Professor Szabó: We don’t issue diplomas with admissions

Professor Szabó is not known as the easiest of examiners, and students dread meeting him during the final Pathophysiology exam. But it is a different thing to meet him outside of the examination room. We chatted away for over an hour about research, the professor’s life and what the future of the university holds. We hope more students will have the chance to meet the professor after passing the exam! Here we give a short excerpt of the conversation.  

Could you please tell us a bit about yourself; where you were born/grew up?

I was born in a small, neighboring city, Makó, in 1955. I did all my elementary and high school studies there and moved to Szeged when I was admitted into medical school. In the third year of high school, I got the chance to participate in a summer camp organized by the university and we did some physics and biology there. The entrance exam to study medicine was mainly focused around physics and since it was tough, it was a way for the university to eliminate students. It was very competitive.

I still remember when we were doing the autopsies at the pathology department, which at the time, was in the same building as the one for anatomy. It was 30 something degrees and I was sitting in front of the Church, thinking whether I wanted to do this or not, but then, here I am!

I finished in the class of ’79. When I was in third year, the former chair, Professor Telegdy was appointed to Szeged that year. He was a young energetic man. I wanted to do internal medicine and first, since it was the custom, I thought to do pathology and then internal medicine. That was my idea. But at that time we were supposed to learn pathology for two years. So I went to the professor of pathology at the time and said I would like to do pathology. And he said, I can’t because I have a freshman, Bela Ivanyi (Professor and Chairman of the Pathology Department now), and he needs a year or so to learn all the techniques. Waiting one year for me was like eternity. So I went to Professor Telegdy and asked to work for him. At the time, he had just come from Pécs, and the department was upside down, so I expected him to give me a little bit of time to organize the department. The same day, at 9 pm in the dormitory, he called me up and said: “Where have you been all day long? I was waiting for you.”. So this is how my life started.

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Professor Szabó with two of his former students during the Alumni Reunion Weekend

What kind of research were you doing when you first started?

Neuroendocrinology. Initially I worked with two of his [Prof. Telegdy’s] closest co-workers. One was mainly interested in the posterior pituitary and endocrine regulation – especially CNS connections, and the other in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. So basically what I did was, I worked with one guy one week and the other another week. At some point I had to choose one; and I took the posterior pituitary lobe-related topic.

The department was mainly interested in the peptides’ effect on memory and learning functions. The initial assessment was that fear-motivated behavior was facilitated by vasopressin, whereas oxytocin was doing the opposite. We made a few good observations regarding this issue. However, I was a little bit more interested in addictive behavior affected by neurohypophyseal hormones. This is how I eventually got to the USA. Initially I was supposed to go to Chicago but then I ended up going to the capital. Later, I moved to Denver, Colorado with my family. I worked between here and there for about 10 years. When the 2nd semester ended here in Szeged, I would land in Washington DC the following day; it was sort of a sabbatical. After 1999, the fun was over because I was appointed as the chair of the Pathophysiology department.

So you started teaching right after you graduated?

Oh, well I started before that. I was a 4th/5th year student and I was a student assistant to the teachers already.

When did you decide that teaching was going to be a big part of your career?

It wasn’t out of convenience; it was a must if you were to become a research scientist.

Have you thought of becoming a clinician?

Oh, of course I did. My initial dream was to become an internalist. I loved cardiology. But at one point, one of the professors died, and before he died he told me during one discussion ‘Why do you want to do internal medicine? You are at the Department of Pathophysiology and perhaps you have a better life there.’ Perhaps he wasn’t interested in me anymore (jokingly) and around that time my first papers were coming out and I changed my mind. But I still kept seeing patients, not at that department there but I had a night shift job at the Department of Psychiatry at the former Kettes-kórház. There was a huge psychiatry department there, bigger than at the University. At that time these two institutions were independent. And they were also doing addictology, so they dealt with alcoholic patients.

At that time there was also a compulsory military service for doctors, for everyone over 18. But medical students were always taken after their 6th year. Somehow I was able to manage to not work for the military, but for the justice department instead. There was a special institution in Nagyfa, perhaps you heard the name recently because there was a migrant uprising 4 days ago (25/10/2015). Right now it is functioning as a prison but it is mainly a factory or used to be factory related to agriculture or something. There were some patients there, also alcoholic patients. When I was assigned to the Justice department I talked to them and asked them whether it would be possible to go there, and they said well yes but first, in the first 6 months or 4 months, you have to agree to be sent wherever doctors are needed.

To work for prisoners as a new doctor was very challenging, and I was sent to many challenging places. I was a doctor for young guys between 25 and 45. Along with this, there was another branch for females. So I learned a lot.

What would Professor Szabo pick?

The interview will continue below 🙂

Waterpolo or basketball?

Waterpolo

Endocrinology or cardiology?

Cardiology

Tokaj wine or Palinka?

Red wine

Kifli or Croissant?

Croissant

Bach or Liszt?

Liszt

Kindle or books?

Books

With the alcoholism and abuse work that you were doing, was it focused more on the aspect of what causes the addiction or was it more about the treatment?

Though I was seeing patients, it was still purely theoretical science, as to which mechanisms are involved in the CNS and especially how vasopressin affects this; this is how I did my PhD. At that time it was not a PhD, it was a ‘Candidate of Science’ and it was a lot more complicated back then. These days you have to do three good papers and then you are done. At that time you had to work for 10 years. The award was given by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. After that it was easy to move on and defend the Doctor of Science degree. Of course, whenever I went back to the United States and talked about all these rigorous measures they were laughing. But they were just laughing partially because originally both of my mentors were from the former Soviet Union so whenever I talked about the Russian system, they were glad that they weren’t subjected to all these things.

What were some of the biggest challenges of working in the prison environment and system?

It was not really a challenge because I learned a lot. During the summer I used to work for a family practice somewhere in Hungary, mainly close to Balaton. So I am not saying it was easy but it was not a major problem. And there were some advantages – not dressing up in a military uniform.

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Professor Szabó lecturing the crowd during the Alumni Reunion Weekend. Not on the subject of pathophysiology this time though!

So how did you decide that you wanted to go and spend some time in America?

Well, at that time it was a custom to go there. If we worked a lot more in the department, we could afford for everyone to go for at least 1 year abroad.

And did your family also enjoy it as much as you?

Of course, they’re like me. Here is a very personal experience: we got back after 1.5 years of living there, my son was attending maybe 4th or 5th grade at that time there. When he was attending school here in Szeged in early September, after coming back from the US, one day during lunch he said ‘Well, we have visited grandmas, grandpas, we visited all the in-laws so I think it’s time to go back home’. And then I said ‘Honey, for the time being this will be home’. That was in early ‘93 or ’95. Later on, when I went back for shorter times, perhaps I was contemplating going for another year. He was already in high school at that time: I said to him ‘I will go back to the States so would you be interested to study there for a year?’ but he replied ‘No dad, my friends here, perhaps I will visit you for a short time but otherwise, no thank you.’

How was it for him, could he speak English before he went?

Yes, he learnt British English. It was a big cultural shock for him when he arrived. He did not speak for a week or so (laughing). He and my wife came to the States around September that year and we were, I think, preparing for Thanksgiving and I remember that there was a bunch of kids in his room and someone was always talking, I thought to myself who is this guy talking so much? And they said “He is your son!”. The funny thing was, at one point I put a curfew on the phone. At around 9 or 10 pm the American kids would call him up and ask: “How was the grammar and how was the math?” and so on. And I said “Until 8 pm you guys can discuss it but after that it’s night time.” He loved living there!

It has now been more than 10 years that you have been the head of the department and the Program Director of the English Medical Program. How do you see the changes on both levels, on the educational level and the student body, specifically in the International Program?

Let’s see my side first and then I’ll explain the other side. When I was appointed, it was more like a state of emergency, a state of chaos. I did not know what to do. Though because of challenging situations in the past during my career, I could do it. I had been exposed to the program and I knew many things about it but certainly not at the administrative level.

I was also told that there was a student organization – the student body. By the time I invited them for the second meeting, they were gone. They said from then on, someone else is doing it. And it was like that for a while. People kept coming and going. So compared to that, since the late 2000’s, we have a functioning student body organizing events.

In the recent years, what is your opinion on the student body?

I am happy like one cannot be even happier! Because they are doing what I have always dreamed that one day they will be doing. But you know, I don’t need to do anything to make them organize all these events. Of course money should be given but that is not an issue.

What about the students, how do you feel they integrate themselves to the school?

Well, I don’t really have enough information on that but if I can do something about that, I would perhaps do closer collaborations, not between the heads of the student organizations but between the Hungarian and the English class. There was an initiative, and I am still supporting the idea that, for example, the internal medicine practice should be done in a way that 1 or 2 Hungarian students are with 1 English student. The Hungarians would help you to talk to the patients and at the same time when you students respond back to them it will help them with their practical English. And one thing goes with the other one, perhaps socialize a bit more. But I am not a matchmaker so you know!

You have seen the university progressing over this last decade and a half. What sort of changes do you see in the next 5 years on an educational level?

Honestly what I would like is to extend the program more but for that we need a major investment.

In spite of some hardship we are trying to make improvements. For example, we have the largest number of e-books. Of course a lot of the students are not using it but that’s another problem. We need to work on it.

Right now we are working on making a student place. I feel strong about that; we need to provide a social place. I know that you are fine at the TIK – when it’s open (jokingly). But when it is not open, like finding a place to study and do things.

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The final Gala Dinner from the Reunion. The professors were happy to see many of their old students.

I think the biggest issue is, when you live in a city and you’re with your family and you’re in your house, you can study in your room and go to the living room to relax. But so many of the students live in the same room as they study so they have no escape.

They are sick and tired, and I even know from my own experiences. I was born 30 km from here and I always had another room back home. But there were times where I felt more comfortable to study here. Fortunately my parents were very understanding and there were other doctors in the family so it was not an issue.

Regarding the curriculum, there have been a lot of changes you have made. Will there be more changes?

I was just a little piece in this whole change. I am for the Immunology to be taught separately from Microbiology. Before it was together and it was a mess. I think Immunology should be taught as a basic module in the 1st or 2nd year. I am not sure if we have to change Anatomy. I also think Microbiology, Pathology and Pathophysiology should be kept together.

When first year students come in, they hear about how scary third year is. What is your opinion on this?

If they are finished with the 3rd year, they are doctors! But in 3rd year, everything is crazy. Keep in mind that we don’t need to issue diplomas with admissions. Getting in doesn’t mean getting through!

We’ve talked about the kind of changes the university is making. What kind of changes do you think the students should make? It’s definitely a two way street.

Absolutely. The first thing, and perhaps SUMAA and ISUS can help, is to forget about exam courses. Exam courses should only be given in family catastrophes i.e. if someone dies in the family. Otherwise don’t take it for granted. If you need to take it, you are in deep trouble.

If you fail once or twice during these 6 years, then it’s ok. But you know, to live on that is just simply impossible. Sometimes I see that they have been kicked out and want to come back. I ask them ‘Honey, what for? Perhaps you need to take an entrance exam and you will probably fail that too.’

Will there be more support initiatives for the students in future?

We started working on mentor programs and we will continue with those. There will be mentors for each class and they will be giving advice on how to study for each subject, but they won’t be tutoring you.

Do you feel that there are any ways in which the university can help to expand and help integrate the students to get into other countries after they finish?

Well, by 6th year you should see what your next step is, and perhaps spend half of that time in the place where you would like to practice, but the other half should be spent here because of the final exams, the thesis defence and the state board exam.

Whether we should do more organized channels? We do actually, because a few more Israeli and Japanese hospitals were accredited. If there is a demand, we are willing to go anywhere in the world and accredit hospitals, but again we need a sort of initiative.

Thank you for the interview and for letting us in on your thought and ideas on how to continue to make the University better!