Testimony of a Young Christian Scientist

In some ways, Imre Miklós Szilágyi is not a typical early-career scientist. One thing that makes him atypical is a rich portfolio of early accomplishments. Last November, when he was still in the final year of his Ph.D., the rectors of Hungary’s universities ranked him the brightest under-30 scientist in the country. He is “far ahead of the average student or young researcher of his age in motivation and systematic work,” writes György Pokol, one of Szilágyi’s two Ph.D. supervisors, in an e-mail to Science Careers.

Another characteristic that sets Szilágyi apart from most other scientists is that he is motivated to do well in science by a desire “to bring glory to God’s name.” This religious faith “has given me the ambition to achieve more and more in all fields of life, including science.” This faith-based ambition has spurred Szilágyi to develop some worldly, savvy approaches to his scientific career. Szilágyi’s particular blend of science and faith makes him not just an interesting scientist but also an interesting example of how faith and science can coexist.

Imre Szilágyi sees his religious faith and his research efforts as two complementary aspects of his life.

A scientific career in the making

Szilágyi started studying chemical engineering in a 5-year master’s-degree program at Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME). In his 3rd year, he received a scholarship from General Electric, which allowed him to work under the supervision of György Pokol and János Madarász in his university’s Department of Inorganic and Analytical Chemistry. The project’s goal was to improve tungsten production processes for light sources. “Doped tungsten production is … quite an old technology, and dozens of scientists have studied it,” he says. “However, we managed to explain several previously not well understood reactions and features.”

He earned his M.Sc. degree in chemical engineering, with honors, in 2004, then went on to do a Ph.D. at the University of Szeged, focusing on the preparation of tungsten oxide nanosystems using colloid chemistry. Soon, family issues intervened and he was forced to return to Budapest, where he continued work with his two undergrad advisers, broadening his earlier research to include new applications. In 2007, he won a 2-year research-fellow position within István Hargittai’s Materials Structure and Modeling Research Group of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences at BME, which has allowed him to continue his doctoral work without worrying about funding. He submitted his Ph.D. thesis just last month.

Szilágyi didn’t stick to research during his Ph.D. He also engaged in education and service work, helping to develop a new analytical chemistry curriculum for M.Sc. students and running the department’s scanning electron microscope. He also collaborated extensively with industry. These industry experiences enriched his C.V., taught him some new career skills–“and meant also some extra money, which I can use for research purposes … or as extra salary,” he says.

Today, he counts 11 peer-reviewed publications, with four more in the pipeline, and acts as referee for four specialty journals. Last year, he received both the top Hungarian Scopus award and the Perkin Elmer–International Confederation for Thermal Analysis and Calorimetry Young Scientist Award. “His career so far has developed in a near-ideal way,” Hargittai writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. “He will next need to go abroad and gain research experience in an entirely different environment–and he has plans for doing exactly that.” Szilágyi will spend the next couple of years working on complex nanostructures using atomic layer deposition at the University of Helsinki with a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship from the European Commission. His wife, a musician, will accompany him.

Divine inspiration

Imre Szilágyi with his wife on the Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photos courtesy of Imre Szilágyi)

When asked what makes him such a successful young scientist, Szilágyi puts “the blessing of God as the first and most important key of success” for him. But Szilágyi has never waited for miracles to happen. Instead, he has taken a very savvy approach to developing his career. “I am very active and proactive in managing my career,” Szilágyi says, always planning one or two steps ahead. As an undergraduate, Szilágyi made sure he obtained the university grades, research publications, student conference prizes, and fluency in foreign languages he knew he needed to enter grad school and win several prestigious scholarships and awards. While matriculating for his Ph.D., he complemented the research publications on his C.V. with a book chapter, five conference proceedings articles, and 32 conference presentations so that he could find a good postdoc. And already he is planning to write grant proposals while in Helsinki. “The goal is that I should have funding immediately after finishing this fellowship so that I could start my own research group” at BME, Szilágyi says.

Szilágyi uses the same kind of strategy–deciding first where he wants to be and then figuring out how to get there–to publish his research. “If I notice an interesting feature on a measurements curve, or if I find an interesting problem in the literature, I imagine what kind of paper I could make out of it. I determine where I should publish it. These all determine the experiments that are needed to characterize properly the materials, the phenomenon … for a certain level of journal,” he says. Only then does he start working on the actual experiments. “As a result, usually the majority of my measurements will be published.”

He also has a knack for entering useful collaborations. “I always scan the abstract book of the conferences and search any possible option for future cooperation: Does somebody work with the same material, the same application, the same equipment? If yes, then we can compare our material, which is good for one paper. We can do our measurements on each other’s material, which can result in another paper.” In his own words, Szilágyi’s always trying to yield the “largest effect with the least invested energy.”

Where science and religion don’t meet

Szilágyi sees his religious faith and his research efforts as two complementary aspects of his life. Within the scientific environment, “I have some options where I can express my faith,” Szilágyi says. He directly referred to God both in the acknowledgements of his master’s and doctoral dissertations and while receiving his awards. He runs a Bible-study group for young adults, and together with a friend he founded a Christian scientific group.

But although Szilágyi’s views often lie far outside the scientific mainstream, he expresses those views only off-campus and in his personal time. For him, “the debate over evolution, design, creation, supernatural intelligence, etc., is not a scientific question in the first place but the collision of worldviews, the confrontation of materialism and idealism,” he says. He takes the Bible literally, but when he lectures on the subject–outside of work–he presents what he calls “the options” and indicates which one “to me … seems to be more probable.” But he insists that it is up to “everybody to make his or her own decision.”

“As a Christian who works in the field of science, I find it quite important to deal with the relation of Christianity and science,” Szilágyi says. But “I know that it is a minefield in today’s scientific life and can be quite dangerous for one’s scientific career. … Therefore, I do these activities absolutely separately from my university work. … I am very cautious and careful that whenever I am talking [about these issues] I do not represent my university.

“My belief is very important for my career because this is the first thing that gives me my motivations so that I could work hard and I could achieve the best I can,” Szilágyi says.

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