for flying gliders – the airplanes with no engines – and it always has been supported by the government. So there are many fields in the Czech Republic and many of the kids, like me, went to the airport when they were two or three years old with their father, and then hang around for another 12 years. When I was 14, I got my pilot’s license and I started flying gliders and I’ve stuck with that basically until now, and I think it always helped me simply because it’s a great way to relax – it’s a great hobby – but also for making contacts. For example, when I came to Cincinnati, I didn’t have any friends and I just knew the people in the lab, but you don’t always stay with your co-workers all the time, so the first thing I did was I went to the local soaring club. I remember the first day I went there and I saw all those people. I didn’t know any of them but I heard them talking about flying, and talking about flying is like a different language, which I do understand well, so we started chatting and within a few minutes I was hooked up with them and I became a member of the Caesar Creek Soaring Club in close-by Dayton, Ohio. And I would say my best friends in Ohio were from the soaring club.”