A Very “Plant-iful” Interview

Since this time of the year is known for final exams I have decided to interview Attila Farkas, from the Szeged-based Biological Research Centre, about the popularity of biology and his work experiences in this field.

So could you tell me in a few sentences what you do here at the BRC exactly?

Of course. Well, technically it’s the Biochemistry Institute of the SZBK [Szegedi Biológiai Kutatóközpont / Biological Research Centre] where we examine the symbiosis of plant bacteria. It means that there are the Leguminosae, commonly known as the legume family, which include for instance soybean or alfalfa; and on these plants, particularly on the roots of these plants, nitrogen-fixing nodules are formed. In the soil there are special bacteria that somehow get into the plant cells. It is actually a huge research area because these plants are able to fixate the nitrogen in the atmosphere and harness this for themselves. For a long time it wasn’t known whether it is the plant or the bacterium that governs this process exactly. Also, this process is irreversible since the bacterium changes completely during, and is not utilizable outside of the cells. We published an article about this one or two years ago that it is actually the plant that is in charge of the process by the use of different kinds of so-called peptides [Science 327 (5969): 1122-1126 Plant Peptides Govern Terminal Differentiation of Bacteria in Symbiosis]. What I personally do here is basically examining these peptides, their characteristics, mechanics, their role in the plants. We also know that most of these peptides have similar characteristics to anti-bacterial (antimicrobial peptides, or AMP, to be exact), in the sense that they are able to kill bacteria, so they may be useful in healthcare in the future. Basically, I work on these two fields: what these peptides could be used for, and what they do exactly inside the plant.

How come you decided to work in this field?

Well, obviously, when you come here to work you are usually sorted into a group and you work on that particular group’s project. I work on other things, I used to work on bio-hydrogen as a means of possible fuel-material in the future and similar researches but at the moment this is my main project. So basically the course line of the research and the individual tasks are determined by the principal.

I was actually curious about biology itself, have you always been interested in it?

Oh, yes, biology has always been interesting to me, especially working in the lab. You know, biology has a lot of branches: ecology, animal-ecology, plant-ecology, bio-technology, etc . and what I work on is called molecular biology.

What a coincidence, I just met a friend of mine on my way here who studies molecular biology too!

Yes, it is a quickly developing area and it seems like it’s getting popular.

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I know that you work a lot abroad. Could you tell me about the differences regarding working conditions?

That I work a lot abroad is quite relative, but yes I’ve worked abroad a few times. It goes with the job, generally, when we have to learn a new method, for example, and it’s usually for a couple of months. About the working conditions, well, to be honest when I started working here it was a completely new lab; I would even go so far as to say that it is now one of the most well-equipped labs. The lab was founded about 5-6 years ago (by BayGen, but now it belongs to the BRC), supported financially by the state, furnished with new instruments and everything. Researchers from all over the world, led by the world-renowned Professor Éva Kondorosi, came back home to be part of this. So the working conditions are basically at international level in terms of the equipment and such. Obviously the salary is another question.

And how about the attitude towards Hungarians abroad?

There’s no notable difference, really, I mean these labs are multicultural everywhere, there are foreigners working here too and there’s no discrimination neither here nor at other labs.

If you had the chance would you rather work abroad?

I like working here, mostly because of my team, but if I could I would like to work abroad, yes. But it doesn’t mean that you leave the country forever but that in this career it’s useful to gain experiences abroad as a graduate and then come back after 2-3 years. In fact, it’s usually encouraged to apply for a job abroad after your PhD. It’s good for your career. Obviously, you’re expected to speak, write and do presentations in English but the payment is better.

Have you finished your PhD yet?

No, I’m working on it at the moment, actually.

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May I ask about if you work on anything related to genetic manipulation, since it is rather popular nowadays?

Well it’s a bit more complicated than that. You know, in the EU, GMO (these genetically modified plants) were banned until 2004, and in Hungary they still are, in the food industry and agriculture. However, some of the methods that are also included in that kind of research, like gene manipulation for instance, are part of our work too. Of course, these have to be reported to the state and are controlled by strict rules. But this is a basic molecular biological procedure.

And has there been any new development, like, is it really harmful, or what is the issue with them exactly?

In my opinion it is more of a social or political issue really. In the US it is quite a well-developed research, but this concerns industries, what we do here is basic research, we don’t concern ourselves with anything other than that. Like, GMO in the food industry means that for example if you cut a potato, it won’t turn brown for days, and on the one hand, of course it has opposition, like, why do we have to meddle with nature; on the other hand, it’s about providing food where it’s scarce. It’s a much bigger issue in the US or the West; it’s not part of our job here at all.

Okay so last but not least, since final examination period is going on at the moment, how popular is this field? Do many students want to be biologists?

Well I can’t say any statistics, but I teach kids and I have to say that youngsters don’t really want to study this kind of biology. Medical professions are more popular, such as doctor, vet, dentist, psychologist. Biologist not so much, but there always are students who are interested in this and want to be biologists. It is also due to the changes in the education system.

Well then, this is it, thank you very much for your cooperation.

It was my pleasure.

By: Lili Szendrei

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