While growing up in Hungary I have always felt extremely close to science. This was certainly a feeling that my father, a teacher in biology, engineer, and museologue (museum curator), and my mother, herself a teacher in mathematics, have greatly contributed to. Still I am convinced that, in addition to personal drives, fate plays a major role in the development of a scientific career, a bit like in natural evolution. For example, by a complete stroke of luck, at 10 years of age I found myself in a school that specialised in French. I can remember that at the time I wasn't too keen on this particularity, but it turned out that French would very rapidly become a major asset in my scientific career.
I started my studies in biology, at the University of Szeged (in southeast Hungary), and by 1989 I had a master's degree under my belt. Having specialised in biological anthropology, I decided to go for a PhD at the department of anthropology at the same university. This was the first situation where being able to speak French proved very useful to me. In order to make real future progress on my research project, the study of the osteo-articular traces of pathologies on ancient human remains, I needed to find somebody willing to cooperate who would be an expert in both rheumatology and biological anthropology.
Hungary is simply too small a country to find this rare breed of researchers. I turned to foreign countries, and in particular to French-speaking ones. It was finally in France, more precisely in Marseille, that I found Olivier Dutour, a rheumatologist-paleoanthropologist (at the time a researcher at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique and currently a professor at the Faculty of Medicine in Marseille) who accepted to co-supervise my thesis with my Hungarian supervisor, while I worked both at the University of Provence in Aix-en-Provence and the University of Szeged.
I gained my doctorate in 1993, and I continued working for my French supervisor in his (then) new department at Marseille University while keeping involved with my department in Hungary. I owe a lot to this collaboration which has been very fruitful to my own scientific career as well as his. In addition to my research activities, I was also able to gain experience in teaching students, in particular PhDs, within the universities of both Szeged and Marseille.
During the years that followed, between 1996 and 2000, I threw myself into a battle that aimed to make the scientific community recognise the field of paleo-epidemiology (our discipline was then only emerging), to organise international collaborations, and obtain funding. This was how without realising it, I was already preparing myself for what would become my next career step, the one of a scientific diplomat. To illustrate the very useful skills I gained over this period, I will pick out one example of the activities that I was involved in. It was the international symposium on the evolution of tuberculosis that we organised in Hungary in 1997, in a French-Hungarian collaboration. In order to succeed in this project, we had to prepare an international agreement to be signed by three different universities, bring together experts coming from six different scientific fields and many more countries, as well as engaging many politicians, diplomats, and even the president of Hungary. ... I certainly learnt a lot from the experience!
Then, in 2000, another stroke of fate had unfortunately a less positive impact on my research career: For family reasons I was unable to carry on with my activities as a lecturer in Marseille and had to come back to Hungary. After 6 months of looking for a job without any success (each time I was considered to be "overqualified"), I listened to the advice of my wife and sent my CV and an e-mail to the Hungarian minister of education at the time. And this was how, in Spring 2001, I found myself in Budapest as scientific adviser to the department for university research of the Education Ministry, as well as holding a part-time research position at the department of anthropology in the Hungarian Museum of Natural History.
These two positions allowed me to take my scientific career further while getting more familiar with the way governmental administration works. However, what was most important to me at the time was that I also started to work on an international project. One that is close to my heart--the creation of a "World Academy of Young Scientists" (the WAYS Web site will soon be available at www.waysnet.org) in collaboration with Marta Maczel, a brilliant and dedicated Hungarian scientist I got to teach when she was a PhD student in Marseille (for more information on WAYS, read the article that Marta had written herself).
My career took another new turn in 2002 when I was offered the position of scientific attaché for the Hungarian Embassy in Paris, for a duration of 4 years. This success was worth the very stressful application procedure that I endured. The selection of candidates was done through six rounds of examination (which took 3 months) and managed by two different organisations (in the Hungarian system, these positions are supervised both by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the National Office for Research and Technology). In addition to our knowledge of the scientific research carried out both in our home and host country, our knowledge of foreign languages, diplomacy, and administration were also tested. Of course the experiences I had accumulated all along the 12 previous years helped me tremendously to get this position.
It has been almost 2 years now that I am working as an attaché for science and technology, and this job turned out to be even more interesting than what I was expecting. It is far from being limited to the more classical remit of a science attaché, that is, the promotion of bilateral scientific collaborations. However, I am indeed involved in projects such as the organisation of visits within France from major players in research, science administration, and policy in Hungary, and even the representation of Hungarian research abroad. But it is also my responsibility to promote interactions between the public and private sectors, innovative partnerships, and thus contribute to the establishment of the European Research Area.
To give you an example of these activities, I'm going to tell you about our latest French-Hungarian project. Following our advice, the French president and the Hungarian prime minister have recently proposed the creation of a French-Hungarian centre in biotechnology and I am currently looking for partners in this ambitious project.
According to a Hungarian saying, "it is difficult to ride several horses at once." (Let's not forget that the Magyars are an ancient nation of horse riders.) I am surely not doubting how much truth lies in this ancient wisdom, as I can see how difficult it is for me to take on new activities while trying to pursue the existing ones. Still, I would say that this is not impossible--you only have to know how to give yourself limits and learn to respect them. For example, at present my research activities are limited to weekends and holidays. As deputy president of the Association of French-speaking Paleopathologists (GPLF), I also contribute to the organisation of scientific events in our discipline. And even though my work as a diplomat has considerably slowed down my scientific research, this position greatly helps me to continue to support the development of WAYS--thanks to my contacts and also to the presence of numerous organisations such as UNESCO, the International Council for Science, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.
I am not sure what direction I will take in 2006 when my current diplomatic mission will come to an end. But one thing is sure: When one has a passion for science, it never leaves you. ? And the ways you can drench this thirst are numerous: You can be a researcher, a diplomat, and even something between the two.