He has been fighting pseudoscience for many years, often engaging in a debate with people who would certainly be ignored by other scientists on the grounds that they cannot be convinced of anything. ’What motivates you and how did you start your career in biology?’ We spoke to Zsolt Boldogkői, Professor at the Department of Medical Biology, University of Szeged.
You were born in Tiszafüred and graduated from high school in Tokaj. What was it like to grow up in this region?
I lived in small villages as a child, first in Tiszanána, then we moved to Mátraszentimre, which is the highest village in Hungary. I remember that wild cherries ripened there much later, at the end of August, so the climate was completely different from the dusty Great Hungarian Plain. For as long as I can remember, I have been surrounded by hills and mountains, something that I still miss here around Szeged. The reason for this constant moving was my father taking a teaching job somewhere else, which he explained by his incompatibility with the system. But I had a happy childhood, apart from the fact that my parents divorced early. I went to high school in Tokaj, and after graduation I worked in a blacksmith’s workshop in Debrecen. Then I did my military service in Cegléd and went to university in Debrecen. Later I also lived in several districts of Budapest, Szeged, Gödöllő, Szentendre, Bonn and then again in Szeged. Time after time I joined completely different communities, which had a great impact on my life; I got to know a lot of things and made a lot of friends.
What attracted you to science?
First I was interested in paleontology. At that time, there were not many books about prehistoric animals for children, so I used to read my uncle's university geology books. Apart from dinosaurs, I also learnt about ancient snails, for example. Evolution was a subject that confused me as a child, especially in relation to religion.
Even as a child?
Yes. I believed in Jesus Christ, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny for a very long time, even when all my friends were already aware of the truth. I can distinctly remember the conspiratorial look on my aunt’s face when I claimed to have seen the rabbit in our garden at Easter. It immediately dawned on me that something was not right. I ran over to one of my friends, whose mother enlightened me about the truth. I remember the world collapsing inside me, even though the erosion of that world had already begun earlier. I often had conflicts with the priest who was responsible for religious education, because I wanted to know how to resolve certain contradictions in the biblical stories. I was thrown out of Bible studies because of this.
Perhaps the word expelled is more accurate. In any case, I was surprised because I didn't want to argue, I wanted to learn. My father didn't want to leave it at that, so I had to go a red-nosed deacon privately, but he didn't tolerate my questions either. But a distant relative - with whom my father had probably warmed up his relationship because of me - was more understanding, brought me picture books on the subject, and I did argue with him. However, neither then nor as an adult did I mind if someone held views different from mine, as I have always been able to separate ideas and people, and this is characteristic of my friendships as well. For me it was instinctive, not a decision or a matter of position.
You mentioned living in Boldogkőváralja. How is your family name connected to this settlement?
I adopted this name before I started publishing because I didn't want to be confused with others. Since I was out of the profession for a while, I was already over thirty when I changed my name.
What do you mean by being out of the profession?
It's a long story. I went to a relatively good primary school and high school. I liked my biology teacher, who taught me a very important lesson. He did not get on at all with my father, who also taught at the same school, but he supported me and even cried when I was unfairly disqualified from an academic competition. An individual should be judged by his own actions, not by his origin - that was the lesson I learnt. I read a lot as a child, not only novels but also academic books, in addition to being out on the streets and in the mountains with my friends. I also had very good teachers in high school, the school had a very stimulating atmosphere for learning. At 10:20 in the evening, the lights went out in the dormitory, but I had a small clip-on lamp, so I read for an hour more. I also got up early in the mornings because I ran up the hill before the morning gym session. I organised debates, which were attended by the teachers as well. But after a politically sensitive topic, I had to stop it. In any case, I did a lot of things - not just science - and it was a very active period in my life. Unfortunately, the university was a great disappointment. In my opinion, biology education was not in the right hands in Debrecen at that time. I specialised in ecology. It was not a subject I was too much interested in, yet I did read a few books on the subject in English in addition to the course material.
Where did you start working after graduation?
After graduating in 1986, I worked as a research assistant in a plant pathology and biotechnology laboratory in Budapest for 4 years. Then I spent one year at the Biological Research Centre of Szeged, where I learned about the methods used in plant cell genetic studies. In 1990 I went to the biotechnology research institute in Gödöllő. At that time my peers were already publishing, and I did not even have a defined research topic.
You also have a degree in economics and foreign trade, how did you get interested in that?
At that time the economic situation was not so good. We already had one child and were planning to have a second one. We were struggling to make ends meet, so I wanted to leave the profession and find a more lucrative position. We mainly studied general economics. It was a difficult time because I had to work on my PhD and my son was small, so I had to spend a lot of time with him. I took him to nursery school in the morning, then to kindergarten, then I went to work. In the afternoon I would bring him home, spend time with him and then go back to work in the evening. Sometimes I would also prepare for an exam at home or read the literature. After graduation, I received some offers from the field of economics, but I did not accept them and stayed in research.
You also spent a few months as a visiting researcher at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia.
I won a grant that allowed me to go abroad. I worked on the molecular biology of the herpes simplex virus. I gained useful professional experience and made some great friends. I have grown to love America. It's very competitive, but if you know something, you stand a good chance of getting ahead. They don’t try to pull you back, as it is often the case in Hungary.
After leaving Gödöllő you worked at the Department of Anatomy of the Semmelweis University for 2 years.
I got there after I started working on a virus - the pseudorabies virus - that is transmitted along the neural pathways. I had an idea how to modify the virus so that it can be used for nerve pathway tracing, so I contacted Prof. Miklós Palkovits, who was the most cited researcher in Hungary at the time. For many years he worked half a year in Hungary and half a year in the United States at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). He is still scientifically active today, although he is 90 years old. I told him what the virus could potentially do, and the next day he called me to say he had hired a person and we could start working. So, our professional relationship started years before I began working at SOTE. We've been working together ever since and recently published an article together.
What did you do exactly?
I optimized the virus for tracing. In practice, it meant that the virus had to spread along only one neural pathway, slowly and only in one direction. It also had to express so-called reporter genes that allow you to track where the virus is. With these viruses, we were able to map a number of neural networks. I later worked with Botond Roska, who was then leading a research group at the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel. With him, we created a system that not only allows us to trace neural pathways, but also to see, for example, whether neurons are active within the pathway and, if so, how active they are. Moreover, with this system we were able to study the function of many nerve cells simultaneously using optical methods, which was a major innovation. Our results were published in prestigious journals and we were granted a joint patent.
After Semmelweis University, you worked as a research fellow at the Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, University of Bonn for more than three years.
You became Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) in 2008. What was your topic?
The application of viral vectors in brain research. This topic is related to three fields - microbiology, molecular genetics and neurobiology - and I had to integrate them in my work. These three disciplines were also identified by the MTA as relevant areas of expertise.
You have been Head of Department since 2009.
I was first appointed as acting head of department in 2008 as an associate professor, but one year later I was promoted to head of department for five years, which has been renewed twice so far for another five years. Teaching is my passion, I teach much more than the average, not only molecular biology but other subjects, too. Meanwhile, we have to compete with colleagues working in research institutes in terms of scientific publications, because we are judged on the basis of our research results. So, being a university lecturer means at least two jobs, especially at the Faculty of Medicine, where we also teach in English and German.
How many scientific publications do you have?
I have published 129 articles in English, but we have several manuscripts under review. I have worked in many scientific fields, but if I had to name the two most important ones, they would be the above mentioned neural tracing and the regulation of viral gene expression. We were lucky with the latter one, because one of the brand new technologies, the so-called long read sequencing method, was launched by a company called Pacific Biosciences at the same time when one of my colleagues - Dóra Tombácz - was working in the group of Professor Michael Snyder at the Stanford University School of Medicine. The company’s headquarters is located near the Stanford so we took advantage of this opportunity. As a result, we were the first to publish the application of this technique in virus research. Later, other sequencing technologies appeared and we were able to adapt them easily. In the course of this work, we demonstrated that viral function at the level of RNA molecules is much more complex than it was previously thought, and we also discovered several important new RNAs.
Do you have good connections with universities other than the Stanford?
Our most recent scientific relationship is with Hagen Tilgner at Cornell University School of Medicine, and we have already published a joint paper in a very prestigious scientific journal together. Dóra Tombácz will be working in the New York lab for a few months from May this year, mainly on Alzheimer's research. Her work will include the use of our single-cell nuclear sequencing technology.
In the past, you also did research on the genetic background of complex diseases such as depression and suicide. Why did you become interested in this?
The idea originated from the time when I was working at Semmelweis University, in the lab of Miklós Palkovits, but at that time the sequencing technique was in its infancy and not suitable for the task. Professor Palkovits developed a technique to operate on individual brain nuclei with great precision. He worked mainly with suicides and created a large brain tissue bank from the samples. I asked him for samples, and since Michael Snyder and I were already on good terms, we arranged to have him examine them. Such experiments are expensive and they already had the infrastructure to do them. We sequenced in the States and did the bioinformatical analysis at home. We identified some gene variants that might predispose to suicide. And here I emphasize ’predispose’, because in complex diseases no single gene plays a causal role, it only increases the chance of occurrence. The role of one specific gene in suicide was later confirmed by others.
You have also been involved in scientific dissemination for a long time.
Although I used to write such articles every now and then, about 10 years ago I decided to make it a regular feature. I tried to explain scientific approaches and results in a unique, novel genre, which was different from traditional scientific writing. As I wanted to address a wider audience, I did not usually stuff the papers with references, but rather illuminated the logic, context and social relevance of the subject. In the beginning I received almost unanimously positive feedback but then I stirred up the hornet's nest of alternative medicine and since that time I have been attacked fiercely, first by lay people. There was a moment when I had to decide whether or not to take on the role of 'the evil scientist'. I did not think long about it. The Hungarian Skeptic Society had taken up this gauntlet earlier, but the profession did not comment on the issue. I thought it was wrong. Later companies producing ineffective products and leaders of pseudoscientific approaches began to attack me as well.
During the coronavirus epidemic, you came under a lot of attack from both pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine groups. How do you deal with such situations?
Virologists and epidemiologists who go public are constantly under attack, as previously reported in Nature and more recently in Science. I have probably been attacked more than the average person for challenging their intellectual leaders and supporting unpopular views, such as mandatory vaccination or more restrictions. These attacks did not bother me at all, I was rather disheartened by the hostility of so many people not only towards science but also to factual thinking. By the way, there are three main strands of epidemic scepticism, both at home and internationally.
What are these three?
The first is the white-coat society, who spread harmful and erroneous views while trying to present themselves as credible professionals. The second group is a political party that has been elected to the parliament, not only in our country, because of its action against 'COVID dictatorship'. The third group is more mixed, sharing a graduate but not scientific background. Many of them adapted the views of relativization because of the loss of income, while others got lost in the philosophy of science and started to promote confused ideas. I have engaged in public debates with the key representatives of all three schools of thought.
Have you never regretted these debates?
I thought about the issue carefully before starting the debates. I was aware of the arguments for and against, as I had debated with alternative medicine practitioners before. For example, many people say that if we start arguing with the representative of a delusion, we raise them to our own intellectual level and thus legitimize their views. Because then the audience, who is not familiar with the discipline, can only see an intellectual debate and can therefore perceive that both opinions weigh equally in the balance. This statement, however, can only be correct if it is a traditional debate between two people. That is not what I have done; I have always made it clear that I am sitting opposite the representative of a misguided idea, who does not understand the subject, even if he throws technical terms around. Another argument is that by appearing in the media these people become well-known. My debate partners no longer needed this, as they are all known nationwide. I was also aware that my opponents' supporters would see this public appearance as a landslide victory, and that I would receive conflicting criticism from the rational side. Nevertheless, I have taken on these debates.
What do you do in your spare time?
Nothing special, I read, watch movies, do sports: I have a mini gym at home, but I also go running. At the weekends I go hiking in the mountains, and when my children come home from abroad, they sometimes join me. I love travelling, wandering in unknown places, meeting strangers. Szeged is far away from the friends of my youth, so we do not have a lot of social gatherings any more.
What do your children do?
My younger son is a neurobiologist, he went to university in Manchester. He is currently a second year PhD student at Botond Roska's new institute, working on the biology of vision. My older son has a degree from Imperial College, London, and works as a program design engineer in the British capital.
Your Facebook followers know that you have a cat as well.
I also have two dogs, but unfortunately they cannot tolerate the cat, so only the cat lives indoors. He was rescued from the sewage system a few years ago. He is very intelligent, which came as no surprise, as he grew up among a lot of books. She sleeps a lot, resting even instead of the two Jack Russells, who are always active, unfortunately at night, too.