Dr Éva Bényei is a third year PhD student at Churchill College, working in the field of microbiology. We met with Éva to find out more about her journey as a woman in STEM, including her thoughts on why more girls and women should consider studying sciences.
What’s your background?
I was born and raised in Debrecen, the second biggest city of Hungary. I finished my high-school education there, in a STEM focused class. I had the chance to “taste” scientific research during these years which played a big part in my motivation to become a medic. My aim was to understand the human body so I could execute research that was relevant and could be translated from basic science to clinical practice. I secured a place at the Faculty of Medicine at Semmelweis University in Budapest and I carried on my research activity and participated in several projects, in parallel to my medical studies. Mid-way through my medical training my goal was to work as an Infectious Disease specialist but by the end of my 6 years, I realised my path was in science and the next step was to do a PhD.
Can you tell me about your journey to Churchill College?
When I was applying for my PhD course at Cambridge, I asked the potential (and my current) Supervisor about the college system and he recommended Churchill due to the opportunities provided by the College as well as the community. I did more research, watched the videos online and Churchillians seemed to be happy and productive so I submitted it at the first choice in my application – and here I am today.
What is your area of interest / research?
I am based at the Department of Biochemistry and working on the field of microbiology. In many infection scenarios, the pathogen (the main microbe causing the problems) shares the environment with a veritable “zoo” of other microbes, including bacterial and fungal species – yet these are rarely taken into account when testing new antimicrobial agents. My research focuses on this polymicrobial community in lungs during chronic infections and aims to increase our understanding of how the presence of co-habiting species alter antimicrobial susceptibility in polymicrobial cultures, especially if Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a Gram-negative bacteriumis present.
What or who first inspired you to study sciences?
I have always been eager to learn new things and “discover the world”. My parents and brother played an important role in feeding my curiosity, providing me with plentiful support to implement my ideas; from extracurricular activities, to experiments in the kitchen. My wonderful teachers also supported me and when they recognised my interest in science, they motivated me to participate in conference-style competitions and other opportunities where I could meet likeminded students. Joining the Hungarian Research Student Association and being amongst other up-and-coming, ambitious young researchers not only catalysed my professional development but also contributed to the development of lifelong friendships.
What continues to drive your interest in your area of specialism now?
Curiosity and people. In my opinion, all researchers have some desire to understand different phenomena, to “break the secret code of nature”. On the other hand, for me the people around me are also very important. From everyday collaborations to networking or chats over a good coffee – all these interactions motivate me to put more effort, energy and time into my work.
Why should girls / women consider studying sciences?
Because it is great fun, independent from someone’s gender or background. Science is a language, a mystery, a game with WOW moments and sometimes annoying difficulties. But it is beautiful as a complex whole and we need to include all perspectives to really understand it. So, girls and women are equally essential and required in each field. I am not saying that if someone decides to join this area, it will be always easy, it won’t, but it doesn’t have to be. Each day, a scientist learns new things, steps towards understanding and is never bored.
What have you got involved in at the College?
I found the Churchill community very welcoming from the beginning and I aimed to contribute to that. By joining the MCR first as the Academic Officer and then as the Vice-President General Secretary gave me the opportunity to serve and improve the everyday life of this wonderful group of students. I got the opportunity to organise events such as Freshers’ week activities, ChuTalks and the Conference on Everything, and help new and senior students (e.g. writing the MCR Student Handbook for Freshers) and to learn by doing so. I believe I have been a valuable member and that motivates me and makes me happy.
What has been the highlight of your time at Churchill thus far?
There have been several highlights from my time here but the one I would like to mention is the Conference on Everything. Running a conference with people from very different fields (e.g. Medicine, Linguistics, Engineering etc.) could have been a difficult task but every participant was open-minded and curious about each other’s projects, asked great questions and based on the feedback, had a wonderful time. For my part, this balanced combination of the professional and human factor describes Churchill most accurately!
What do you like most about life at the College?
People and their attitude. Most people I have met here are very open and happy to engage in discussion. These conversations can be about anything from the weather to everyday news or science, generating new information and perspectives. Also, from a technical point of view, I really like living in College accommodation, especially as my room is in a refurbished, carbon neutral house which is not only nice but sustainable.
What would you say to someone considering coming to Churchill?
It’s a great and diverse place that makes your life better, happier and more successful.
What do you like doing in your spare time?
I like taking advantage of the fact that I am in Cambridge and if I have spare time, I go to networking and other social events. I feel these as unique opportunities to easily meet with world-leading experts from almost any field.
What are your plans after completing your studies at Churchill?
I haven’t made my mind up yet about the next step but it will either be the research path or on the business side, so for example entrepreneurship. Now, I am doing my best to discover the details of both opportunities to make a well-informed decision.
What are your long-term career aspirations?
I would like to contribute to medical solutions making everyone’s life better and help to create a science backed tomorrow.