Professor Leprán: “I would probably fail myself in pharmacology”
It wasn’t difficult to get Professor István Leprán to agree for an interview. Students know him as a professor not only with good humor but always approachable too. He receives us in his office and we are met by the usual good mood and take a seat in his office where he usually examines the students (which are famous for often taking close to an hour per student). Compared to the summer heat outside, the office is relatively cool. “The best thing with this office is that is stays cool even during the warmest days in summer and that even the Rector of the University has to call the bell if he wants to enter” the professor jokes.
Thank you so much for accepting to do this interview. Could you tell us a bit about yourself? When and where were you born and how did you end up working here?
I was born in 1953 in Szeged. Since my mother was a teacher in a small village school, I spent my first school year there. We then moved to a smaller town, Kistelek. I continued studying there until secondary school when we finally moved to Szeged. As you probably know I graduated here as a pharmacist, but never actually worked as one. After I finished university I started working here and have been here ever since. At that time in pharmacology we showed real practicals, using animals. Even students could use some animals, such as rodents.
So you did your PhD here?
I did my PhD here. At that time, it wasn’t called a PhD, it was a Candidate Degree. A candidate degree is somewhat more than a PhD – it needs more work and a longer time – typically 8-10 years. Candidates got to learn more skills; for a PhD, 3 years is very short. The aim of PhD is to be able to work independently. You aren’t able to do research work independently after just 3 years, so I really don’t believe it’s enough. It’s enough for a certain level and you are forced to learn and do something, but I don’t think it’s really enough to be an independent scientist.
What was the area of your research?
For the candidate degree I basically used a method we developed here. This was something that the department worked with for a long time: the heart, myocardial infarctions and arrhythmias. We developed a technique for occluding the coronary artery in conscious rats. And at that time this was a really unique method. At that time this was a hot topic and it ended up being a popular method and the department became a place to visit from all over the world. I taught this technique to at least 50 different groups around the world, coming from all of Europe, the United States and everywhere just to learn this technique.
That is very impressive!
At that time, it wasn’t molecular biology that was the hot topic but to implement in vivo models in animals for the investigation of new drugs. There wasn’t any molecular biology then.
Was your English always this good?
Oh no, my English is still very poor. I have always been terrible at languages. I cannot learn a language by just sitting down and learning it, I cannot. This may be related to the basic structure of my brain. I cannot memorize poems either. In literature I was always very poor because my teachers always wanted us to memorise poems. Even mathematics and physics, subjects I liked very much, required memorizing certain definitions. I simply couldn’t. Even here in pharmacology, I cannot learn something word by word.
In school I learned English for around 6 years. But even then, when I first came to the department and was reading up on the literature, I had to start to translate from the level of not knowing what the difference is between “a” and “an” was (laughs again)! So my English was nothing back then. You know if my English teachers would know that now we are speaking in English, they would be surprised.
At least now your English is very very good!
By the time I went to the United States, I had to improve my English language skills. During those years I developed my level of English partly by myself and partly through different language courses.
Did you go there for Research?
Yes, I went there for research. I did very little teaching there, I delivered practicals sometimes but research was my main focus. Actually, I already had my PhD when I went to the United States. I spent more than a year in the US in the Physiology Department in Philadelphia, in a small but very good university (Thomas Jefferson University).
Would there be anything that you would do differently if you could go back in time? I really don’t think so. I must say that I really like what I’m doing. For example, I have been asked several times if doing medicine would have been better? I am sure it wouldn’t. It’s funny why I didn’t choose medicine for example. In secondary school we had many laboratory practices in which we had to work on rats and frogs. And I really disliked working on animals at that time, especially on frogs. Breaking spinal cords, the noise it made made me feel terrible. I couldn’t tolerate it. And if an injection was given, I could hear the noise as the needle went through the skin. I didn’t want to work with any of that and that was the reason why I headed to pharmacy. And do you know after coming here, what my first experiment was? To treat rats and to cut them to small pieces to measure the regional blood flow and the radioactivity of the tissue. Exactly what I wanted to avoid. But there is difference when you watch others, to doing it yourself. When you know the aim, it doesn’t bother you as much anymore. So if I could replay my life I wouldn’t change anything – I think this is just right for me. And this is what I would suggest to everyone. Try to find a place that you enjoy, because for a long time you must enjoy your work! If you could, would you change anything in this university? It would be very important to increase the importance of teaching. Right now it is in the 2nd or 3rd place in the way it is supported and acknowledge. Even in the theoretical departments, the number one priority is scientific work. For the clinicians it is even more difficult because the clinical work with the patients comes first, followed by their own scientific work. And so, teaching will suffer most when the doctors and teachers are over-worked. Teaching in a university is very important, and it should be priority number 1, not number 2 or 3. Giving it more time and a bigger importance, especially to the clinicians to work with students, would be very important.
Have you had a different experience lecturing the International students compared to the Hungarian students? Naturally, I find it easier to express myself in Hungarian. But the lectures are otherwise the same. The English class is smaller however. They are typically around 60, and only a fraction of them come to lectures. But at least by face, I know all of them and it’s much more personal when I deliver a lecture. I also feel that they respond better to the lectures. They are reacting, they have questions. From the Hungarians, I rarely get a response. Teaching a whole class with many students is not so enjoyable as a small class. In a small class you can discuss and see that the students have understood. Learning pharmacology is especially very difficult because you hear many new words, hundreds of new drug names. You have to learn a new language but this is not enough, you have to work, you have to play with these new words and you have to understand how they work.
Many students wonder, do you know every name of the drugs that you’re teaching?
No. I always say that I would probably fail myself in pharmacology! (laughs)
Do you have a favorite scientist?
Albert Szent-Györgyi was an excellent scientist who I liked a lot. He was very sincere and natural to everyone, and he loved teaching, not only doing science. Despite all of his important discoveries, he was never in an ivory tower, for me that was very significant.
Do you have any other interests besides science?
As a child I liked to do sports but because of my glasses I was not allowed to continue with it. I like skiing in winter. But unfortunately there aren’t many possibilities for it here in Szeged, so during the winter holidays we usually travel somewhere to ski.
You have a scientist wife as well. Did you want to children to become scientists too?
We never pushed our children in any direction. Instead we always tried to show them what the different possibilities were and what was interesting and allowed them to choose by themselves, We think this was very important. We have twins, a girl and a boy. My son graduated from the Medical Faculty and is now a surgical resident while my daughter is working as a nurse and we are very proud of both of them. Just yesterday my daughter came home and said she got a small painting honouring her work from her patient. She was so proud to get a first personal present from a patient. So I hope they will also find their job enjoyable and not just for money.
Thank you so much Professor for giving us a glimpse into your life! We really enjoyed this discussion.
Thank you! Me too, really!
By: Benedek Bozoky and Priya Mehra