Interview with Àgnes Cseh conducted by Wylder Green of HLFF Communications
First off, congratulations for being one of the recipients of this year’s Klaus Tschira Award. Did this come as a surprise or did you feel your work would eventually be recognized in such a way?
It was a great surprise. Even though I worked really hard on this text, I was aware of the number of applicants each year and I read the previous winners’ entries and I knew of the very high standards.
Are there any examples of how has the award increased awareness of your research in areas or ways you did not expect?
I received the award in October and I got emails from random people from a medicine scientist somewhere in Germany, I got emails from computer scientists in the USA.
You were also selected to attend the 2nd HLF in 2014. How did your expectations match up to your experience?
Actually, my experience was overwhelming. I applied to the Forum because I thought it was a nice idea but I actually did not expect so much personal contact with the laureates. Since we all applied to mingle with them and to talk with them, I think it takes, at most, a day to realize that the idea of this (HLF) is to mingle.
What do you feel was the most valuable aspect/aspects that you were able to take with you?
They (laureates) gave us different advice, but there was one that appeared in almost everyone’s advice, which was to follow your passion. They also didn’t know that they were doing the big things, they were just doing the most interesting topics they found. By choosing their research topic with passion, they actually grabbed at the most important things.
In the past few years, do you feel that you are having similar experiences where you are following your passion?
I’m moving in the direction of following passion at the moment. If you get the one-year postdoc contract, which is very usual in our area, it is very hard to follow your passion because the circumstances don’t allow it.
Do you think your situation is an exception to the rule?
I think so, yes. The younger they are, the bigger the pressure is on their shoulders. I don’t think they have the chance to follow their passion. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, because academia knows what topics are most important.
Who were you looking most forward to meeting and why?
I was looking forward to meeting Stephen Cook, he won the Turing Award in ’82, because my daily work is based on his findings. He’s just a celebrity for me personally, it’s that simple. (His) first paper was accepted and then he was like, “Yeah, I can just put some extra details in it,” and this was actually the most important detail. He had no clue it was so important back then, which was amazing to hear.
What was something unexpected that you took away from fellow participants?
I was shocked by the fairness of styles, I was still PhD student, even though I attended many conferences I had never seen such a colorful crowd. It was just so many people united under the glory of science.
What would your most valuable piece of advice be for future participants of the HLF?
I think it’s very useful that they check out the background and the work of the invited laureates, even the work of the ones that are not closely related to their own research and prepare some questions.
Where are sights set for the future of your research or do you have specific targets looking ahead?
We are hiring two students who are young and very talented. We give them a task at the beginning with larger scopes and we hope to do something international. At the moment, we are starting at the local level. It’s nice to see that they want to get involved in this applied project. We are working with public schools and we design something to program something for them.
Did your research area find you, did you actively and clearly seek it out or was it a combination of both?
It was mostly an accident, so I had a very good and very strict lecturer in my bachelors, and I had no clue what his topic was, but I knew I wanted to work with him. He was patient and he was strict with me but he got me going on this research, which was a very hard task to get someone to direct a first result. So, finding it was more or less an accident, but sticking to it because I saw potential in it.
In which way is science communication most important to you personally?
I think I prefer personal communication, if possible. Of course you cannot reach a big crowd with lectures, but you can still go to schools, talk to kids, I like such projects. It’s also very rewarding if you go there to place where there are some people who don’t know anything about math and in 45 minutes they actually feel like, “Wow, math is not as scary as I thought,” that’s a rewarding experience for also myself.
Did lecturing come naturally to you?
I think I found that the magic spell was I had to focus on what I wanted to say. I did not focus on the people at the beginning, I focused on the research and I still wanted to support my own research. It’s not something you cannot learn. It definitely needs practice.
Was there a moment when you realized that your lectures were improving and that you were more comfortable?
Yeah, the first time I won a science slam was pretty much a sign that I can do it well. Once you have the recognition, then you have self-confidence and from that point on you’re good. Well, I hope I am.