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Academic Life Issue 19 PhD Presenting Alumni

Éva Bényei: “Doing research is 99% failure, but that is part of the game”

🕒 36 min

This month’s issue brings us an interview with alumna Éva Bernadett Bényei, a medical doctor from Hungary and current PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Éva was a participant at S3++ 2013 and since then, she has already proven herself to be one of the most inspiring people most of us will ever get the chance to meet, as well as a very promising scientist.

The first question is always the hardest, and rarely anyone knows exactly how to answer, but – if you had to introduce yourself to someone new, to someone who knows nothing about you, what would you say?

Éva Bernadett Bényei, MD
Researcher PhD Student, Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

S3++ 2013 participant

I think these introductions are very, very important, so it is best to practice them, but I still rethink what to say every time. I am a trained medical doctor, so I finished medical school, and I started my PhD immediately after that. This possibly says a lot about me, first and foremost that I am interested in science and in doing research, although I am also interested in the human body, what can go wrong with it and how to prevent that. This is a bit funny because, among the medics and doctors, I have always been the researcher. Among the researchers, I have always been the doctor. That is a very weird role but also one I enjoy because I can bridge these two areas, which are not that far apart, but they are, in a sense, opposite ends of a spectrum, so it can be difficult to know the other side as well. And besides, I hate being bored, so I love doing anything: volunteering, society work, organizing, and managing teams. These things really build up my personality and I just do them because I enjoy them.

You have already mentioned a lot of things I am hoping we can touch upon a bit later on, but for now, let’s move a bit more chronologically. The question that immediately follows after an introduction like this is: what were you like as a kid? Were you always this versatile?

I can’t quite tell how my parents or grandparents would describe me. I really enjoyed my childhood, so from my point of view, it was mostly about playing and doing what I wanted to do. Except maybe sometimes going to sleep in the afternoon while in kindergarten, which I preferred to avoid. I would always chat with others while we were supposed to be sleeping, so I must have been a treat to take care of. Anyway, I was a very competitive child. I was the younger child in our family. I have an older brother, whom I love, but I always used to compete with him. It was all a bit of fun, of course, like in board games or who is in charge of the remote control. I learned a lot from him as well. There are four years between us, so he was quite a bit ahead of me in the school system and general life. I always wanted to do whatever he was doing. So when he started school and was learning how to read and write and everything that goes along with that, I also wanted to learn those things, however young I was. Somehow, I grabbed one of those children’s magazines (which are the best in my opinion), and it had a comic in it about a yellow bear. I couldn’t read, so I didn’t understand the formal definition of words or letters, but I realized that there was some structure to them. And so I decided to count similar shapes within a sentence and tried to build meaning from that. I suppose you could say I started my scientific life with some statistical analysis. I don’t really remember the results, to be fair, I likely gave up at some point and went to play with something else which seemed more interesting at the time.

I was definitely the very curious type, and the type that would go after something I had set my mind on until I achieved it, one way or another. I was really this ever-moving kind of kid. This is probably why my parents used to take me to several extracurriculars, from ballet to anything that just happened to capture my interest because, well, I just enjoyed doing many things and I was always full of energy.

You said you tried a lot of after-school activities. Did you start doing a bunch and eventually phase out most, or are you the type of person who perpetually does everything?

I think I’m kind of in between these two. One of the first activities I started back in my kindergarten years was ballet. We had several family friends whose kids my age danced and I really liked the idea of it. All of the things I have and will mention here could not be possible without my parents, of course, or rather without their willingness to bring me everywhere I wanted. I went through two different ballet teachers and then decided I wanted something else instead. There were other sports I took up in kindergarten instead, but then in school, I had a classmate who played piano. Of course, I immediately thought that it was a nice idea to play the piano. In the meantime, I started swimming and volleyball, and so on – my poor parents really spent so much time just transporting me (and my brother) from one activity to another during the afternoons. I soon switched to figure skating, which I really enjoyed. Basically, the first six or so years of schooling were filled with truly varied activities for me.

Education

Did you keep up that busy lifestyle in later schooling? How did your interests develop over time?

I started to move much more towards the scientific side of the spectrum of interests. I started going to extracurricular math classes very early on. If you ever went to something like this, you would know that those kinds of problems are less so about equations and more about logic, finding ways to prove something, or simply thinking about the best ways of finding an answer. I thoroughly enjoyed those for as long as I took them. I changed schools after my sixth year because, while the school system in Hungary is mostly something like eight plus four years, there is another version of the system, which splits your primary and secondary school years evenly, six plus six. I really enjoyed the secondary school I joined, we had a lot of other activities. Namely, my biology teacher organized an after-school class for anyone from school with an interest in science, no matter their age. With my present knowledge, I can say that it was partially a journal club, partially a tutoring team – everything that matters a lot in science. After I realized that I could do research as well, most of my time and after-class activities went in this direction.

  • High school: 2008 – 2014, Kossuth Lajos Secondary Grammar School, Debrecen, Hungary
  • Medical degree: 2014 – 2020, Faculty of Medicine, Semmelweis University, Budapest, Hungary
  • Internship: 2014, Study Trip in Neurobiology, Centre Médicale Universitaire; Départements de Neurosciences Fondamentales, Geneva, Switzerland
  • Internship: 2018, Professional Exchange in Surgery, Hospital Universitario Central de Asturias, Oviedo, Spain
  • Current: 2020 – present, Researcher PhD Student, Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

It sounds like you were the almost stereotypically curious kid who ends up being a scientist. The trouble with curious kids, though, is that they usually want to know everything about everything. You eventually had to choose (more or less) one path to pursue. How did you choose?

This answer is a bit tricky for me because, well, I technically never chose just one! It is true that I always wanted to do everything, even the things you might not expect. I have a very short history with history competitions and an even shorter history with grammar competitions. Some things, you just try and realize they are not really for you. In any case, I think the first part of the story is that I tried a lot of things and simply continued on those pathways that were more suitable for me, those that I enjoyed the most, and those I was at least not terrible at. This is how I narrowed the whole picture down to science, specifically life sciences and research.

To be fair, I didn’t totally eliminate everything else. For example, I had a lovely literature teacher in high school and fell in love with reading. I chose to maintain that, even though I was very much steering myself towards life science in terms of professional interest, simply because I noticed that those sorts of topics were the most intriguing to me and gave rise to the most questions in my mind. I swerved towards physics at one point, then math, but now I actually realize that these fields are not that far from each other. You need all of them to carry out a modern research project, which is very good in my opinion, and is also why I didn’t feel like I was limiting myself.

Of course, I had to make some kind of decision at the end of high school. I was very interested in the human body, diseases, and cures, and I always really enjoyed helping people – not necessarily with physical ailments, but also with knowledge or anything, really – so I decided to go to med school. Part of that decision, alongside a genuine interest, was the knowledge that I could pretty much do anything later, as a medical doctor. Med school is an opportunity to learn a lot about the human body, but also just to learn. In my opinion, the diploma you get after finishing med school is proof that you can learn anything and everything.

How did you end up choosing a career in research instead of practicing medicine?

When I first got to med school, I wanted to be a researcher. I changed that direction several times between then and graduating. I wanted to be a gynecologist at some point, an ophthalmologist at another, then an infectologist. Finally, I came back to doing research. I started doing (rather easy) projects during my high school years and geared myself up for more serious work. I also worked on some in parallel with my medical studies. I had very varied projects in topics I was interested in. One of my first very successful ones was in microbiology. I moved around a bit and explored other subjects too, but it all eventually led to microbiology. This is really how I ended up doing a PhD. I am, on paper, currently at the biochemistry department at the University of Cambridge, but my project is closely connected to both the medical world and the world of microbiology, as I’m studying pneumonia-causing bacteria. Yet again, my decision-making process involved a lot of trial and error and excluding those things that did not interest me as much in the long term. There have been many “history competitions” in my life, things I enjoyed trying but ultimately didn’t pursue. I believe that’s why I can say that I’m really happy with what I’m doing now because I don’t feel like I didn’t get to try something I wanted.

How did you test whether something like gynecology would be a good fit? Did you actively try it out or did that interest just come and pass?

Technically both. I had a mentor back in my high school years who, at the end of high school, told me that from then on I would have time for whatever I dedicated time to. I think this is a very true statement in the sense that you can find time for everything. Of course, everything comes with a price too. So, perhaps if you want to seriously try something to guide your professional life, you will have less time for social or leisure activities. I personally like detailed time management. I have a list of things that need to be done by the end of the day or the end of the week, and I find that allows me to keep the very important balance of life to work in check.

During med school, when I had an idea I wanted to try, I just did, and I included that in my schedule. In terms of the method, it varied. Sometimes I started a project based around the topic in question if it was broad enough. For example, I was very interested in neuroscience and so I found a mentor and did research on it for three years. I was working with neural stem cells and studying how they can connect to different surfaces. This could inform the decision of which material to use for electrodes that you put into the central nervous system. It was an incredibly interesting project, but after the three years passed, I realized that I liked it but didn’t want to do it for much longer. So, yet again, I would try something, draw my conclusions, and move on to the next project.

When it came to something like gynecology, which I didn’t know much about, I would search PubMed for articles about relevant research. I realized I found the past year’s worth of research mostly uninteresting. Of course, sometimes you don’t understand everything that’s going on, but even without that specialized knowledge, I could tell it was not for me. On the other hand, I was pretty sure I wanted to go on with infectology or microbiology at some point, from the get-go. During my fourth year of med school, I took infectology as an elective. Several friends of mine and I originally chose it because it was widely known that the exam was kind of easy and the class wasn’t very time-intensive – and as a student, those are also parameters you take into consideration. The first lecture was an hour and a half long and the presentation the lecturer used wasn’t anything amazing. When we came out of the lecture hall, my friends were going on about how boring it was, and I was so excited about what we’d done. That was surprising because I’m usually sensitive to “dry” presentations or long lectures. This lecture being so interesting to me was a definite sign that I could get more out of that field, so I – and you should know what’s coming already – started a project on it.

You have obviously done a lot of projects even before doing your PhD. Are there any you would like to point out as especially interesting, or maybe particularly important for your personal development?

I think I would have to say all of them were important for me in one way or another. Some were more successful in terms of the results than others (as everyone who’s ever done research would come to expect). I would like to highlight a very nice project that wasn’t really wet lab-based. It wasn’t even based on clinical data. We studied digital health and how the 21st century shaped it into somewhat of a phenomenon. It was a rather fortunate thing that the project started the way it did. I was in a talent support program called the Hungarian Templeton Program with three other students and we were signed up to speak with a researcher who was working on that topic, both in Hungary and internationally. We had a very good conversation and so he invited us to work with his group and work on an article about defining digital health, trying to see what the situation was like at the time and to foresee the next big steps. We were obviously happy to join. We worked on it continually over the course of a year and the result was a paper I was quite proud of. I really enjoyed working on it because it was so different from what I was used to, working in a lab. It served the important purpose of reminding me that I shouldn’t forget that I do my work one way, in the lab, but it is sometimes helpful to think about things another way.

Considering you said you were pretty much always interested in doing research, did you always plan on doing a PhD after med school? How did you decide what to look for?

When I was starting med school, I already had this timeline in my head – med school, then a PhD, then at some point in my life stop studying and start working. My father is a chemist, so my family is kind of familiar with the concept of studying until you truly cannot anymore. There was a period of two or three years during med school when I wanted to be a resident instead, but I was still thinking about getting a PhD because my interest in doing science never subsided. Also, I thought a doctorate might open more doors later on in my career, regardless of what I chose to do in the end. This is why I was planning on at least doing it part-time while in residency. However, in my last year of med school, when most of my “studies” were actually practical work, I spent my time working between six different departments. My first was internal medicine and I went to a place I really liked from previous practice work. I spent eight weeks working with people whose company I loved and the work itself was enjoyable, but I couldn’t help but realize that I liked it only for the short term.

So, at the end of this round of practical studies, I decided I would immediately go for a PhD. That was the end of September 2019, which is also when I started looking for places to go. I decided that I might want to leave Hungary, just because a PhD felt like the best opportunity to go abroad. You are young, you basically don’t need any luxuries because you can live alone, and you can probably maintain any serious relationships you may have for the duration of a PhD. I also wanted to test myself abroad, especially my knowledge of English. I think it’s very difficult to really learn a language when you’re at home, and I wanted to challenge myself. It’s worth noting that I’m not that good at learning languages, so that contributed to my wish to pursue complete immersion. Finally, I didn’t want to stay too far from home geographically, so applying to the UK was kind of an obvious choice. I did also apply to programs in Germany, France, and Sweden, though.

I was pretty set on going somewhere that would allow me to work on a project I was fully interested in, so I was searching for keywords I was interested in: microbiology, bacteria, and so on. FindAPhD and these sorts of places are very good for doing this kind of research. You can definitely kill a few hours just collecting links until you have a long list and cannot tell which one is which. I did my searching, several times, and whenever I found a project I was interested in, I contacted the supervisor. After going through all the steps of applying and interviewing and such, I ended up at Cambridge, which is a lovely place. While I was applying, I had the standard thought that I might not get in, but I also knew that I definitely wouldn’t if I didn’t apply at all. I ended up really enjoying the application process, it challenged me a lot. Not that I liked writing essays or answering questions necessarily, but it rather helped me narrow down what I wanted to do the most and what I wanted to achieve with my PhD. I got the offer just before the pandemic and managed to come see the college before accepting. I fell in love with it.

Doing or applying for a PhD can look very different in different places. Can you describe your experience?

I think it’s very important to clear up a few things for people who are thinking about doing a PhD. Mainly, you really need to think about what kind of supervisor or process you would prefer. In my experience, you mostly apply for a topic and the rest comes after. Of course, a three-year time period is not very long, but it’s also more than long enough to change up the project several times, so that is not a worry. Here, I applied for a sort of open project. There were some directions, but they were fairly flexible. I had a bit of an interesting experience with my application, actually. I couldn’t finish my funding application on time. In the UK, you don’t get paid for doing your PhD, but you pay a sort of tuition fee instead. You would typically need some sort of grant to be able to afford that, which is what I couldn’t apply for. I luckily had a previous scholarship from László Sólyom, the former Hungarian president, which meant I came to the UK with only one year of funding for a three or four-year program. That was a bit risky, but I thought that I would try it anyway and, worst-case scenario, potentially give it up after a year. My supervisor was very flexible and helpful in terms of finding the funding, especially considering this was happening during the pandemic. I managed to get a grant in the end, and can luckily say I am an Oliver Gatty PhD student.

This story is a sort of cautionary tale. It’s good to check not only what kind of role you are applying for, but also what its practical implications are. Taking into consideration what kind of financial dependencies you might have, where you’re going to stay, what you’re going to eat – all of that is very important. Cambridge is kind of specific in this sense because you apply to the university as a whole, yes, but then also to a college within the university. It’s a lot like Hogwarts from Harry Potter, but with many more houses. I applied for Churchill College, partially precisely because they provide accommodation for all first-year students, and managed to get a place. It’s good to have somewhere to stay for your first year abroad because organizing lodgings from a distance is extremely hard. It’s almost impossible to say which part of the city you would want to stay in, and even more impossible to come and check out potential apartments or find a roommate. I just came here and a room was waiting for me at the college. I had lovely housemates who all decided to live together with me again. This brings me to another point I consider very important, and that is belonging to at least one cohort during your PhD life. First-year students from the same department, the college, anything. It’s strange, doing a PhD, because you are somewhere between a student and an employee, but still really neither. Student societies are very powerful when finding your footing.

Do you have to attend lectures? Or do you maybe teach?

PhDs at Cambridge are very research-focused. I have to attend a few courses now and then, but it’s nothing like mandatory lectures every semester. Of course, there are some training courses specific to each department, especially for first-year PhD students. For example, I had a term-long course about biochemistry and different techniques used in that field. I also took lectures in R and machine learning. These are basically there to help establish a foundation for any research you may want to do. Also, it’s important to note that Cambridge doesn’t have semesters, it has terms. For postgraduate students, there is no dedicated break between academic years, although we can take annual leave. The lectures take place during term, and they are free to take as long as you have time to take them (and are quick enough to apply).

In terms of teaching, I don’t have to do it, but I could if I wanted to. I could tutor undergrads and earn money that way. I think that’s the best of both worlds, we still have the opportunity to teach, but it’s not mandatory if we don’t have time. I am very interested in teaching, but I don’t do it at the moment because I’m not too familiar with the undergrad system here and it would probably take me too much time to prepare for the lessons. What I do, however, is something that is quite integrated into the UK’s educational system, and that is participation in student societies and associations, for undergrads and postgrads alike. This includes everything from the college itself to industry or field-specific societies. It’s a very colorful palette to choose from, and I would honestly say everyone studying in the UK should join at least two or three of these societies because I think that truly lets you get the most out of your time there. In fact, Cambridge is a very well known university and I think the secret to its success is actually quite easy to explain – it is its community of students and researchers. Societies at Cambridge let you get the most out of its greatest asset, its people.

Considering that last point, are there any internships, side projects or organizations that you have gotten involved with during your time at Cambridge and would like to point out?

When I arrived here, I was acquainted with several people from previous connections, but I wasn’t close with anyone. So I decided that the best way to get to know people would be to organize things for them! In the college, we have this student society which is technically a student union, but within a larger one that encompasses the whole university. This society works with social programs and such. I joined it and ran for the academic officer position. I really enjoyed that experience and I think it’s a great way to start integrating into a new community. I organized talks about research projects, as well as other events after the lockdown eased up. We came together and discussed various given topics while enjoying tea and biscuits. I think this was a great way to spend my time while getting to know people. It’s escalated a little bit since, so I organized a conference in the college recently, but that is clearly beside the point. In the second half of my first year here, I joined some more field-specific societies. For example, I joined the Innovation Forum as a business development associate, because I have an interest in biotechnology and, again, because I had never done anything similar before.

Is there anything you have learned over the course of doing your PhD so far that would change the way you did things, say, back in med school?

In general, doing research is 99% failure, which is sometimes overwhelming to deal with, but I think it’s part of the game. If you are doing research, you should know that most of what you’re doing is just a waste of time. Of course, that is only in terms of the short-term results. Over the long term, this is how we learn and how we find out what the right way to do things is. Normally, it helps to talk to your colleagues about this, but also your family and friends, or even just random people at your university. Sometimes you just have to talk about your concerns, and then they disappear into the background and you continue working. I also like to remind myself of something I already learned from past projects – if something is not working, that is a good opportunity to find something new or something you can improve. There is always a reason why something isn’t working. If it’s you, it’s time to practice. If it’s not you, it may be a totally new thing (in biology, in my case), something you’d never thought about, or maybe even something no one has ever thought about.

Another thing is a lesson from back in med school, actually. I learned a lot there, but I also forgot most of it. Of course, I could recall something if I read a short introduction to the topic and I understand the language, which is the main point. However, what I would definitely do differently if I went back to med school is make more, and better notes for myself. Sometimes you want to save money and time by not making notes, which works in the short term, but makes your life much harder in the long term. I would have a much easier time now if I had a spreadsheet with every disease I ever learned about and the medications and treatments used against it, for example – but I never made one. I tried to build a system or a kind of database for keeping track of the articles I’m reading for my PhD, having learned from that past mistake. References are kind of the most annoying part of doing research, so this helps. I also make notes on the content of each article so I don’t have to reread it every time I come back to it.

And finally, would you be comfortable sharing what your research is currently about?

At the moment I am working with bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. These are rather tricky bacteria because they normally don’t cause problems for healthy people, but they can cause very serious infections for people with underlying conditions such as diabetes, or a very specific one called cystic fibrosis (or CF). Some people may know about CF from movies nowadays, but in brief, it is a genetic condition that results in a buildup of mucus in several places, including –  most interestingly for my research – the lungs. Mucus usually helps keep the lung open and the conditions inside stable, but in the case of CF, this mucus is much thicker, which makes it a great breeding ground for bacteria. Cystic fibrosis patients can thus get very serious bacterial pneumonia, and one of the main causes is Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Some infections can be treated with antibiotics, but at some point, the body can become too weak, or the bacteria too strong, for that treatment to work. Pseudomonas aeruginosa can even become resistant to antibiotics during the two-week-long treatment course, which is a serious problem. So much so that a certain percentage of people who die with cystic fibrosis die due to an exacerbation of this kind of lung infection, even though we have medication to help treat CF itself. The WHO categorizes it as a priority pathogen, against which urgent new treatments are needed. What I’m doing at the moment is studying how it communicates with other microbes (bacteria and some fungi). From primary results, it seems that, somehow, sharing the niche – so, the lung – with other microorganisms helps keep it safe from antibiotics, and we don’t know how. I’m trying to find out how they communicate and what they say to each other.

Summer School of Science

Thank you for sharing so much with us. Even though you are a very interesting person, now is the time to discuss the Summer School of Science. As is always the case, I would like to know: how did you find out about S3 and what made you decide to attend?

I mentioned the biology after-school class earlier. As I said, students of all ages attended this class, so there were several people senior to me who kind of served as my role models. I could get inspired by what they were doing – the competitions they would attend, nationally and internationally, camps, and so on. Two or three people from that class had been to the Summer School of Science, in different years and levels (S3/S3++). That put the idea in my mind, the only question was that of getting the money to pay the fee. I applied for a grant in Hungary, a sort of award for the scientific talent of the year, and I won. I got some money with it and I spent all of it on the camp. Whether I wanted to apply wasn’t the question at all, it was just about figuring out the technical aspects. So basically, I “cheated” and happily copied the people who went before me.

Can you tell us what you remember from your project?

When I got the email saying my application was accepted, I was very happy and I immediately went to check out the projects more carefully. I was looking for a genetics-based project because I was working on similar topics at the time. When I actually got there and heard the project leaders’ presentations of their respective projects, I changed my mind because I realized the genetics project was based on something I would probably get to do at some later point. I wanted something more challenging, so I chose a bioinformatics project. It was led by Lucija Klaric and focused on data mining for potential diabetes biomarkers.

It turned out to be a very interesting project. I believe she was working at a pharmaceutical company at the time, which is where we got the data we analyzed. Of course, the company had already done its own analysis, but the project was less so about the results and much more so about the technique. She taught us about R, programming, and how to approach problems in bioinformatics. I must say that I used the skills I learned in those ten days for several years. In fact, when I started my PhD and realized that I would need to do some programming eventually, I took the course in R I already mentioned, but I also used what I’d learned at the Summer School, as well as the notes, which were clearly not my own but provided by the lovely project leader.

We also had some fun during the project. We went around and measured people’s blood glucose levels, then gave them chocolate and measured again a few hours later. That was probably my fondest memory from the actual project and a great way to connect a bit with everyone from the camp. Of course, we also got data to analyze and learn from.

You mentioned you used the skills you learned at S3 way after the camp ended. Did the School affect your academic or professional life in any other ways?

Yes, definitely. This was my first international experience. I was very afraid, actually, because I wasn’t sure how well I could speak English or whether I would be able to express what I wanted to say. It meant a lot to me that everyone was very kind and open. None of us were native English speakers, but we still understood each other and that felt really comforting. I realized that some people speaking different languages could still understand each other – which was very funny to me because we just don’t experience that with Hungarian – but people would still speak English even if there was only one person in the group who couldn’t speak one of the languages the others understood. I think the whole experience just provided us with a good base for working in an international environment, which is perfect for science, where everything is very international.

I know people’s fondest memories from S3 tend to be completely unrelated to the projects, but rather the experience as a whole. Would you agree? Are there any anecdotes you would like to share?

I think the whole experience was super memorable. When I think back on it, I recall several details. Say, the trip we went on together, where we went to the nearby nature park, or the fact that someone knew more about the park than our actual guide. Then there were those free afternoons after project work when we went to a playground and just spent time together. I remember when the organizing team made pancakes for us one day. I don’t want to highlight any particular experience because the whole camp would deserve to be part of the highlight reel. Ten days might seem like a long time, but it really went by in a flash.

Are there any things you would point out as S3’s biggest strengths? Or perhaps its weaknesses?

I really liked that it was organized by young people, for young people. I think it was a less formal atmosphere than these camps can sometimes be and I find that to be one of the Summer School’s biggest strong points. All the free time activities were great as well, so the work didn’t feel overwhelming. I’m also really glad that the reunions were organized online these past two years because I always wanted to join, but it was never easy for us international alumni. It was so good to meet with people from the camp last year and see that all of us still had memories from the camp. I enjoyed everything a lot, just as it was. Of course, not everything is perfect, but it need not be. Something will go wrong at every event, but the way the people at S3 resolved those issues was very professional and cool.

Considering you seem to have had quite a positive experience at S3, would you be interested in coming back in a different role at some point?

Yes, definitely! I really enjoy sharing my love for science. It’s really only a question of time and, currently, the COVID situation. If I went back to give a lecture, I would definitely ask the organizers whether we could make some sort of soft skill workshop. There are so many things I’ve learned over the past few years that would be immensely useful to the participants. As far as I remember, we had something of the sort when I was at the camp, and I know we had to make a presentation for our project, so it would be quite fitting.

Now, to (unfortunately) end this wonderful interview, let’s come back to you as a person. We all know by now that you’ve tried and done many things. What are the interests that stuck? What do you like to do in your limited free time?

I always found it very important to maintain friendships. I love getting to know new people, but it is incredibly important to keep in touch with those close to me. Not necessarily on an everyday basis, but a regular one for sure. So, I spend a lot of my free time with my friends, online or in person. I find it helps me to recharge. Of course, COVID has made all of this very strange. There is another thing, one I consider my guilty pleasure. I really like watching movies and series, nowadays mostly movies because they are a lesser time commitment. In any case, a good Sunday movie is unbeatable, even if it’s just another rom-com with exactly the same story as the previous three. It’s great, watching movies like that on a Sunday evening and just not doing anything with your brain for once. I would like to bring tennis back into my life too. I learned it way, way back at a different camp, so I want to revisit it sometime. Considering I’m in Cambridge now, I also plan to take advantage of being in the UK once COVID dies down a bit more. I would love to visit London, or to go up north – just to experience Britain.

What do you think the future holds for you? Think about the next five years, what would you like to achieve? Are there any goalposts you’d like to hit besides the ones you mentioned, like traveling?

Well, five years from now I will hopefully have finished my PhD! Besides that, it’s a very good question. I have my ideas, and they’re mostly about trying more things. At the moment, I’m trying to figure out which direction I would like to go in with my work – industry, pharma, life science and so on. I will try and experiment with each of these directions. I imagine I will spend most of the next five years in the UK, finishing my PhD, but also a bit after that. Of course, this depends on many factors, but that is the rough plan. I am very lucky to have a partner who supports me in discovering myself too, so I can say nothing but – we shall see.

And finally, if you had to search your brain for the most important advice you could give someone who hasn’t had your life’s experiences, what would come up?

I have two things in my mind, two very different things. One of them is something I used to be very anxious about, especially in my high school years. It is not the end of the world when you fail. When something doesn’t work out, when you make a mistake, when you do something wrong – life is not about avoiding mistakes, it’s about standing up from them. It took me a lot of time, maybe more than it should have, to learn this. I try to avoid potential mistakes, don’t get me wrong, but when something doesn’t go to plan, I try to resolve the situation instead of dwelling on the mistake itself. You can’t keep being afraid that something might happen. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes because, well, you will make many. Everyone will.

The other thing is something I tend to forget, which is to appreciate people who are in your life. The same mentor who taught me that you have time for those things you dedicate time for taught me this as well, in a different context. Your time is the only thing you can’t get back from anyone. You can get back money or possessions, but not time. So, everyone who grants you their time is to be treasured. Appreciate that time, and use it well. You need a core community of people you can trust and always come back to in your life.

A big, big thank-you to Éva for granting us some of her very precious time. If you are curious about applying to Cambridge (or something else we discussed), feel free to contact Éva on LinkedIn or let us know so we can get you in touch with her via email.

By Laura Busak

Laura is a physics student with a love for all things cosmic. She enjoys making and listening to music, reading books that make her think, and generally doing whatever random things she thinks of, often until 2 am.

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