In this personal interview, Milestone’s newly-appointed Division Head of Natural Sciences, Klára Horváth gives insights into her work, research and interests and shares her thoughts on studying Medicine, her personal and professional experiences as a doctor and researcher in Hungary and Oxford, as well as her expertise on sleeping, dreams and superstition.
Klára has a PhD in Experimental Psychology, publishes studies in prestigious international academic journals, works as a resident doctor at the 2nd Department of Paediatrics, Semmelweis University and engages in and leads scientific research projects. She joined Milestone a year ago where she mentors students and teaches Psychology and Biology related modules on subjects such as Psycholinguistics, Developmental Psychology and Sleeping. She is an outstanding individual with a respectful, positive personality and a charming modesty. She gives and receives inspiration from being a member of the intellectually stimulating community at Milestone: “The greatest thing about Milestone is that it encourages staff and students to develop constantly and one can be in contact with, spend time and work together with many inspirational individuals”.
Klára found her vocation and métier as a child after reading a book on the struggling life of the first Hungarian woman who succeeded in becoming a medical doctor. Under the influence of this romantic novel, she started preparing for life at medical school whilst she was in primary school. However, she was not always certain about remaining on the path of graduating as a doctor in the Hungarian medical education system and of finding her place in the realm of Medicine: “I felt the urgent need for change and opening up new perspectives, especially in the first two years of medical school, because I did not find my place. I did not like what and how we were obliged to learn at the University. I was also sickened by the way professors treated students, particularly female students, such as the time when one of them advised me to abandon my studies and go home to raise a child instead. I needed a break and I skipped a year at Semmelweis University and started studying Psychology at ELTE. Moreover, I became involved in laboratory research led by Róbert Bódizs at the Institute of Behavioural Sciences at SOTE. During that period, I not only learned the know-how of doing scientific research but I also got hooked on researching”.
For four years, in the sleep lab of Semmelweis University, Klára examined and monitored people dreaming nightmares. With her surveys she attempted to decipher what sleeping pattern caused the problem of having bad dreams. From then on, ‘sleeping’ became a permanent and continuous subject of her research, more particularly, the exploration of the correspondence between sleeping and human intelligence and cognition. Insights from previous research and the literature surrounding the subject of her research made her realise the scarcity of data and knowledge concerning the sleeping habits of children: “My personal experience is that children do not get the amount of sleep that they need. I learnt from worried parents that sleeping occurred again and again as a major problem in most families. And, in most cases, parents simply do not know how they should help their children to overcome such problems. So, the lack of scientific knowledge about child sleeping was quite surprising and disquieting. In addition, if one recalls recent debates about the problem of school start times, nobody can deny the fact that there is also a definite social need for scientific research and study in the field of sleeping and sleeping habits”.
Klára received her PhD degree at Oxford University where she spent four years before returning to Hungary. When she decided to continue her postgraduate studies at Oxford, it was not the reputation of the University that influenced her, the choice was made on a professional basis: “In 2011 there were only 4 or 5 university laboratories around the globe which conducted research on sleeping in children. Most of them were in the US and I simply did not want to go there. At Oxford, I joined a laboratory which concerned itself with child development and cognition, but they were intending to extend their field of research on sleeping”. Whilst at Oxford, Klára focused on the subject of sleeping and early language development. As a PhD student at the BabyLab of the Oxford Experimental Psychology Department, she examined and studied children from 3-month-old babies to 2-year-old infants under the supervision of Professor Kim Plunkett. Getting involved in the research work was not a problem, but difficulties soon began to arise in other aspects of student and social life: “I found myself surrounded by highly educated fellow students with perfect English. In this environment, one cannot help but wonder whether one is good enough. At first the experience made me feel uncomfortable and I took time to gain real confidence in my staying there. Finding acquaintances was not that difficult, yet making strong relationships proved to be complicated: people generally only spend a few years at Oxford whilst studying and after that they leave, so there is a constant rotation of people there. It is exciting to meet new people and build relationships from scratch, but, after a while, one gets tired of it”.
During her time at Oxford, Klára became the President of the Oxford Hungarian Society which was founded in 1987 and comprised students as well as Hungarian expatriates. When Klára took up the position, she was faced with the problem that, in past years, the number of student members had been decreasing and the Society did not provide a strong community in contrast with other Eastern-European associations at the University: “It was ridiculous to see that instead of seeking each others company and sticking together, Hungarians were hiding away from their compatriots. Of course some of us became friends and teamed up, but there was no society which provided comfort and cohesion in the sense of belonging to a community”. As President she encouraged young people to study abroad and made potential Hungarian university students believe that they could have a place at Oxford. That is how she made contact with Milestone: “I was thinking about how I could persuade and support students to travel abroad and discover the world outside Hungary with the idea that when their university years were over they could go back to their home country and offer their expertise and knowledge for the service of their community. That is how I discovered the Milestone Institute, which had already set this initiative in motion well before I even started thinking about it. I sent an invitation to Milestone to present the work of the Institute to the audience of the Oxford Hungarian Society György Greskovits accepted the offer and it was also he who later encouraged me to join and contribute to the Milestone Programme”.
After fours years, Klára returned to Budapest and commenced her residency training at the 2nd Department of Paediatrics of Semmelweis University. Apart from being homesick and missing the unique charm of Budapest, she felt a strong sense of responsibility that brought her home: “I got stuck in a Catch-22 situation; going forward required much more effort from me than from those who went through the British Medical Education Programme from start to finish. The English system is very inflexible and bureaucratic. Compared with those who spent five years in a British medical school, I was overqualified simply because I had studied for 6 years at a Hungarian university, so I was not allowed to start the residency training programme. I also could not join the specialised doctor trainee programme because I needed more field experience in British clinics for the application. I could have accessed the system by doing a serious amount of locum jobs which would have been going backwards in order to struggle forward”. Taking everything into consideration she started working in the Hungarian healthcare system. She feels that individuals can contribute to the improvement of the broken system by merely doing their jobs and following their duty, a simple practical policy which she acquired abroad: “My experiences in Britain reinforced my belief that a positive attitude combined with organised work pays off and moves things forward. At first I was sceptical about this, but luckily I managed to embrace this idea and follow this philosophy”.
Recently, Klára was the recipient of the Residency Excellence Award from Sanofi and the editorial board of the Medicina TOP Almanac at the 34th Medicina Conference: “With this award they not only valued my work as a doctor, but they also recognised all those other activities that are related to my profession, from performing research to teaching at Milestone”.
Klára is eager to extend the scope of her research and activities beyond the frontiers of Hungary. Two years ago she joined the programme of Education Partnerships Africa, an NGO run by the alumni of Cambridge, Oxford and London Universities. She spent five weeks in Uganda taking part in the NGO’s mission of healthcare development and investigating the sleeping habits of local elementary students, while also writing a blog: “Most of the research on sleeping focused on America and Europe, therefore we know almost nothing about Africa in this regard. In Ugandan society and culture people think of sleeping in a completely different way than Europeans, their thoughts and ideas are steeped in superstition. Some of them think that sleeping is a similar condition to death, others are scared to sleep because they fear that their dreams will become real, but mostly they regard sleeping as a lazy and idle activity. In general they do not think that sleeping is a physiological need and they do not associate it with fatigue. In contrast with Ugandan children, even the smallest infant in Hungary would be aware that when he is tired, he needs to sleep. These prejudices have a considerably negative effect on how they perform at school” – claims Klára, who is currently working on implementing sleep therapies for clinical patients and planning to establish a sleep laboratory at the 2nd Department of Paediatrics of Semmelweis University.