“I owe everything I achieved to the years in Pécs” - interview with György Buzsáki

14 April 2021

Dr György Buzsáki, who started his scientific career in the Institute of Physiology of the former Medical University of Pécs (POTE), has achieved a world-famous career. Together with his two Hungarian colleagues, Dr Tamás Freund and Dr Péter Somogyi, he received the Brain Prize in 2011, which is the greatest neuroscientific recognition, while in 2020 he was awarded the Ralph W. Gerard Prize of the American Association of Neurosciences for his lifetime achievement. He is currently working as a Biggs professor at the University of New York awaiting young talents in his laboratory from all over the world. We talked about his years in Pécs and also revealed the essence of the Grastyán method he has used to date.


Written by Miklós Stemler


- A few months ago, I had the opportunity to see you at an online roundtable discussion on artificial intelligence in the company of Neil deGrasse Tyson and another Pécs alumni, György Tilesch, among others, and I noticed the UP (PTE) ornamental robe hanging in a visible place behind you. If I guess correctly, this suggests that the University of Pécs and the connection to Pécs are still important to you…

- Most certainly. I believe that everyone should be proud of their Alma Mater, and this is especially true for me, as I owe everything I achieved to the years in Pécs. Imprinting is usually divided into two parts: one in early childhood and the other in our early twenties. This is when our worldview is fixed in us, and the experiences of that time are determinative regardless whether it is science, religion, arts, or politics. It would be hard to get rid of what has been ingrained in me over these years, but I wouldn’t even want to.

- Let’s go back a few decades earlier, to the years in Pécs, but still to the pre-university period. You spent your childhood in Siófok, then moved to Pécs, and you had already attended high school here. What do you remember from those years?

- My life here began with a pleasant surprise. Even when I was in elementary school, I was very enthusiastic about the radio system, but in Siófok I had very limited opportunities. In Pécs the world suddenly opened up for me. In the pioneer clubhouse in Pécs, we received wonderful things free of charge: we were able to deal with aircraft modelling and had free access to the radio. Another important point in my youth was the Hungarian Defence Association, which was a political organization but did not run propaganda, and we could do a lot there: we could fly, skydive, we could do the radio. All of these were very important to me. Of course, there were certain things that were better in Siófok. At that time there was no artificial ice rink in Pécs, so we could skate on a small pond at Barbakán in winter, while in Siófok we had the entire Lake Balaton. For me, Pécs was a big city with cultural and other opportunities that I could only dream of before.

- From this point of view, it may even seem natural that you continued your studies at the Medical University of Pécs, but in reality it was not so simple: you longed for Budapest, the Technical University, only this could not be achieved for financial reasons. It is a clichéd question, but: what do you think it would have been like if you had managed to move on to Budapest for a technical career?

- I like to think ahead, I find it difficult to go backwards, since in every complex system the starting point determines the career path. One will sooner or later find the opportunity everywhere, but of course the circumstances play an important role: for instance, it would have been rather unfortunate if Albert Einstein had been born in the Amazon region. It is important to have the opportunity to unfold the things that exist in our nervous system. I semi-funnily highlight two things for my students as the conditions for prosperity in life: what we like best and what makes us a little better than average - and the next step would be to even get a good salary for it.

- Besides the ongoing technical interest, medical studies may have been some sort of a culture shock at first…

- Now, of course, one sees this from a completely different perspective, but I remember from that time when I was a freshman I was annoyed because I had to memorize a lot of information that seemed irrelevant to me - later this information was of course very useful. At the same time, medical career is incredibly broad, and this is where the broad point of view that I have considered very important ever since has developed in me. I could meet a lot of people with different interests, from the engineering line through mathematics to the molecular biology still in its infancy at the time.

- I had the good fortune to talk to others who were educated at the Institute of Physiology under the direction of Kálmán Lissák and Endre Grastyán, where you entered relatively quickly, and the free atmosphere of the institute - which was not self-evident of course in the Kádár system at the time - was a recurring motif. What was it like to study and then do research here?

- I see that there was free spirituality in every system, and it was tied to individuals who had enough knowledge not to be afraid of turning out to have no real achievement behind them. There were and still are famous people, professors, who, if we take a closer look, do not even know why they are famous. Fortunately, in case of science, there is a measure: how do others use our contribution. In Pécs, there were several groups/association in the fields of anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, internal medicine (and I could list further examples), where individuals were at the forefront, set the tone with more than one idea and therefore were not afraid that these are stolen from them, or that it turns out they are not that smart. They have always supported free spirituality, because only in such an atmosphere can a community be formed that is able to offer the maximum. To do this, it is essential that people feel safe. Let us not be afraid that there is competition, that we may be losers, but we know that we will also benefit from success, in proportion to the work invested. I learned from Endre Grastyán and myself that the formula is simple: if I want to achieve it like others, I just have to put in two to three times as much work. Kálmán Lissák and Endre Grastyán had very good noses to sniff who fit into this atmosphere. Undergraduate scientific research was a great selection method for this, this is where the resupply came from.

- Was there ever a moment when you said to yourself: yes, this is what I want to deal with in my whole life?

- It was a very concrete experience: the physiology lecture of Endre Grastyán, when I first heard him talk about the nervous system. I knew right away that yes, that’s what I want to do. But this is far from just true for me: there are plenty of scientists and artists reporting that a single charismatic man has defined their entire later career. If a university has two or three charismatic people, a born leader, it is already a good university, because there is room for interested young people. Not only do they memorize the curriculum and take the exam, they also get a worldview. Endre Grastyán was a real school-creating individual, his real influence on his students can be measured: what we did, we do, is his. György Romhányi had a similarly great influence on his students. I, too, experience on a daily basis as I look for promising young researchers from around the world in my lab that there is always an individual in their mother institution who dedicates his/her life to educating and discovering those talents who might be world-saving minds.

- A few years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to János Neumann’s daughter, Marina von Neumann, and of course it was discussed how it is possible that some Hungarian scientists from the same high school became the backbone of a Manhattan project that changed the course of history. The solution is the work of a single teacher, László Rátz…

- This, of course, also required that the “Fasori” Grammar School in question was a Lutheran school where Jewish students who had been excluded from Catholic schools were admitted. This is how this very rare community developed. There are, of course, other similar examples: the world-famous achievements of Soviet physics were based on Stalin’s so-called imprisonment of scientists at the Moscow Institute of Physics, where they could do nothing but research.

- Fortunately, Pécs and the Institute of Physiology in Pécs were not prisons at all in the 1970s. What are your most important personal experiences from this era?

- It was very important that it was possible to get close to Endre Grastyán. He had a small group that he carefully selected, his narrower circle consisted of three or four people with whom we went to have lunch in the basement of the institute. These lunches were very important because, in addition to scientific issues, everything else was discussed. An atmosphere of mutual trust developed, which was important in the political situation at the time: we knew that we were free to talk to each other here. It was a terribly generous gesture on his part to welcome me into this circle as a student and young teaching assistant. What’s more, to my great fortune at this time, he wrote the Grand Doctor’s dissertation and defence, and it must be known that he was unable to release something from his hand that he did not consider perfect. In this process, I was able to ‘get into his brain’, so to speak, which was an amazing experience, I learned a lot from him as he embedded everyday observations into larger contexts and systems.

- Now we are talking about the second half the mid-seventies, the time of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. However, the researchers and students of Pécs were already an integral part of the international scientific life at that time, and you also had the opportunity to go on a longer American study trip relatively quickly. How was this possible?

- This was thanks to three people: Kálmán Lissák, Jenő Ernst and his student, József Tigyi. Jenő Ernst and József Tigyi were part of the single party-state system, but they were also far-sighted, cosmopolitan people, leaders who would have been leaders anywhere else in the world. Jenő Ernst, who played an important role in the party, was hidden from the Nazis by Kálmán Lissák at the time, which resulted in a lifelong connection. This is how Kálmán Lissák could walk in a bow tie, even in the Rákosi system: he knew he had protection. And he did a lot for his people, he arranged to get passports so we could travel. As a result, far fewer defected from these circles than from other places, and people came back. The group around Szentágothai was similar: he could fit into the system, so to speak, without selling himself. At the time of my admission to the Institute of Physiology, in addition to my scientific work, it was also a great motivation for me that everyone here went abroad, and I dreamed for myself that this was the way to get west from Leitha. This was the personal part, and the professional part was that our results could not be published in Hungarian scientific journals, but in any journal in the world.

- Hungarian opportunities were much more limited at the time, both in terms of funding and technology. Yet, you have been welcomed in the West and published regularly in international journals as well; how was this possible in such unequal conditions?

- It was difficult (laughs). Science depends on two things. One is organization: an organized force is a thousand times as capable as an unorganized one. A good example of this was the Russian Revolution: a few tens of thousands of Mensheviks took power from the Tsar, and then a few thousand terribly organized Bolsheviks rushed to them and reshaped history. This is also true of science, and we were good at it. To this comes the financial background and having access to the knowledge and findings of others. We were at a disadvantage in this area, there was no proper library, no personal contact, not to mention the internet. We were isolated, but that could be exploited. At the end of my first trip to America, I was already aware that in Hungary it was worth embarking on experiments that did not require a lot of money and a larger team, and I did those here deliberately, and not in America. Due to this, I was very fertile even after my return to Pécs. In addition, even after my return to America, I went to a small university where the somewhat isolated environment was very fitting for me. Neuroscience is a bit like the Wild West: a person may find more gold than a group of two hundred, and a small lab can, with some luck, produce an even greater impact than an institution of hundreds. There are specific statements that labs of 12 to 20 people are most effective, also because this is the number where casual conversations and personal relationships work best. You could say that the Kádár regime was no greater disadvantage than if I had been in Oklahoma, for example.

- After the second American trip, you decided to stay in America and the rest is history, so to say. How difficult was this decision professionally and personally?

- For my first trip, I owed it to Endre Grastyán to come back, and my wife hadn’t even graduated from university at the time, so that wasn’t an issue. Also, after tasting the west, I was attracted to the thing. By the time of my second trip, the system had eased, it was already the era of goulash communism, it was easier to get out. It should be known about Endre Grastyán that he was a real local patriot: not only Hungarian, but a Pécs person. I respected this very much in him and he asked me to stay to be his successor as the head of the institute. This, of course, worked out very well for me, but I was also in contact with a Czech professor who was not released anywhere for a long time after the Prague Spring. He told me, “Son, you owe it to your talent”. I then had a long conversation with Endre Grastyán, who realized that this was indeed the right way to go. I saw that I could better serve my country from abroad than if I had stayed in Pécs. To this day, I see it this way: more than a hundred young Hungarian researchers turned to me, this would not have been possible if I had continued here.

- Your connection to Hungarian scientific life was not interrupted, in fact. How did you manage to keep in touch with your former colleagues and friends in Pécs?

- In retrospect, I regret that I did not take better care of these connections at the time. However, this did not happen at all because anyone would have felt bad, the Institute of Physiology in Pécs simply started to deal with other research directions, so young people looking for opportunities abroad did not come to me. I got into a closer professional relationship and friendship with Péter Somogyi and Tamás Freund, and their students still come to me to this day. The people of Pécs started arriving slowly: Feri Gallyas (Ferenc Gallyas Sr.) came out in the early nineties, Lajos Vereczkei, Imre Szabó spent a summer here thanks to a longer scholarship, then Zsolt Horváth, Gábor Jandó and so on.

- The Buzsáki Lab welcomes young talent from all over the world and it is obviously close to its heart to embrace and support them. It seems to me that you are following the footsteps of Professor Grastyán.

- Of course, there is one such aspect, but every person is different, and Endre Grastyán was inimitable. We don’t even have to look like our role model in everything. I think we have a lot in common, I also like to help others, and my directness is similar to his, and the way I also look at the great connections. But I also see labs that work differently and are also very successful. Scientific success can be achieved in many atmospheres; for me, the atmosphere in his institute is an example to follow, and to this day I use the so-called “Grastyán method,” that is, shared lunches. We also insisted on this during the coronavirus epidemic, and now we are back to normal. There is a lot to learn from each other, especially in such a diverse and multilingual environment.

- What would you say, what advice would you give to young people who are thinking about the medical field and research career?

- I dare not give advice because every profession is different, everyone is motivated differently. Perhaps most importantly, you don’t have to look at what scientific issues are worth addressing because it can become obsolete in a day. A young scientist should think that the most important question is what he asks, he should believe in it. Then he needs to shape the relationships or fit into existing systems according to his own individuality. All PhD students should find the sub-area where they are slightly better than average. It might be too big a goal to say that I want to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, for example, but if we formulate smaller, more easily achievable sub-goals in addition to the long-term goal, we may feel that we are getting closer to them every day, even with failures along the way. There is no scientific research without failures. I think a medical student needs to consider how important regular positive feedback is to him. If so, a practical medical career is a great opportunity to do so, helping people there every day and experiencing success. If you ask a researcher like me what you discovered today, one will scratch his head and say nothing or very little. If, on the other hand, someone is willing to fight for their ideas, to cling to them, then the “aha-moment” may come, which is worth working for up to even ten years.

- We started the conversation with the honorary doctor’s robe from UP (PTE), which you received in 2017 on the occasion of your inauguration as an honorary doctor. Obviously, you still have colleagues and students at the university; How active are these relationships and how do you see the atmosphere that you fell in love with at this university?

- There is room for improvement in this area, and this is primarily my fault. On the one hand, as I mentioned, my research direction is handled by a relatively small team in Pécs, so I mostly maintain closer professional relations in Budapest and Szeged. Also, I don’t consider myself a good politician and organizer, so I am reluctant to give advice to university leaders, and although the government has repeatedly asked for advice, I have remained at my own field. The distance is also great, and the Lab connects me to America, so unfortunately, even on a trip to Hungary, I can’t spend as much time in Pécs as I would like. We are working on to make some changes in this area.

- If you manage to get to Pécs, where do you prefer to go and what do you like to do?

- It depends on whether I am alone or with my family. If I’m alone, I meet my former colleagues and my sister, and if I come with my family, we go up to the Mecsek or watch some good concerts. I really like walking the Barbakán and Káptalan Streets; the museums there are fantastic, and I had a teeny-weeny role in their birth as well. I helped Ferenc Romváry, the creator of the Modern Hungarian Gallery, at a young age, I translated the publication of the Modern Hungarian Gallery at that time, and he introduced me to the world of fine arts. Like Endre Grastyán, he is a true local patriot, which I greatly appreciate in him. For a long time, I was a tour guide, enthusiastically trying to sell the Cathedral as the most beautiful church in the world, or the Csontváry Museum as a unique thing in the world. Some even believed this, and everyone appreciated that someone who really believes spoke about these. It is an important experience for me to this day; If the people who live there talk enthusiastically about their country or city, then these are probably great places.