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  • Dániel Hajas

Dániel: The way I see it

Greetings, I’m Daniel. When people ask if they should call me Dan, Danny, Daniel, I usually say, you can call me Bob if you like, as long as I know you refer to me. You see, that’s also my view on one introducing him or herself. I could say I’m a social entrepreneur or use labels like a scientist, or a virtue such as, ambitious student. But I prefer leaving this job to you. I’ll tell my story and you tell me who I am, whether my journey is interesting enough to motivate you to dream big.

A picture of Dániel at his graduation. He is wearing a black cap and robe and is standing on a field in front of a red-brick university building. He has brown hair and beard and is smiling at the camera.

I’m a rather simple guy, a first generation scholar. My parents, grandparents, and in fact, nobody from my immediate family attended university. Remarkable people I love, but I wasn’t exposed to an academic influence. I didn’t build my first Otto motor at age 6, or write computer games when I was 10. I received lots of carrying, good nurturing, love, attention but wasn’t surrounded with the latest high-tech coming from Hungary, the “wild East” as me and my dad call it. Since a young age I was a curious mind, passionate about mathematics and inventing, being creative and thinking outside the box, as it’s the fashionable way to say it; but playing video games, cycling in the park, playing football like most kids.

Yet, writing this post took me ages, despite my promise to get it ready soon. And what held me back? Well, in September only, I had the pleasure to prepare for a TEDx talk, just a week after I presented at the British Science Festival. Then I jumped on a flight to see my parents in Croatia for a few days, to get some sea food, sunshine on the beach, regardless that I live in a nice flat two-minutes walk from the Hove promenade. Exhausting the cafe resources on four airports in eight days, of which three I’ve never been to; I finally returned to Brighton just in time to start my new role as a Doctoral Researcher at the SCHI - Sussex Computer Human Interaction - (sky) lab. These are merely the larger chunks of the programme, but the usual concerns and joys of being a CEO and co-founder of a social enterprise, touring around England to have a bit of personal life, and jogging on the seafront every now and then also keep me busy.

Woa, even just summarising the high-lights of my adventures make me relive the excitement and ambition underlying them. Let’s rewind a little. That’s where I’m now, but where did it begin?

I went to an international high-school, where I picked up some English, and a few other skills, though nothing extraordinary. Approaching the time to decide on further study, I hesitated. Should I go with the safer option and study something along the lines of international relations, economics, since that would have been an easier route for a multitude of reasons; or should I follow my passion, and study natural sciences despite the greater challenges? The more I argued, the more my enthusiasm grew, in particular for theoretical physics. So there we go, I applied to three science universities in Hungary, and three in the UK. I’ve been accepted to all three in my home country, and two where I live now. I decided I’ll be adventurous, packed up two suitcases, and I moved to Brighton, where I’ve never been before, haven’t known anyone. I don’t remember if it was scary at all… must have been. But I don’t regret. Soon everything has changed.

I was a spoilt child, didn’t need to worry about cooking, washing, getting to school on the bus, or any of the adult life. I didn’t have many friends either. So on one hand, the first year of uni was all about me absolutely loving to study physics content 24/7. I was literally smiling wildly at classes of modern physics or vector calculus. But the other big portion of my first year was all about meeting new friends, some of which are the greatest ever since; learning to feed myself, look after dirty pairs of socks, and work around public transport. I was really mad about physics, and because my high-school offered quite strong lessons, with advanced material, the first semester wasn’t so much of an intellectual challenge. I could even afford to go to public evening lectures organised by older physics students. I loved these informal lectures so much, that when I heard that the girl organising it is leaving, I immediately thought I need to take over and continue with the popular talks. The first such event I organised was not branded, but I managed to convince the stellar John Gribben to give a talk, who I respect a lot. From the next academic year onward, I took it even more serious, and branded the talks as the “Sussex Universe Lecture series”, extending it to the general public. With an average head count of roughly 100 people, the series is starting its fourth season this year.

Another remarkable moment of year 1, was when our computing professor Kathy, asked the students to come up with any programming or research project idea as a non-assessed, project based learning work. Well… I did. It was meant to be a 12 weeks long project, but I ended up with a design proposal for a tactile graphics display. A bit like braille note takers for the blind, but instead of braille dots arranged in a line of cells, tactile pixels arranged in a grid to display graphics. This initial idea than turned into an opportunity. An opportunity we are exploring for the last three years, with a group of ambitious people. A vision we called Grapheel, that’s slowly turning into reality, in form of a not for profit enterprise, aiming to provide assistance with science engagement, education for those who are interested. Whoops, well you know, you asked me to come up with a project idea. I did.

The initial idea was simple, and the more I thought of the potential uses, approaches to build it, the more creative I got, making me forget the initial assumptions. So during the first summer break, I sat down and wrote a 25 pages research proposal without having a clue what’s that I’m actually doing. I showed this to Kathy, who truly supported my mental creation. That’s when networking has started. I suddenly found myself within meetings surrounded with professors from psychology, informatics, cognitive science, all discussing sensory substitution, multi-sensory interfaces with me - and no, not my mental health. That’s when I also gave a 5 minutes presentation about my idea and how far I’ve got so far. Only 5 minutes. These 300 seconds were enough to get to know David, who was the first person to join in the Grapheel vision. His engineering talent enabled us to make a step closer to our goals by building a proof of concept device. At this very first presentation, we were also approached by somebody at the Sussex Innovation Centre, who made us aware of intellectual property protection, and introduced me the word “entrepreneurship”. Up to that point, I purely cared about the research task, the academic element of R&D. However, a few coffee conversations later, David and I, joined by Tim, found ourselves in a completely free crash course on start-ups and business model generation. At first as one of 60 groups, competing to get into the best 6, which we did a few months later. The weekly workshops turned the spotlights in a completely different angle. Now, with not only a hardware concept, but an entire mission, and 3 dedicated students, we were ready to change the world making the most out of a balanced view on academic research and enterprise.

Meanwhile, completing a Junior Research Associate placement, I was due to make a poster displaying my research. For one reason or another, which could be laziness, but we don’t talk about that, so shall we just say out of shear ingenuity I created a black, tactile question mark on a black poster paper as my master work. Guess what, I came second on the poster exhibition, and therefore got into Westminster Palace, the UK Parliament to showcase my work. As my great friend summarised this performance: “What would have I achieved if I made an exclamation point, and not a question mark?!”.

Although my love for physics is until eternity, as Grapheel made it’s baby steps ahead, and as we were joined by Linn, I’ve got less keen on fundamental physics research, and more and more motivated about making short term impact. Social, technological impact. All the insights through networking, learning about entrepreneurship, the linkage between industry and academia, brought me closer to my current interest, which is multi-sensory Human-Computer Interaction.

Living 100% independently, in a decent house on the seafront of Brighton; giving a TEDx talk, having completed a Masters in Theoretical Physics, making great friendships; having founded a social enterprise start-up with the most skilled people I’ve ever known and respected; at the beginning of my PhD working on cutting-edge research of the future technologies - yes, we can say that I’m incredibly lucky. A lot has changed in just four years. It was a great choice to choose the unfamiliar, and fight my demons as a 18 years old boy, who just lost his sight two years prior to going to university.

So if you ever wonder whether university is for you, and whether you can take the challenge, my advice for you is to try it. University doesn’t only teach you the course content, but if you engage with the community, you might live the best and most unexpected adventures of your life. It may help you find your interest, make connections that will define your future path. That’s who I am in a nutshell. You can also read my story on our own website, not written by me, and therefore from a different angle. I shall be back with more, shorter, more practical stories on my university life as a blind student, but meanwhile, you might find my TWIST blog posts of interest too.

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