Born in Budapest, Hungary, in the waning days of the Cold War, I grew up as the child of itinerant academics throughout Europe before settling in the United Kingdom. Educated at Oxford and Cardiff, my career has spanned a range of exciting fields, including law, intelligence analysis, cryptography/cryptanalysis, data science and, eventually, settled down as a clinical computational epidemiologist. My special areas of interest lie in simulated population contact networks, the modelling of viral infections (in particular the behaviour of filoviridae), population health and facilitating secure and safe health information interchange that still yields considerable benefits for research.
I have been married to the love of my life, Katie, since 2013, and she has been an abiding source of joy in my life. When not working, I try to spend as much time with her as possible. I am a voracious reader, I enjoy running and cycling, and the occasional chance to do watercolours. I am also devoting a considerable part of my free time to Enabl3d, a project to create open source 3D printable occupational aids for persons with disabilities. Enabl3d was born from my personal experience of disability and while it is still in its earliest stages, I have high hopes that it will be able to change the face of occupational therapy and self-re-enablement one day.
I’m a (very fallible) Catholic, trying to live out a vocation of holiness through work and family. Unlike my wife, a convert, I am a cradle Catholic who ‘came back’ to the church in his late teens – a sort of Catholic baal teshuvah. I don’t know as much about the theological foundations of my faith as I ought to, but I’m spending quite some time trying to redress this in my free time.
I was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1986, and have lived all over Europe over the almost three decades of my life. At the risk of sounding more hipster than I am, I haven’t felt an inherent connection to any place until my early 20s, when I settled down for a few years (albeit travelling frequently) in Oxford, England.
I spent my school years in Germany and, subsequently, Hungary. Much of my early youth was quite solitary – I had a tough time understanding people (it wasn’t until my late teens that I taught myself enough social skills to work around this limitation and became a veritable social butterfly!), but got along with machines pretty darn well. Logo in 1992 and QuickBASIC in 1994 were the gateway drugs to what must by now be an almost daily coding habit of two and a half decades. Heavier drugs like PHP, Python and C followed as I grew more interested in what back then was just called computational statistics. That my mother was doing a social sciences PhD at the same time and I had access to SPSS, which I mastered in weeks better than her class did in months, was definitely helpful.
On the whole described as a hard-working but not particularly clever student, I was a generalist – I had good grades in all subjects except, perhaps, arts, which was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it meant I had the opportunity to do anything – I could have gotten into university to do any subject. At the same time, I had no idea what to do and did not quite know what I was passionate about. While I have spent most of my childhood in front of a computer screen, , I was so set in looking at computing as something inherently autodidactically acquired that I was not seriously considering a computer science degree. My alternatives were down to law or medicine, the subjects ‘socially acceptable’ for someone from my background. I went with law – I can’t handle suffering I cannot alleviate, and thus I knew medicine was not for me.
A false start
I went up to Oxford in 2005, studying jurisprudence (that’s a pretentious way to say ‘law degree’). I was one of the fortunate few who had the chance to be tutored by some of the greatest minds of Oxford at the time – John Finnis, John Gardner and Simon Gardner were some of my tutors, and I will always think back fondly of the time I spent with them (even if they occasionally involved heated debate!).
I loved, loved, loved everything about Oxford. It was a kingdom of nerds, a place where outcasts became royalty and everyone could find a small niche in the myriad of student organisations. When not in the college law library (which I would soon turn into my own personal haven and assume formal control of it as law librarian), I would be at the rifle range or on the water. Rowing and target rifle shooting were a great counter-position of power and strength on one hand (as Six in a VIII, I was primarily rated for the ability to inject sheer raw power into the boat from its centre of gravity to keep it stable and steady) and concentration and focus on the other. Following a year studying forensics in Leiden, Netherlands, I returned to Oxford for my final year. To everybody’s surprise, I graduated with the top 1st in my year and a bucket full of major prizes. Curiously, one of them was for EU law, my least favourite subject.
I went on to spend some time in Cardiff, and eventually in London. During this time, I have been occupied by a range of pursuits, including a brief stint in legal practice, work in intelligence analysis, cryptology and various other activities. I eventually returned to Oxford for the oddly-named Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL), which is neither a bachelor’s nor of civil law, but rather a sort of Top Gun for lawyers. I competed, and was shortlisted, for the Prize Fellowship at All Souls but was weighed, measured and found too supportive of some heretical ideas (viz. ‘free markets occasionally work’ and ‘life is sacred and it’s law’s duty to enshrine this’ – I know, I’m a total rebel).
Darkness and light
On an unseasonably warm day in November 2011, my entire life changed in an instant when I was diagnosed with a serious but virtually unknown autoimmune illness, haemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (what a mouthful!). HLH kills almost 80% of people – with treatment. To this day, I credit my survival, and the ability to survive without requiring a bone marrow transplant, to my physical fitness from half a decade of rowing. I have not, since then, had the chance to be on water, but I know I’ll be back someday.
A long time of treatment and recuperation followed, with various unpleasantnesses. After the end of a six-month course of gruelling chemotherapy, most of which I spent praying to the Great Porcelain God, my oncologist encouraged me to ‘do something crazy’. I did. I asked out a colleague I had some interest in, only to understand that what I was looking for was right in front of my eyes: the clever, witty, hilarious yet deeply sensitive and caring girl whose Twitter messages have kept me going through nights spent in pain and vomiting, through doubts and fears. Months later, when she crossed the Atlantic to visit me, I proposed to her in the Fellows’ Garden of my old Oxford college. That same winter, she moved over to England to train at Sotheby’s and live with me. We were civilly married in 2013 and married in the Church in 2014 in the chapel of her alma mater, Marian College in Indianapolis, IN. I can safely say she’s the best thing ever to have happened to me.
A new beginning
After leaving law, I moved back to my ‘safe place’, Oxford, to devote myself full-time to setting up a private geospatial and political risk intelligence shop with a university friend. During the years that followed, we would be courted by governments and public bodies and provide mission critical output in support of various strategic objectives.
After a brief stint heading UK delivery operations for a Swiss company handling natural language search and analytics solutions, during which I have been embedded in some of the leading financial services institutions in the UK, I joined RB plc, a FTSE100 FMCG company, as its Chief Data Scientist. Tasked with a mission to build up a centralised data capability that would enable enterprise level data science applications, but the corporate willingness to invest in such an architecture waned with every day as its costs became increasingly apparent. I will always think back on my days at RB plc as a life-changing lesson and an instructive failure, one that shaped my outlook on building data science operations forever. During this time, we have also built a uniquely powerful agent-based model for Dengue fever, a model that in many ways predicted the approaches that would years later be used for ZIKV prediction.
Flying home from a conference in early 2014, I was experiencing some unusual symptoms: blurry vision, numbness, balance issues. An MRI scan and further investigations revealed that I have been suffering from multiple sclerosis, quite probably brought on as a sequelae of my brush with HLH years earlier. It was a life-changing diagnosis, and it took me quite some time to process it. I am now fortunately in remission, although damage to my spinal cord is permanent and irreversible. It took me eighteen months to re-learn how to run and once again build up a degree of physical fitness.
By then, I have been living in the UK for a decade (with tiny interruptions). I have been in all sorts of positions in data science, got patents and articles to my name, and so on. Many of these were, of course, withheld by the government due to the national security implications of much of my research. In mid-2015, I parted ways from RB and with Katie we embarked on my next posting, as a senior technical expert in the data science skunkworks of a large German automotive company in Munich. In less than a month, we packed up all our existence in neatly barcoded boxes, hastily obtained a passport for our kitten, made a bid on a house sight-unseen and flew to Munich. To all three of us, this was a fairly big adventure. The two years we spent in picturesque Pasing were an intellectually stimulating and quite interesting period, but it was always meant to be temporary. With my work in epidemiology once again taking foreground, I was appointed to join Transcend Insights, a population health company based in San Diego, CA. And so, we are about to embark on what might be an even bigger one. Over the next few months, we will be making our way across the Atlantic to take up my position full time in San Diego – a dream come true, not the least because of the privilege of working with some of the most talented, agile and consummate professionals in population health.
It is perhaps one of the unique blessings of life that for various administrative reasons, we were not immediately able to move to the United States, but rather have to stay in a ‘holding pattern’ in Hungary for a few months. This gives me a chance to introduce my wife to my homeland and to allow her to explore this wonderful, crazy country.
The unique exhilaration of working in a field like computational epidemiology is the ever-changing adventure. Any given day, you may find me looking at ways to identify neurological pathologies on the basis of gait data, creating tools to help companies assess their own data policies and structures using Big Data or mentoring undergraduates who want to embark on a career in the data science industry.
Family and friends often ask what it is I ‘actually’ do (as if being a data scientist were a cover legend for a life as an international man of mystery!). Usually, I explain to them some ideas about my current framework of practice. But to me, I’ve got a better answer. I do the thing I love more than just about anything else: I am being curious. I am in the unique situation that I am even getting paid for my curiosity. And amidst all the frustrations and administrivia and all that comes with a career in private sector research (a world away from public sector, i.e. university, research, but sharing some of the same annoyances, e.g. bureaucracy), I still manage to find time to encounter my subject area of choice with that childlike wonder that has driven me since I was very young.
When I’m not working, I spend time mentoring young data scientists, collaborating with people on open source projects, play with our kitten River, create art, play computer games or I do what I love more than anything: spending time with my wife Katie, who is my best friend, greatest intellectual partner and soulmate. None of this would be possible without her.