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My Gent: Lenka’s dance with the stars

One of the most common questions among expats in Gent is where to find a dance school. So when I saw Lenka, or Badriyah on stage, at her belly dance performance, I knew I had to interview her. But there is more to this energetic Czech girl than her mesmerising dance – in her day job, she is investigating the effects of space events on Earth and our technology.

Read on to hear about how she found a job in her field, find out where you can follow her dance classes and maybe give her a tip on where she could play the flute in Ghent!

Brno to Ghent

Almost two years ago Lenka was visiting Ghent at Christmas time. A friend mentioned that she should visit the Black Hole bar and she of course found the name intriguing. When she stepped into the bar she caught the eye of a dashing Gentenaar who happened to be drinking at the same bar on that same evening.

As it turned out, the dashing Gentenaar thought that this Czech girl looked quite dashing too. So they started chatting and fast forward to 2017 when Lenka embarked on what many of us have gone through before: a life in a new country and finding a job without speaking the language.

 

From stellar research to space weather

Before she could move to Ghent from Brno, a town she considers her home after having studied there for years, Lenka had to finish her PhD. Her research focused on the interstellar bubbles inside our galaxy and whether their edges could have the potential to be stellar birthplaces.

If you are curious about her research, you can watch a (very accessible) presentation on interstellar bubbles that Lenka gave at a science popularisation event in Austria:

But how does an interstellar astrophysicist who doesn’t speak a word of Dutch find a job in Ghent? The short answer is, she doesn’t. The long answer is, she finds a job in Brussels.

By coincidence, Lenka heard of a job opening at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA-IASB). While space weather was not her primary field of research, it was close enough for her to be able to pass three demanding rounds of interviews. She joined a team of scientists working on an international project on space weather awareness.

The team observe how what happens in space influences the Earth: they monitor cosmic radiation, high energy particles from the coronal mass ejections from our sun, and solar wind, among others. Then they share that info with those who need it, like satellite companies, astronauts and pilots.

But space is not only her work, she is passionate about science and participates in many outreach activities. She is a strong ambassador for more women in science and believes that teaching science to children will help them become independent, critical thinkers.

While she is currently somewhat limited in continuing her work in this field because of the language barrier, she does volunteer at the observatory in Ghent. Keep an eye on their Facebook page to see when she next gives a lecture in English on interstellar bubbles or some other interesting topic.

Dancing to her tune

When she was younger, Lenka had always been seen as slightly tomboyish, because of her interest in science and maths. As a teenager, she wasn’t too keen on going out because of her poor dancing skills. So when she saw a poster for a belly dance school, she thought this might be a good way to learn some smooth moves.

“I still remember the first time that I went to see them dance. It was in an old building, the setting was terrible, but when I saw the dancers, I knew it – this is what I want to do!” And she has been doing it for over 15 years now.

She even became so good at the belly dance that she auditioned to become a part of the theatrical belly dance troupe Belly Dance Evolution. “When I was 19, I saw Jillina at a workshop in the Czech Republic and she inspired me to follow my passion for the dance,” Lenka explains.

Becoming part of Jillina’s troupe meant regular performances all over the world, which she loved doing for 6 years. But eventually she had to stop, as she needed to dedicate herself fully to finalising her PhD.

Still, she keeps her love for dance alive by giving classical Egyptian belly dance classes at the Shoonya dance school in Ghent. Under her stage name Badriyah, she currently leads beginners classes and an open level class (together with Matthias), but registrations are already open for an advanced class.

Bringing it all together

A few years ago, she was asked to speak at a TedX event. They asked to somehow link her two passions: space and belly dance. She had to think for a while, before she realised that the common theme is prejudice: as a bellydancer, you are often looked down on by society, and as a female scientist, you are often looked down on by your male colleagues. If your Czech is fluent enough, you can watch her talk on YouTube.

Sitting at Vooruit, sipping a Roomer, she ponders her path to Ghent and to the here and now. “I guess you could say I was lucky in many aspects”, she muses. But after a moment she corrects herself, “No, it wasn’t luck. I was just always well prepared. As we say in Czech language, ‘Luck favours the ready.’ ”

Flutes and fairytales

After hearing about all her activities, I almost don’t dare ask about her free time. But yes, as it turns out, Lenka has spare time that she likes to fill with things that bring her even more joy: like playing the flute. “I was playing in an amateur orchestra in Brno, and now I am looking for a group that would meet regularly and be dedicated to playing well.” If you happen to know of an orchestra looking for an experienced flute player – Lenka has been playing it for 15 years – let her know!

And what does she like about Belgium and Ghent? First of all, the lack of sexism in the workplace. In the Czech Republic, the attitude to women in science is still rather old-fashioned, but in Belgium this is luckily a non-issue.

Secondly, she is enjoying her new home of Ghent. “Ghent is so charming,” she enthuses. “The old town looks like something from a fairy tale. And the people are so friendly and open!” Open? Not something we hear about Belgians a lot, I comment. “No, no, no, go to the Czech Republic and you will see what closed people look like. But have a drink with them and they’ll get better.”

Speaking of the ‘closed’ Czechs, where do they meet in Belgium and Ghent? “Well, there’s the Czech House in Brussels, where they organise concerts, lectures and even a ball.” Once a year, they also organise a Czech street party, where you can bond with the Czechs over a pint of real Czech beer. Or see a selection of documentaries from the Prague’s One World festival. In Ghent, Czech people, like many other nationalities, have their own Facebook group.

Job opportunities in the space sector in Belgium

Lenka and an interstellar bubble (not to scale)

Space research is a very broad field (and in this context we include all the theoretical and experimental disciplines related to space) and there are many organisations and institutions working in these diverse fields. We have tried compiling a short introduction for anyone looking for a job in the space sector in Belgium.

The main research institutes are the universities of Leuven (LASA at KUL), Ghent (Department of Physics and Astronomy at UGent), Liege (CSL at ULiege), and the above-mentioned Royal Institute. Since 2016, there has been talk of a Belgian Space Agency, however, this has not materialised yet.

The European Space Agency has one of its centres in Belgium as well, close to the small Walloon village of Redu. The European Space Security and Education Centre (ESEC) focuses on cybersecurity, hosts the space weather data centre, organises trainings for European university students and forms part of the ESA’s ground stations network.

You can read all about the government space policy and upcoming events on the public website on Belgian science policy. The website also has a section with vacancies in the science sector. In October 2018, the first ever event on career opportunities in the space sector in Belgium, Switch to Space, was held in Brussels. Sign up to their newsletter to stay up to date on their future events.

My Gent is a series of articles featuring interviews with expats in Ghent. We combine a personal story with an interesting angle for all expats. Would you like to be featured, or know someone whose story and work should be shared for the benefit of all? Let us know in the comments below.

Nina
Nina came to Ghent many years ago via several other countries, ditching the big city lights for the towers and rivers of Ghent. She has lived in Vienna, Cantabria (Spain), Maastricht, Luxembourg and Brussels. Now she enjoys creating beautiful design, exploring space and talking to people. She is also on a mission to make Ghent and Belgium more welcoming to expats. You can contact her at nina@thesquare.gent

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