“In many ways, MIT was a turning point. A paragraph like this on your CV opens doors. I was awarded a tender after MIT that formed the cornerstone of the ANET research group,” says Balázs Lengyel midway through the interview about one of the milestones in his research career, but it is worth mentioning the amount of work, knowledge and inspiration it took for him to get here.
Balázs’ first role model in his academic career was his own father, who specialises in regional economics at the University of Szeged. Imre Lengyel researches the competitiveness of regions in both Hungary and neighbouring countries, and Balázs has observed his father working intently since his childhood: “He always satisfied his own curiosity, and I liked that very much”.
Turning to research
Following in his father’s footsteps, he studied economics and business administration at the University of Szeged, where he wrote a TDK thesis on the different concepts of knowledge and their relation to higher education, and then, developing the topic further, he started his PhD on knowledge sharing between academia and the business sector at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics in 2005.
At the start of doctoral school, he gave a lecture on the topic at a conference in Prague, where he attracted the interest of several researchers, including an American professor who introduced him to Loet Leyersdorff. A renowned researcher of the University of Amsterdam came up with an idea based on Balázs’s topic and said that if he could gather data from Hungary, they could write a joint article. “I jumped on the opportunity, but it took five years to write the article, and it was published in 2010.”
“I learned a lot from it, especially that “writing an international publication is a much harder and longer process than I thought”.
Balázs’s thinking was fundamentally influenced by the many places he visited abroad during both his university and doctoral school years. The professional conference in Prague is just one of many, but he has visited Finland on a scholarship, attended DIMETIC, a summer university in three locations (Strasbourg, Pécs, Marseille), attended a summer university in Utrecht, and won a 3-month scholarship in Denmark. “We went to Aalborg with my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and during the day I attended the university, alongside which we delivered newspapers or did cleaning jobs,” says Balázs, explaining that although many trips abroad can sound good, they also require sacrifices. “You either raise money for these trips or you finance them yourself. More than once I slept in couchsurfing accommodation during a conference abroad, but that just added to the allure of the period”. He says these trips were essential because it is very difficult to break into academia, there is so much competition. Balázs says one thing is very important:
“You need to attend these places and make new connections. A lot depends on contacts”.
iWiW data and their background
During the Danish scholarship in 2008, Balázs was very interested in the iWiW network and database, a social media platform developed in Hungary. He had to write a paper on data analysis for the summer university in Utrecht, so he and his partner went into the university computer lab and over the course of two days, they created an Excel spreadsheet for 2,600 Hungarian municipalities, showing how many registered users there were per municipality and how many friend contacts they had in total.
The first article about iWiW was written based on the manually created database, and years later Balázs was able to present his research to the leaders of the Origo social media platform. He wanted to gather more data, which the then declining iWiW owners agreed to, so he gained access to a huge database and with it a huge scientific opportunity.
Using the available data, they were able to model very accurately how iWiW became widespread in Hungary, what the geography of social connection networks in Hungary is, they also explained the structure of income inequality by the structure of contacts, and their colleagues also modelled exactly how the decline of iWiW came about. The results of several of their studies were presented in the Dreamers of Dreams exhibition currently on display at the Millenáris.
They made the data available for research purposes, but they also have a number of other ideas for their use. They are currently investigating the link between mental illness and the network of contacts: “Our basic hypothesis is that there is a relationship between the influence of a person’s close and distant friendships on their mental state and their propensity to buy antidepressants. We are still working on the research, but the initial results are promising.”
You must be able to speak up among more intelligent people
The year-long scholarship at MIT from 2016 to 2017 was the result of both his work to date and a strong network of contacts. “I met János Kertész, a professor at CEU, through the iWiW data articles, and through him I got in touch with MIT, and I managed to win a tender.”
Besides the value of prestige and making an impression on his CV, Balázs says he has learned a lot about how to contribute to academic dialogue. “When you are sitting in a room with twenty other people who have worked as hard as you to get here, all of whom have brought at least as much to the table as you have, and you have to come up with clever and original ideas among them, it really influences what you say in that moment.”
According to him, there is a very strong pressure to perform at MIT, which is why everyone, without exception, works hard. The spirit of the place also brought out the same in him, and he also made acquaintances such as Marta Gonzalez and Cesar Hidalgo. They are both students of the leading network researcher László Barabási-Albert.
During his time at MIT, he won a 5-year research project worth a total of HUF 150 million, which enabled him to set up his own research group, ANET, at the Institute of Economics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Their main focus is on economic and economic geography research. NETI, which is operates under Corvinus University, where he works part-time, was launched in 2020, typically conducting data-driven research with the participation of sociologists and data scientists.
At Corvinus, he won the Corvinus Research Excellence Award in 2022, mainly for his articles on the geographical spread of iWiW and the relationship of the iWiW network with income inequality. He still considers himself primarily an economic geography researcher, working on the frontiers of network science. “Perhaps the new computational social science best captures my field of interest”.
Asked if, with the professional relationships he has built up, he now feels that building relationships as part of a professional community almost happens on its own, he immediately shakes his head and says that he has to work proactively on this to this day: “In my experience, nothing works by itself. There are many articles being written, and in this very competitive world, it is not enough to publish in a few good journals. You have to be present, you have to lecture, you have to look for tendering and scholarship opportunities and the kind of intellectual vitality that is typical of places like MIT. This is what we want to achieve for both ANET and NETI”.
Author: László Tucsni, Corvinus Communication