Judit Szulágyi – Scientist

You’re a successful scientist. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am an astrophysicist in Zurich, working on trying to understand how planets are formed, and how life came to be. I started my undergraduate studies in physics back in Hungary, then I did a Master in astronomy, then a PhD in astrophysics in France. Between my undergrad and graduate studies I was working for NASA for a year in Baltimore. Since my PhD I work in Zurich at various universities. I am managing a research grant/project on trying to understand planet- and satellite formation.

What or who motivated and inspired you to join the world of science?

Since I was a small child I was interested in sciences, but for a long time I did not know which one I prefer the most. When I was 13-14 years old, I started watching Star Trek Voyager, which led me to start learning about astronomy and astrophysics. I fell in love with the topic quickly, and decided to become a professional astronomer. I didn’t regret that decision ever since. I am still as passionate about it as I was a teenager. I think everybody should find their job which they are passionate about, because this is a one of the keys for happiness and for a fulfilled life. If I didn’t have chosen astronomy, probably today I would work in genetics, I find that also a super interesting science!

Who would and maybe still is the biggest influencer and supporter of your career?

I don’t think I have one. Nevertheless, in general for young people it is good to have role models, people who are like them and got successful in what they are doing.

What are the biggest obstacles women in science have to face ?

In general women have to face several problems: they are often told science is not for women or that they don’t have as good brains to do this job. They are minorities in most of the cases, hence they have to face all kinds of minority-related issues, e.g. they feel that they do not belong there or they sometimes experience sexism. There are cases of sexual harassment and -abuse as well, the newspapers has covered many of such cases. Then of course, there is bullying, which is not only targeting women, but any young researcher/student regardless their gender. I also see in my environment that women often have difficulty to balance their personal life (e.g. when to have children, whether to have children at all) versus their career. These are the things I see most often in my environment and I think these are the main reasons why there are fewer women in science than men.

What are your aspiration for the future?

I would like to get a permanent position as a researcher/professor and have my own group. Many people do not know, but in Academia, the contracts are short-term ones, usually 2 to 4 years even after you have a PhD. You are expected to move to a different country after these 2-4 year-long positions and start your life over again. I am 30 years old and I have lived in 4 different countries so far. It was super-exciting and I loved to discover different cultures and places, but for the future I would like settle for some time in one country and get a permanent contract to be able to plan my life beyond only the next 2 years. Having a group is also a very motivating goal, since with more people you can carry out more research projects, and I have a lot of ideas I would like to do.

When did you know you wanted to build your career in science?

I was 13-14 years old when I decided about astronomy, but few years earlier I already was thinking of doing something science-related as an adult. I never thought about doing anything else ever since I was 14.

You were working on some rather impressing projects. Was there a project/research you have enjoyed the most, if so why and what was your research about .

Well, I don’t have a favorite, always the newest one is the most exciting, since I am working right now on that problem! 🙂 In general, I would like to understand how planets are forming, how the Solar System came to be, how other planetary systems form. At the end of the day, for life to flourish – as we understand today – planets are needed, so I believe they are the first steps to comprehend how life began here and whether life could exist elsewhere.

You are studying/working abroad. Would you say the science programs at Hungary are well structured? Meaning, students have access to the newest technologies, research papers, support from their professors.

The answer is unfortunately “no”, and I wish I had the chance to study abroad much earlier than I had the opportunity. I only got out of Hungary after my Masters, when I did my PhD in France. In Hungary the professors doing enormous effort trying to teach from the little resources they have. They are doing amazing job and I fully respect them for that. But the lack of resources are big limitations. For example, I remember not be able to access research papers from the university because the university did not have the money for the subscription for some of the main scientific journals, and that we did not have access to super-computers. In fact, the research-work I do today wouldn’t be possible to carry out in Hungary due to the lack of sufficient technology, they do not have big enough super-computers. I also remember how much we were overwhelmed by enormous amount of courses at the university, we had 30 hours per week, which is more than the double than what students in France, Switzerland or in the US have to do. This also leaves less time to do research work next the studies, which is almost a requirement to get into a good PhD school later on.

On that note, if you could change something about the education in Hungary, what would it be?

Have less, but deeper courses, like everywhere else in the West. Less courses would allow students to dig deeper and to study for the longer run. In Hungary we had 15 exams over the 1.5 months of examination period at the university, which meant that we had 2-3 days to study a whole semester of material for an exam, then study again 2-3 days for the next one, and so on. This meant that we just memorized things into the short-term memory and then quickly forgot everything. Here in Switzerland for example, students have approx. 4 courses per semester, this means they have time to read the material and study during the semester and to do the homework assignments, allowing them to study with their long term memory. I followed one such course in the US, and I remember that course material much more than any of what I studied in Hungary. Simply because the course was deeper, the professor did not have to hurry to finish the material that he supposed to, and I had time to do the homeworks and to read-up about the subject during the semester. I wish Hungarian universities would implement the western system of higher education.

Do you think there is enough girls studying science nowadays in Hungary? Do you think the number of girls and women deciding to study sciences, is getting higher?

I don’t really know about the situation in Hungary nowadays, I left 6-7 years ago. In my time, biology was full of women, while physics was less than 5% women. When I got into astronomy master program, then the majority were women, so it seems to depend on the subject very much. I think more gender-balance would be beneficial everywhere.

If you could inspire one girl or woman today to follow her professional aspirations, what would be your advice to her?

Never believe when somebody tells you that you are incapable of doing this job, or you are just not smart enough. At the end of the day this is your dream, you should never let other people making you to give up your dream!

Do you think,more girls and women should study science?

Definitely yes. Unfortunately, women are often still discouraged to study science, because their environment (e.g. teachers, parents, peers) are not supportive, they say that science is not for girls, or that women are not as smart as men are. Of course none of this is true, and as women tend to have less self-confidence than men do, they often think they are not up for the scale, when in fact they are. We need to change the society, and stop discouraging young people (regardless their gender by-the-way) saying they cannot do something. Positive feedback almost always helps, while negative ones do not.