Silvia Fierăscu (Comparative Politics track, 2017)

Dr. Silvia Fierăscu works at the intersection of academia, business, government and civil society, applying Network and Data Science to inform decision-making in anticorruption, organizational design, change management, mobilization, and innovation. She holds a Masters degree from CEU in Political Science, and a Doctoral degree from CEU in Political Science with a specialization in Network Science. She is currently a Lecturer in Communication Science and Research Fellow in Big Data Science at West University of Timisoara, where she teaches and researches digital platforms, analysis of (large) digital data, and data driven, evidence-based policy-making processes. She is also Head of OrgMapper Academy, the professional knowledge hub and training center in Organizational Network Analysis at Maven7 Network Research Inc. Hungary, where she trains and consults global Human Resources, Organizational Development and Change Management executives, consultants, and researchers to improve their organizational cultures, trust networks, communication flows and leadership capabilities. Dr. Fierascu founded and leads the Social Fabrics Research Lab at West University of Timisoara, a research, development and innovation lab in computational social sciences, and an experiential and experimental learning hub for students.

DSPS alumnus Miklós Zala (Political Theory track, 2017) caught up with Silvia at the beginning of 2021 to talk about her experience at CEU and her career after graduating.

Silvia, thank you very much for talking to us. Let me start by asking how you got to know about CEU, and why did you choose the Comparative Politics track?

Thank you very much for having me; I'm delighted to be giving this interview. The way I got to know CEU is very serendipitous. My former coordinator from my BA studied abroad in Canada. He's well-known in development studies, and he just told me something like Silvia, you must apply to CEU, there's a program there, which would be very good for you. I had no idea what CEU was back then. I also didn't have any plans to leave Romania, but I did go in my third year of undergrad with the Erasmus study abroad program to Scotland. On the last day of applications to CEU, I submitted my application just because my coordinator recommended it.

Then it happened that I got in with the full tuition waiver. So, I decided to give it a try for the two-year MA program because it's not that far from Romania. Initially, my plan was to stay for two years, but lucky for me and CEU, I was there for eight years.

It just happened that when I was an MA student, the Center for Network Science (CNS) was solidifying as a research center. In my second year of master's, I discovered the person who then became my PhD supervisor, Balázs Vedres, through my MA statistics professor, Levente Littvay.

I completely fell in love with networks, and it clicked with my worldview. We are all connected, that's for sure. But it was amazing to see that we can visualize this and analyze it scientifically. We can have all sorts of testing hypotheses and learn things about how we influence each other in different contexts.

So you were interested in finding patterns in how people relate to one another.

Yes, I think it also happened because it has something to do with my personality and upbringing. But basically, it immediately clicked with me. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do this for, probably, the rest of my life.

Of course, afterward, I discovered that if I like network graphs and I want to understand connectivity, there's a lot of math and physics behind that I also have to learn. And I was running all my life away from that. I applied to political science originally because I thought there would be nothing to do with numbers.

Then I realized, thanks to the professors who taught me at CEU, especially Levente Littvay, Tamas Rudas, Balázs Vedres, János Kertész, and László Barabási, that numbers can be highly informative, and they can tell you stories that allow you to understand the world better. I increasingly became curious and less afraid of understanding this world.

I wrote my MA thesis on an applied network analysis on legislative networks. I also had the chance to work as a research assistant in the Center for Network Science.

So, you were already a member of CNS before starting your doctoral program?

Yes. After I finished my MA, I was in a dilemma. Should I apply to the DSPS? I wanted to go to the US for a PhD. But then I knew about the plans of starting a PhD in network science in Budapest.

Moreover, one of the founding fathers of modern network science—Albert-László Barabási—was teaching here.

In that respect, it was even better than going to the US.  

Absolutely! I did a lot of research on different other programs, also political science-related. Still, I realized that at CEU, I have a unique opportunity of combining political science with network science. So whatever other choice I would have made, I probably had to give up on something. And I felt that my heart was in the middle between network science and political science.

I wanted to use both, and I wanted to do work in both worlds, and CEU it was the perfect spot for that. And it helped that I was there from the beginning. I was the first student getting a specialization during my doctoral program in a different, second track. I worked with physicists, mathematicians, and statisticians in the Department for Network and Data Science. And I was doing all the substantive work in the DSPS. It turned out that this combination was really empowering for me and what I'm doing now, after my PhD, is fantastic because I strategically took this opportunity.

How intense was this combination of political and network science?

It was extreme for many reasons. First of all, the credits that I had to receive. When you have the classes to prepare for in your own track, the first year of the PhD is very demanding, plus preparing for the comprehensive exam. I had double the amount of work because I also took the network science classes.

And not only that; it was again a world that was not mine. So, I was often the only political scientist—actually, the only social scientists—in a room full of people who had come from exact sciences. It was challenging for me to catch up and understand intensive intellectual work in statistics and mathematics. But the fact that I loved it was worth continuing on this path regardless of how hard it was. I was learning a lot from both sides. It was nice that for network scientists, I brought a very substantive social science perspective, and for political scientists, I brought statistical sophistication (that is implied in network science). I was also working doing consultancy work as a data analyst, parallel with my doctoral studies. The reason for doing that is that I wanted to apply what I was learning in school.

I realized from the very beginning that the methodology I learned allowed me to apply my expertise to pressing real-world social issues somehow immediately. For me, this is the dream. If I can use my training to help the world, then that's the right path for me. So, it was worth all the effort at the end of the day.

Also, it was difficult because of the nature of academic work during the PhD. I was involved in many activities, and now even more, because my nature is basically to be expanding and sociable and folding many things. But the PhD work is a sort of solitary work. You have to work on your own to discover your voice as an intellectual. To be able to find the contribution that you want to make in your discipline. It was a very tough period of having to work alone on my own big projects and ideas. But then, in the end, it turned out that in terms of career development, this step of developing on my own was fundamental. Because without it, I don't think I would have been able to build what I'm aiming at right now, post-PhD.

Pursuing your research, you entered an uncharted territory at the time, a new route at CEU and the best universities worldwide.

It was indeed. If I look back, I graduated with my master's in 2011; I started my PhD in 2012, and in 2009, the American Political Science Association just had its first political networks section. And then ECPR (the European Consortium for Political Research) started it in 2011. So, I was right at the beginning of the process of systematizing and institutionalizing this intellectual endeavor. I think it was also very nice and difficult at the time because it was not a typical approach for political scientists; I had to defend it a lot more than I have to do it nowadays.

Because nowadays, it's an established thing; everybody knows about network analysis in political science; it's an accepted methodology. It's in the lingo of political scientists, but back then, it wasn't. I had to defend the method and the approach in both political science and network science.

To defend towards whom?

Towards political scientists, mostly. On the other side, to defend a more substantive approach to network scientists.

Network scientists didn't think that applying their method to questions in political science makes too much sense?

It was just a kind of an interdisciplinary disconnect. We didn't want to reinvent the wheel. The wheel was invented decades before by sociologists and other social scientists. My approach was just to tell say, look, there's an established theory that talks about this, and we can apply these methods, and then it makes a lot more sense. So, it was a very nice and challenging bridging and learning opportunity for me.

Then you defended your proposal at the end of the first year; how did that go?

I think it went well. I was expecting it to go better, but it didn't. The reason was that I was having this difficulty in the end with my PhD thesis. I dropped about three years of work on the thesis. I use those parts now in other kinds of publications, but I struggled to have two different data sets and the little bit of two different approaches back then.

And what I was trying to do was not particularly coming together as a theoretical contribution. I needed to decide with my prospectus work. The feedback that I got was really good, but I didn't find the solution that helped me move forward until maybe a year later. But that exploration part between the prospectus and the moment I finally figured out what I needed to do with my PhD thesis was very beneficial. It helped me go outside of my comfort zone and look for possible clues in many different areas.

During that particular year, I started thinking of my PhD as a long-term research agenda and then realized that, for the PhD, I needed to make a decision. I needed to focus my efforts to get the best results and leave the unexplored, loose ends for later because otherwise, I will not be able to finish in time. And indeed, it took me five years. It took me five years because I was also working; I tried to apply my knowledge in the industry.

For a while, I had no idea what will happen. But then, I took the Doctoral Research Support Grant (DRSG) for two months in Cambridge, at Cambridge University's Department of Sociology. That was probably the most productive time of my career. Being in Cambridge, in the midst of intellectual history, was very motivating and inspiring. I worked with the top scientists on my research topic and had very nice conversations with the people there. Especially with sociologists, who took me very seriously; they challenged me regarding my political science and network science work. It was a lovely combination, asking them the right questions. And that pushed me to write the most crucial part of my PhD thesis. When I returned, the six months of the Write-up Grant almost went flawless, in a state of flow. I was writing, writing, writing, writing, without sleeping too much, though. Not sure how  healthy that was, but I did finish. I was pleased about that.

What was your publication strategy during the program? Did you publish anything before your defense?

I didn't publish anything before my defense, and I'm not publishing very much nowadays either. I certainly do publish, but less with an impact factor in mind and more with an audience in mind; I know how important it is. Right now, I have several publications under review, and I published a book, policy studies, and several capacity-building reports. I realized because I was at this overlap of many things that there's a lot more than publishing for an academic, starting from teaching to bridging across the industry and the private sector and government and civil society organizations and all of that. During my PhD, I took a workshop in project management organized by the Career Services Offices. That was fantastic because I realized that I could focus my energy on so many different things.

Nowadays, I use publishing strategically. During my PhD, I was too shy, thinking that I'm not good enough to contribute. But I got great feedback for my PhD thesis.

The first thing that I did after I graduated, instead of publishing an article from my PhD thesis, was that I went to a hackathon. In 24 hours, I had a software prototype based on my PhD thesis that detects high-level corruption in public procurement networks. For me, that was a fantastic incentive to understand that you can probably come and make a contribution with your PhD thesis in society without necessarily having to publish something immediately.

Did you come out with a patent?  

I think at one point I was thinking about that. But with the strengthening of open knowledge, open data, open software, the decision was to leave it at that. But I did compete and won a contract with Romania's most considerable competition authority to scale up this prototype, to use the network approach to improve investigations in anti-competitive behavior and policy at the national level. I am now doing exactly what I was hoping to do with my doctoral thesis.

That's quite extraordinary. I don't think that many doctoral graduates would start their careers by contributing to the real world.

That was precisely why I thought combining the two approaches could be so empowering because the network science methods were hyped for a reason. If they weren't useful, there would be no hype. So, it was a strategic decision to do this. A strategic decision was also not to focus completely on what traditional academia would ask of a PhD student, which is "publish or perish". It was demonstrated that you could contribute with other things too.

I mean, of course, it's very important to publish, and we all know why. But there's also a lot more that we can and have to do as social scientists if our mission is to have a real-world impact.  

Despite this very laudable attitude, you mentioned that you published a book. Is the book based on your doctoral dissertation, or is it something else?

Yes, I published my dissertation as a book. Of course, I improved it a little bit here and there. And before I published the book, I got a postdoc position at the Big Data Science Lab at the West University of Timisoara (WUT). So I treated my PhD thesis as the prototype again, just the case study, to see if the methodology works.

For my PhD, I focused on analyzing public procurement networks in Hungary. During my postdoc, I scaled up that strategy, expanding the analysis to 28 other countries and the timeline from 4 years to 10 years, and going from a few hundred thousand contracts to analyzing over two million public procurement contracts in Europe. I tried to detect other public procurement indicators, high corruption risks, and configurations that lead to state capture—political capture and business capture—based on those networks.

I try to ask this question with a straight face: did you find anything?

Well, the research not only confirmed everything that we knew, but we also discovered new things. I was pleased about that.

It was nice to see that the methodology could be scaled up from the PhD thesis to a European level analysis. I'm thrilled that I work here with the best in the field, such as Mihály Fazekas, who is also from CEU (School of Public Policy). We worked together with the competition authority as well, and I'm glad that we're combining the two approaches into something very productive.

You mentioned that you spent your sandwich semester at Cambridge. Did you have any further research visits between your prospectus defense and doctoral defense?

No, because I was working in the private sector.

For which company?

For Maven7, it's a network research company in Budapest. And again, one of the pioneers of network science in the industrial sector. When I was a PhD student, I had to quit one year before I finished my PhD to focus on getting the thesis done. Luckily, five years after I worked with them, they called me, and they invited me to be the head of OrgMapper Academy, Maven7's professional and executive-level knowledge and certification hub in Network Science with applications in organizational development change management and people analytics. We have just launched the Academy. Naturally, I said yes! I had a fantastic time working with them. I learned so many things. And the reason why I learned so many things is that I ended up working at the company in the toughest year for a startup, just before a next-level business scale-up.

They were initially doing many things simultaneously, and they realized this is not a sustainable business model. The company needed to rethink its business development strategy. They had to lay-off people and had to reduce the palette of offerings. It also had to focus on specific products to optimize and meaningfully engage its human capital. I was there in the middle of everything, learning everything from the process and contributing as much as possible.

Also, it was enriching because it was network research, and I had all the training in that area as a political scientist. I think I left a pretty good impression since they called me five years later.

At the Academy, we do organizational network analysis as a methodology applied to discover and improve communication networks and trust networks within organizations. That is something very applied; everything I've learned and continue to learn I implement to make organizations better. My mission is to do everything that I can so that people go to work being happy, they work with purpose and meaning, and they feel comfortable working with other people. Everything about this methodology - the theoretical part, the technical aspect, and the analytical part - is focused on delivering these. The Academy was launched recently, and we are looking for partners and participants.

That's fantastic. How did you learn about this opportunity that this company started in Budapest? The second question is that how could you manage to do this work besides your intense research?

Yes, I knew about the company because it was and still is one of the few companies in the world doing this, and also because it was founded among other people by professors Albert-László Barabási and Tamás Vicsek. I discussed this opportunity of applying this knowledge in the private sector with both of them.

Although the first time I applied for a job there as a data analyst, I was rejected. I didn't understand why because I was well-qualified, and I badly wanted that job. I still haven't found out, but one year later, I applied again, and this time I got it.

I have a healthy relationship with rejections, but that job was something that I really wanted. It is tough when you want something, and you don't get it. It's tough all the time, and I also understood that academia is precisely the same. You have to get used to rejections and have a healthy relationship with them…

Especially that most of the time, what you receive are rejections and not acceptance letters.

Exactly. So one of the chunks of my work during the PhD that didn't make it into my dissertation is now turned into a paper with Veronica Anghel. She's currently a Max Weber Fellow at EUI. We got, I think, our fourth rejection on it, even though we think our paper is brilliant... We probably still need to work a little bit more on it. We also aimed high with that. Our strategy was to go to the top and then come down until they accept it.

What is that in your field, The American Political Science Review, or something else?

Well, actually, we tried World Politics, so we went to the top level; we tried then Democratization, and then we tried the Journal for Common Market Studies. So, only three rejections. Now we are in the middle of reframing it a little bit, and then we will see where to submit it next.

To answer your second question about how I managed. I would tell you two things. I worked hard. Because, if you remember, I had a Facebook page that was developed by my friend Carl Nordlund, who was a postdoc at CEU. It's called "Silvia's Library Spot" because I was in the library literally from morning until the evening, almost every day.

And then I went to the office, for two days a week, working more than 10 hours a day. I had to make up for the part-time thing, so I didn't spread it; I just had it focused on two days of work. This is how I do it now as the Academy's head as well, because I also have my other full-time job, being a university lecturer.

I didn't have much free time. And, although I complain like any other person about workload, even now, when I'm super busy, most of the time, I don't think of work as actual work. Do you know what I mean? For me, it's just a very natural way of doing things because I love what I do. I was a professional sports person before. So I grew up knowing that you need to work hard to achieve something, and you need to be persistent and perseverant. You will have failures, and you will have success. You need to keep going. And if it feels right, keep on doing it. Eventually, good results will come out.

It seems that you did not have too much free time back in those days.

No, it was intense. Imagine that I graduated in 2017 and only now, in 2021, I can almost say I'm less busy than back then, although I do considerably more and more ample things than before. But this is because now I impose stricter work-life balance boundaries on myself. After all, I have a daughter. I have to be there for her. I kept working like this for a while until now, but now I also built a team, and I have people around me who can help me with workload and direction.

Could you tell us about this a bit more? It's interesting how a young mother can get by in academia, both with family and work.

This is very important because here's what happened to me, and I think this is a word of caution for other people. I was working as a freelance consultant during my PhD as well. So, at that time, I had been working for the last two years. Thus, I was eligible in both Hungary and Romania for maternity leave. After my PhD, I moved back to Romania, and as I was pregnant, I was convinced that I would get the two-year maternity leave with my daughter, enjoying the first period of my daughter's life as a mother. Based on my work history and contracts, I should have been eligible for that.

But it turned out that the Romanian bureaucracy was convoluted. It turned out that many women in my position who are doing complex work in different countries, who don't have a nine to five job, who work on flexible contracts, who are paid project-based, so people who have out-of-the-box career paths have a difficult time being recognized. So my maternity leave request was rejected. I know many women and men with similar histories in Romania who did not benefit from maternity or paternity leave because of complex work portfolios that the bureaucracy did not know how to handle. Thus, I had to work since my daughter was one month old. I took my parents with me to Budapest to take care of my one-month-old daughter while I was teaching at the ECPR Summer School at CEU.

That is how I started working in parallel with having a baby. And that was excruciating because basically, what this meant was that I would be with the baby during the day, and I would need to work during the night. I am wondering how many people can do that for a sustained amount of time.

Plus, I had intellectual work to do: I had to teach, to present my work, so I always had to be sharp and make sense. That isn't easy.

On the plus side, however, I took my baby with me everywhere. She was with me at all my conferences, training activities, and workshops. We made a European road trip together when she was one-year-old. We visited eight countries, and we lived abroad when I was a visiting scholar in Lisbon.

She was there with me every step of the way, together with my husband. We are lucky because he has a flexible job, so he could travel and help me with this—also, my parents joined every once in a while. If my husband wouldn't be able to come with me, then they did.

The best money we invested in was the baby carrier. That was great because I could put her on my chest. I have a video on Instagram when I'm bouncing on a ball with her in my pouch, working on my laptop.

But it was wonderful. And she is such an adaptable baby because she traveled with us all the time. And she's so sociable because she was among people all the time. And she loves the whiteboard, like her mama. Now she's writing and scribbling, showing, pointing, exactly how I'm doing during my teaching.

Silvia's daughter, at her 4th ECPR Methods School.
Photo courtesy of Silvia Fierăscu.

This is how you train a scientist from scratch.

Exactly, right from the start.

It sounds both challenging, but it appears to me that you tried to conceive it as "OK, right now we are in this situation, we need to make the most out of it".

Indeed, this is how we precisely understood the situation.

And it seems you were able to manage this situation well and maybe even to have some fun. I mean, I guess a road-trip with your baby and husband can be a memory that stays with you forever.

Absolutely. We have fantastic memories; it was totally worth it. It was also upsetting because the question was always looming: why did I have to struggle so much? Why couldn't I get a break for this? But on the other side, since we had it, and there was no way to avoid it, as you said, I was just trying to have fun with it. And we did, and it was amazing.

It would also be useful if there would be more academic places to accommodate parents with babies and young children.

Yes, it would! Fortunately, I had full support from colleagues. If the baby would cry and I would be teaching, they took the baby and, you know, cradle and hush her. It was amazing.

During the COVID times, because people are forced to be at home with their children, video calls have become more humane. And I like this because we used to be very serious about work, but now we are treated with a lot more sensitivity—especially women academics and researchers, women in this line of work.

I totally understand you; it's super challenging to work in academia today, even if you don't have familial commitments. But it can be excruciating—and the absolute next level—when you get overwhelmed with personal obligations and care work.

Absolutely. And what is difficult, I think, is not necessarily to deal with the situation because we can handle it one way or another. But what is difficult is to be able to set goals and not give up. Or continue to achieve and develop as a professional while you have a personal life.

It's difficult for different reasons. For instance, society is not quite prepared for many of these things; there's no adequate support system for both females and males in this situation. If there is any positive side to the COVID crisis, it at least opened and made visible the conversation to make this situation better for parents and professional career development. I think it's vital.

I perfectly agree. Jumping back a little bit to your defense: how did it go for you?

I remember that I was so nervous that I took a nap before it.

I believe taking a short nap is always the right choice.

It was a fantastic choice because I felt confident during the defense. It was super funny because, besides the committee, a few of my colleagues and my family were also there, even my family's friends were present. Most of my family and family friends did not understand English very well. So they were just there to support me, without really understanding what was happening. I appreciated that. And they were looking at my husband every once in a while, with a curious face after a panel member would comment something, and then he would confirm to them that everything was going well.

So, you had your fans in the room.

Yes! That helped because otherwise, it would have been too serious for my nerves. The defense itself, I think, went very well. I was very nervous, but I knew what I had to do to pass it. So I tried with the best of my abilities to deliver that.

What was the composition of your committee?

Of course, Balázs Vedres, my supervisor, was there. So was Levente Littvay, who was my methods and stats professor and also a friend. There was András Bozóki, who approached my topic from a political sociology standpoint. My external member was professor Zoltán Szántó from Corvinus University.

You told us that you started to work before starting your doctoral program and kept working during the PhD, but you quitted your job finishing the dissertation. What was your first career move after completing the program?

The first thing was a postdoc at the Big Data Science Research Lab at the Western University of Timisoara. Six months later, I applied for this lecturer position at the Faculty of Political Science, Philosophy and Communication Sciences in the Department of Philosophy and Communication Sciences. I got it. I started as a postdoc in January 2019, and then in the autumn, I started my current position here. Besides, I had my consultancy job.

How did you start your consultancy?

I started during my Masters, when I was doing network and data analysis for companies and organizations, such as telecommunications companies or large donor organizations in civil society, such as the Open Society Foundations and the Open Society Institute in Budapest. I worked with them for several years on different projects during and immediately after my PhD. Most of my work as a consultant came from recommendations from somebody who needed a problem solved who knew the network approach would be very informative and knew I was good at that, so they recommended me for the opportunity.

What are your future plans?

Let me tell you my current plans. When I started here at WUT, I wanted to come back to my home university because this is the place where I graduated. I did my BA in Political Science here before I came to CEU. I come from a small Romanian post-industrial town where there's a lot of disappointment, lack of opportunity, and so on. After the very enriching experience at CEU, I wanted to give something back to this community, to the young who are like I was when I started my university—curious, enthusiastic, hungry to make a difference. Now I try to provide opportunities for them through their education.

I thought, "there are all of these students that are exactly like me." That's is how I started. And look how many nice things I have developed and experienced along the way. Because somebody, wise enough and open enough, told me that I could do things differently, better. And this relates back to when network science was at the beginning. There wasn't a position such as a data scientist or a network scientist per se. So you had to create jobs for yourself in a way. I said, OK, I can come back here and motivate and show students that you can do things differently. Then they will grow wings". Surely enough, this is what happened.

So I founded Social Fabrics Research Lab (FabLab, in short). I intended to provide learning and professional development opportunities for students. FabLab is an experiential and experimental learning hub, so I can attract students into scientific research and applied social science and new technologies projects that have an impact on the world. In November 2019, we started with one project, a podcast, the Digital Society Podcast, a complex multimedia editorial platform. Our first season is called "Stories from a Natural Experiment," and we discuss with various guests how the pandemic affected our use of technology and opportunity in education, social mobilization, public health, policymaking, business, ethics, and so on.

We have more than 50 students now involved in more than 15 projects; all of them are amazing. Most of our members are students, most of the projects are coordinated and formed of teams of students. They do the creative work, the development work, the research work, everything, even graphical work. Each episode is a monthly mini-series of multimedia materials that grind through a topic from a very knowledge sharing, know-how transfer, and positive "can do it" vibe.

The series we're making right now is called Policy and Tech. In the main episode, we discuss the promise and peril of digitalization in national and local-level policy decision-making. We have as guests the Personal Adviser of the Mayor of Timisoara, in charge of the strategy of Digitalization and Smart City for Timisoara, and the founder and CEO of one of the largest IT volunteer organizations in Romania, Code for Romania, who are currently the trailblazers of upgraded public services using new technologies and rigorous methodologies in Romania.

Thus, we cover this whole spectrum of national and local level processes, technical and policy discussions on the topic. We have #inspiration interviews and #imbold articles, and many other really cool and interesting materials each month. I work collaboratively with my students, which is a great authorship, documentation, research, and networking opportunity for them. We're going to have a book published from this project by the end of the year: Digital Society. A compendium of stories and facts from a natural experiment.

In Romanian or other languages as well?

The podcast is bilingual. We have one episode in Romanian, one episode in English. The guests are strategically chosen to communicate to different audiences about different aspects of what we do here in the region. Actually, most of our work is bilingual.

For example, on the 8th of March, we organized the Women in Data Science Central and Eastern Europe conference, originally started at Stanford in 2015, together with WiDS ambassadors from six other countries. And we were also the Communications Partner at Women in Data Science Romania, a parallel event.

The student team from my lab was doing the entire communications activities and materials for the two events, which is fantastic. They did all the development and the creative work, as well as the strategic communication planning because they are specialized in this.

Then, we have a project called EduGrow (Digital Education with Empathy), a digital education platform dedicated to high school or secondary school professors, to support them with online and blended teaching, so relevant during this time. We have two elements to this project; one is tutorials,  very short, solution-focused tutorials. For example, you have questions like "How do I take the attendee list in Google Meet?" Or, "How do I create a poll with Mentimeter?" or "How do I create a game in Kahoot?" Basically, how do I use different technologies to solve very specific teaching and learning-related problems? The feedback and the outreach of this project are exceptional.

There's a need for this because what happened during the Covid crisis is that there are plenty of tutorials out there, but they last about an hour and a half, and people don't have the patience for this. We created these very nice and concise tutorials, 2-5 minutes each.

We deliver these tutorials in storytelling series. Our new series is called "blended learning" because we are slowly going back to the classroom, and we don't want to give up on technology while we do face-to-face teaching. We have informative posts on blended learning methodologies and interviews with professors, examples of good practice. This personal aspect is significant for us to give a face to the movement.

Another project we are working on is a doctoral platform, together with our partners at BanatIT, to increase the visibility of doctoral students and their projects and provide alternative funding opportunities for PhD projects. Something along the lines of a Kickstarter platform for doctoral projects that puts in contact doctoral students with companies and government officials/institutions, and civil society organizations that can adopt doctoral projects, hire their author, or fund different streams of their doctoral projects.

That's all very exciting. It is incredible how you can manage a zillion different projects at the same time. But regarding the last project you mentioned, you try to provide a channel for your students to engage with industry or market, whatever that market or industry is. Have you heard about this, that it has been done somewhere else, or this is another new initiative?

We haven't heard that much about this. There's ResearchGate, and there are platforms for researchers in general, but again, what we are trying to do is expand beyond academia. We are also focusing on upcoming scholars, for example, who can contribute everywhere or anywhere.

And that's why we try to take them a little bit outside of their own boxes. This is why we want to create this digital platform as a Kickstarter because that forces you to do science communication differently to different audiences. So, don't just focus on, you know, your lingo and having five people reading that, but expand it, open it up to the world.

That's a great idea: a clarificatory question, Silvia. So, right now, you've got your lecturer position at WUT. Is that a tenure track job, or it's already a tenure?

It's a tenure-track job. Based on my performance, I can get tenure in about two-years' time. I also need to take my habilitation because if you want to coordinate doctorates in the Romanian system, you have to be habilitated. I am writing my habilitation thesis, and I made a pact with the students that I coordinate because we meet every week for thesis writing workshops. We're going to progress together towards this.

So, hopefully, by the summer, I will have my habilitation thesis ready. And then hopefully this year, or at the beginning of next year, I will be able to coordinate doctorates because, at the moment, I'm just jointly coordinating, not in Romania, but abroad. But I would like to do so in Romania too.

You are really at the finish line. If you have the habilitation and will have your tenure, you achieved a crucial career goal. You are already involved in so many activities that are even difficult to follow. Nevertheless, I'd like to ask whether you are any further academic or non-academic professional activities that you pursue. 

Yes, I teach Social Network Analysis at the ECPR Methods School. I think it is my sixth year when I do this and my second year as an instructor. This summer, we had a first-time virtual Methods School, and it was the best class I've ever taught. The reason is that we hit with the virtual MS a different audience. For example, most of the participants were postdocs or professors, which means that the projects we discussed were a lot more advanced; they were a lot more applied.

It's, of course, nice when you have PhD students as well, but for most of them, when they start engaging with the topic, it's general, I would say. It's hard to get a breadth of how exactly you would use a new method, but when you have somebody who's more advanced, the picture is much clearer.

It was a very successful format, actually; we've been delighted. We've managed to create a little bit of a community around it. Now we're applying together to conferences and doing follow-up training and all of that. For example, I will moderate a session at the ECPR General Conference this year with former summer school class participants to comment on their progress in their projects applying network methods. I also had a training event in January for the Polycarbon ERC research group, led by Dr. Katja Biedenkopf, at KU Leuven, as a follow-up on the summer experience.

So, I think this online or virtual format is something we should keep in some way moving forward. Of course, it's very nice to have the training face-to-face, but online activities reach out to a different audience that otherwise does not attend these kinds of events, which is very valuable.

How many times have you participated at ECPR?

Well, I started as a student, and then I was a TA for Balázs Vedres' class. Then I was invited as a short course instructor (intense 3-day course), then I was promoted to a full week course instructor last year. This March will be my fourth time in this role.  

You are a recurrent visiting lecturer then.

I am, hopefully. It's based on invitations and your performance in the classroom, and the evaluations of the students. But considering that I got excellent evaluations last time, hopefully, I can continue this. It's something that I love and care about because I do see the need for people to do mixed methods. They feel that social scientists need to have this network perspective regardless of what they want to do. They must know that this is out there for them, and then they can decide whether they pursue it or not. But most of them do because they realize how useful it is.

Final question: what do you like to do in your free time?

As I said, I'm just starting to rediscover my free time. I'm trying to impose a limit on when I finish my workday, and I try not to work on weekends, which is for me the first time in ten years; it's completely new.

Do you manage not to work on weekends?

Not on all weekends, but I try my best. Lately, I try to keep it to the minimum and delegate tasks that I used to do, but now I don't have to do it anymore because somebody else, better than me or willing to learn, can do it too. In my free time, I goof around with my family. Especially with my daughter, we like traveling a lot, but of course, we haven't traveled anywhere recently. So, traveling and then doing nothing, just playing.

You mentioned you were doing some sports when you were younger.

Yes, I did. I did professional martial arts for fourteen years. I have a black belt with two Dan in Shotokan karate. I used to train with Japanese masters, and I even received a recognition prize from the French Ministry of Sports. I'm a world champion, a European champion, and an international champion.

I am speechless.

You're a very competitive person. How did your karate career end?

It ended because I was heading to Timisoara during my studies; I discovered that I liked political science, so I started volunteering a lot. For example, I was a student representative. I loved education policy, and I was doing applied work. I was also running an NGO here doing survey research on young people. Those intellectual activities took a lot more of my time, and I couldn't sustain sports as I did before. I continued to go just for fun. Then I left for Budapest. And you remember how even the master's students at CEU don't have time for too many things because the program is so intense, so I finally quit. But my career in sports played a huge part of who I am today as a professional, from my relationship with failure, my work ethic, my patience, and perseverance, to my ability to focus and work well in teams.

I remember very well that we were quite busy even during our MA program. Thank you, Silvia, for this fascinating interview!

Thank you for having me!

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