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Viktória Verebélyi: there are two types of biologists, one who uses the pipette and the other who wears boots

Viktória Verebélyi has just received her master’s degree in biology from the University of Veterinary Medicine Budapest. In our interview, we talked about the special award she received at SCIndiator’s science communication competition. The essence of this mentoring program is to help young researchers to become confident speakers, to present their research topic in an understandable and fun way that brings the audience closer to science. Almost no one can stand without questions when it comes to the subjects of Viktória’s topic: the frogs.

 Your introduction on the SCIndicator webpage says that you combine pipette and boots, what does it mean?

One of my teachers here at the university said that there are two types of biologists, one who uses the pipette and the other who wears boots. I’m glad that I can combine these two, we practice both ways in our research. In the spring, we put on our boots and go out to the field to collect animals or their eggs. Most of my research requires pipette, we work with different contaminants, measure their concentration. In my introduction, I wanted to hint that we work in the field and the lab as well, these complement each other.

Tell me about the SCIndicator competition, why did you apply for it? The goal of this event is to help researchers to improve their communication so they can better pass on their scientific work to people.

That’s right, it’s also called a science communication competition, participants from any field of science can sign up and attend. The goal of this is to find effective ways to explain our research to the public, who are less familiar with our field, in an understandable and enjoyable style. There is a great need for such educational lectures, which would raise the public awareness that researchers are looking for answers to important questions. I have always considered it important to try to break down the wall between researchers and people. I think scientific results should be available to everyone which requires scientific communication because even if all scientific publications are available, people will hardly understand scientific articles.

Sadly, there are still a lot of misconceptions about toads, I try to clear up: they don’t cause warts if you touch them, or that they are not causing harm in the garden ponds, they are very useful animals.

What exactly did the competition consist of? As far as I know, mentors joined you to help you master communication techniques.

At first, there was an audition, based on that the mentors chose who they wanted to work with. They provided useful advice which details should we highlight in our research topic to make it easier to digest. Luckily, my mentor adjusted the techniques to my personality, he didn’t want me to force things that is not me. We practised certain things, for example, look at the audience while speaking, talk loud and confident, don’t forget to smile etc. Besides, we got lessons in marketing, communication, psychology, and the Association of Women in Science was also involved, Dr Katalin Balázsi president of the association hold a presentation about scientific career, these were very useful.

Could you apply the newly learned techniques? What did you feel during your performance in the finals?

The plan was to present our research to a big audience, but due to the virus, only the jury, the 12 finalists and the mentors could attend, and it was streamed online. Anyway, in the final, I felt like I could apply what I had learned, but obviously, I was nervous. When I started my presentation I was confident, as I was promoting the topic which is important to me. I thought if some people noticed our research, it was worth it. At the end of my performance, there was a small mistake, my slides got mixed up. You have to learn to react to these sudden situations, I still have to improve my improvisation skills.

By the way, before I got here to the University of Veterinary Medicine Budapest, I never presented, I didn’t even recite a poem, I didn’t like to stand out in front of other people. Then at the university, we had these famous topic presentations when your research topic had to be presented to the teachers, which is pretty stressful. At first, I didn’t like it, then in one semester I thought I’d try something different: I’m going to perform it like I’m presenting to myself and it was a turning point. I started to enjoy the presentation and this was noticed by the audience as well. Otherwise, if you try to get over it quickly in a monotonous voice, the viewers will feel it too and the message will not go through. So the experience from the university, the lectures, the topic presentations and then the conferences helped a lot, slowly you get used to speaking in front of an audience.

You were awarded a special prize at the competition, what does this mean?

Yes, the National Geographic Magazine had a special award, I got a one-year subscription to the magazine and an article about me and my research was published in the online version. We talked about a possible future collaboration, I would write about the sex change of the frogs, which is a very exciting topic. I think it would be useful if more researchers dealt with scientific communication if there were more training available at universities to help this.

This brings to mind the presentation competition which is held at the university every year.

Yes, this is exactly what we need, that is a very good initiative! Last year I attended, I got third place. I told all my classmates that I think they should go, it’s worth attending, the related training is very useful and they can practice. I would also recommend SCIndicator competition for every prospective and current researchers. If you want more people to learn about your research, you need to find a way to pass on the information, this is important for everyone.

You have just received your master’s degree in biology from the University of Veterinary Medicine Budapest. Why did you choose this course and how did the frogs come into the picture?

I grew up in the countryside, I have been interested in animals since I was a child, what I found in the garden, or in the forest, I examined – let’s say I think this is true for every child.

I’m from the countryside too, but collecting insects and bugs was the maximum we did. Potato beetles or cockchafers are okay, but frogs? I think people are trying to stay away from frogs.

It’s so weird, I would think that beetles are just as repulsive to humans as toads. Although none of it is disgusting to me, I think they are beautiful creatures. I think children are interested in everything, only parents transfer their fears into them, tell them not to do, touch these creatures and that is why this curiosity disappears. That’s why these animals are often misjudged.

Yes, most parents are not happy to see a frog in their child’s hand.

Exactly. At first, my parents were the same, but then they let me do what I wanted, they even encouraged me. In retrospect, something must have started here.

After high school, I wanted to become a graphic artist, but I didn’t feel that it was leading anywhere. I always liked nature and animals, so I thought learning biology would fit me.

How come you didn’t choose to be a vet?

I love animals, all kinds, but I couldn’t stand that stress. Losing an animal would be too much trauma for me. The other reason is that being a researcher is so exciting for me, as we are always looking for answers to some new question that science does not yet know. I can imagine putting my life up for this.

In the first year of university, there is this subject in which alumni members are invited to give a presentation on their research topic. During this class, I met my later supervisor, Dr Veronika Bókony, who outlined their research on amphibians. Her enthusiasm was very impressive, and since 2016, we have been working together. Our collaboration works well, thanks to her our articles have already been published in international journals, where I could be her co-author. I owe a big thank to the university to make it possible.

Now that you’ve graduated, what’s next?

In order to be a researcher you need to graduate from doctoral school, I have just applied for that. I really hope that I can say that I am a doctoral student soon. In the meantime I consider becoming a teacher, thanks to my current experience, I have realized that it is not so scary to give lectures and to transfer knowledge is very important. Maybe I’ll try myself in this area too.