Spotlight on FMIers: Gergely Tihanyi

Spotlight on FMIers showcases the lives, work and passions of the institute’s researchers and support staff. This time, graduate student Gergely Tihanyi tells us about his love for food and cooking, and he shares his insights on the FMI Master Chef series — virtual events where FMIers come together to cook and socialize.

Science and cooking are two of Gergely Tihanyi’s biggest passions. When he isn’t in the lab studying how DNA structure influences gene expression, you can find him at home preparing delicacies of all kinds — from sushi to pizza to Chinese noodles. Moved by the desire to meet new people during COVID times, in January 2021 Gergely helped to start the FMI Master Chef, a weekly event inspired by the popular cooking TV show.

Q: How did your passion for cooking come to be?
A: My mother, who was a stay-at-home mom, used to cook every day for the family, and as a kid I sometimes helped her to prepare dinner. That’s when my passion started. During college, my friends and I used to cook big batches of food and sell it to students in the university dorms. We were preparing food for 50-60 people once every month: it was super cool. Most of what I know about cooking is self-taught — from books, YouTube videos or recipes found on the Internet. My mom gave me the basics, but now when we meet, I’m the one who cooks.

Q: You come from Hungary. What’s your favorite Hungarian dish?
A: It’s a stew made of beef and vegetables seasoned with paprika and other spices, which is called pörkölt. Here, people call it goulash, but this is a misnomer. In Hungary, if you order a goulash, you’ll get a soup made of beef. If you want to get the stew, you should order a pörkölt. We also have some nice cakes and pickled foods such as cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, corn, cabbage — Hungarians pickle pretty much any veggie.

Q: Have you ever considered becoming a chef?
A: For my brother’s wedding, I helped to cook a goulash soup for about 150 people, but I wouldn’t want to make a living out of cooking. I don’t see myself making the same food over and over, not for my enjoyment but for customers. However, I’m interested in learning more about molecular gastronomy, where scientific principles are applied to food preparation.

Q: Do you see a parallel between cooking and doing science?
A: Yes. Cooking is following a recipe, and in the lab there are also protocols to follow. I really like to do things with my hands, be it pipetting in the lab or cooking at home: to me, it feels similar. The biggest difference is that in the kitchen, you can mix and match and see what comes out. In the lab, you should follow protocols, otherwise your experiments may not be reproducible.

Q: You’re a PhD candidate in the group of Luca Giorgetti. What is your project about?
A: In Luca’s lab, people investigate fundamental questions of gene expression in connection with the structure of chromosomes, which has a functional effect on how genes are expressed. I’m studying how short regions of DNA called enhancers interact with other DNA sequences that are needed to turn a gene on or off.

Q: Why did you decide to join Luca’s group at the FMI?
A: I did my Master’s thesis in the lab of Edith Heard at EMBL Heidelberg, where I came across a study that Luca published when he was in Edith’s group. That study really got me into genome organization and spatial regulation of gene expression. I’m a chemist by training but I always tried to merge chemistry with biology, so another aspect that I really like about Luca’s lab is that there are people from many different fields who work together.

Q: Let’s talk about the FMI Master Chef series. Why did you decide to start these events?
A: I joined the FMI during the COVID-19 pandemic, so I haven’t had the opportunity to meet many people. At the PhD program orientation day, I asked [Guidance Counsellor] Piera Cicchetti if there was any cooking-related event happening online at the institute. She said no, but a few weeks later, she told me that my question spurred her to conceive a virtual event about cooking and socializing. So, with the help of Piera, I started the Master Chef series.

Q: What has it been like so far?
A: I’m very happy about it. We meet every week on Thursday evening, and there is always a different person who presents a new recipe. Recipes are sent in advance, so that people can gather the ingredients. The whole thing is about cooking, and you can learn new tips and tricks, but it’s perfectly fine if people don’t cook along. Essentially, we’re there to chat about anything. Thanks to the series, I got to know some very nice people at the FMI.

Q: Do you find it easy to connect with people during virtual events?
A: I know that it can be hard to socialize on Zoom. But the good thing about the Master Chef series is that if there is an awkward silence, we can always talk about food. Hosts usually cook dishes from their home countries: we had Cuban rice, German spätzle, Italian pasta, I made a paprika dish from Hungary. Through food, you can learn a lot about different regions of the world. For example, once we had a person cooking a dish from Sicily, and he was talking about Mount Etna, because he used to live very close to it. That day, I learned so much about life in Sicily and how volcanoes work!

Q: Do you plan to continue with the series once the pandemic is over?
A: Oh, yeah. It would be great to do it in person, but I’m also happy to continue with virtual events. I’d really like FMIers to see the Master Chef series as an opportunity to meet new people.

FMIers chatting, cooking, and having fun during a Master Chef virtual event.

Gergely Tihanyi was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. After graduating in chemical engineering from the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Gergely did a Master’s in molecular biosciences at the University of Heidelberg. In 2020, he joined the lab of Luca Giorgetti at the FMI, where he investigates how specific DNA regions regulate gene expression. In his spare time, Gergely enjoys cooking and caring for his two pet axolotls. He’s also a skilled Hungarian folk dancer.