Dr. Martin Margala is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts and a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Electrical Engineering. He was born in Bratislava where he also completed his first university degree in engineering.
After the Velvet Revolution, he earned his PhD at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, where later he became a professor. After living in Canada for about ten years, he moved to the Unites States. Since 2006, he has been living in Massachusetts, fulfilling his dream to live in a state where education is the main “industry” and focus.
I met with Martin and his wife Miriam two years ago. Our meeting immediately confirmed the saying that great minds and kindred souls think alike. Right away, we started to discuss how to change the approach towards education in the Czech Republic.
Out first meeting took place at the US Embassy, where Martin was chairing a panel on innovation and entrepreneurship with other three leading education specialists from the US. I was the only panel participant representing the Czech side. While the event attracted a lot of attention from the private sphere, academics, NGO representatives, and officials from the public sphere were missing. There is still a lot to be done! I admire Martin’s experience, drive and his ability to connect the Old and the New world. Having grown up in Europe and becoming very familiar with the “old continent’s” attitudes does not prevent him from challenging the status quo and bringing fresh and innovative ideas. And he definitely wants to see results sooner rather than later.
So, how do you perceive today’s world?
I am a great optimist. Even though today’s world might be perceived by some people as too challenging and some may even have a rather defeatist attitude, I see it as a world full of new opportunities. In fact, to me, these are exciting times to be living in. The advancements of technology are penetrating all areas of our society and will help increase markedly the standard of living everywhere. New significant discoveries will become more and more frequent. Major diseases will be eliminated, many discoveries will help fight poverty and close the inequality gap in the world. It may sound too idealistic – but there is so much happening, so many people do work with one large goal – to make a difference and make life better. If you work in research and education, if you are surrounded by people with a positive mind set – preferably in a very international and global context – then I think you can only be optimistic and driven to work every day on positive things.
How do you perceive today’s Czech and Slovak Republics?
Both countries are still very young. I see both countries undergoing a generational shift. You can observe a push and pull dynamic between the old thinking and the new thinking; the past and the future. Young men and women that were either children or not even born at the time of the Velvet Revolution are becoming more involved, more interested in what’s going on around them and more liberated from old traditions. Again – I can only repeat myself, I am an optimist. I do see exciting times ahead – but it is a long process; it is not easy and not at all smooth. There are and will be many challenges, many failures – but I do believe that in both countries, there are people who are able and ready to take risks and contribute to positive changes. In my work, especially through my international collaborations, I interact a lot with young people from both countries – there are many dedicated, excited, hard working young people and every day, their goal is to move ahead, whatever challenges they have to face.
When we come to the topic of the US-EU scientific co-operation and its potential, is the glass half empty or half full?
It is definitely half empty. I am not turning into a pessimist here – but the status quo is really not suited and efficient for today’s global world. The funding systems setup in the US and in Europe have always been inward looking. There has been a very limited support for truly international collaborations in research and education and virtually no funding mechanism that would connect willing global partners. However, many national governments have recently started to realize that there is an untapped potential with many benefits for all involved partners. These efforts are growing and new programs are being set up. It is important that people interested in true international collaborations and global partnerships do not give up and simply charge ahead. From my own experience, I have to say that it has been frequently an uphill battle but a battle that one can – and should – fight because the results are really worth it. One has to be very vocal – I have been talking incessantly for very many years to anybody who would listen: researchers from universities all around the world, funding institutions/managers, government representatives, diplomats, attaches, ambassadors – any opportunity, I just take it and use it. Of course, you actually have to show results – once you have concrete examples of successful collaborations, it becomes easier. There are many exciting opportunities and I have been fortunate to be part of, or in charge of, many endeavors. The Czech and Slovak Republics have been trying to launch such efforts – and again, they have to persevere. Just because there will be ideas that may fail does not mean they should give up. Any failure or mistake is a learning opportunity – and will help you to fine tune your efforts, formulate better plans and forge better, successful collaborations.
You have been very active in the sphere of higher education, bridging various spheres together – municipalities, corporations, NGOs and universities. While such approach is common in the US, the Czech Republic still has a long way to go. What do you suggest to start with to bring about a change?
As I mentioned previously, it is the drive of likeminded people that get behind a mutual goal: setup a new program, new activity, new project, whatever it is, and go after it until you see results. The problem in the Czech Republic and Slovakia is that the societies have been built as sets of silos, a sum of entities that co-exist, but were never built to network/interact with each other. What I mean by that is a local municipality was never setup to collaborate on new innovations with the local university or high school to solve everyday problems and improve services for its citizens. No programs exist that would support such collaborations and if they do, nobody knows about them or how to go about taking advantage of them. Another example is that there is no mechanism where municipalities – large and small, NGOs, companies and the education sector can interact to bring new innovation ideas to practical implementation.
To bring about a change in such a system, one has to work from bottom-up and seek supporters/likeminded men and women to get behind one project at a time and use any medium possible to publicize all the sucess stories that there are. We have been cooperating on the new project of Youth Startup Festival in May 2018 in Brno.
Can you tell us more about this unique and truly revolutionary project?
The Youth Startup Festival aims to combine several elements that I mentioned previously. It links innovative ideas and projects with the next generation of young men and women, the millennials, and will try to demonstrate how to become a transformative individual in the modern society. There are many programs around the globe that try to invest in the education at the elementary, middle and high school level to teach young students to become comfortable expressing new ideas that support innovation and change, especially ideas that are high risk/ high reward so that young people become comfortable with and learn from failures. Plus, this festival will be located in Brno for a good reason. This region has been at the forefront of the innovation revolution and is an example from which many other regions are trying to learn how to navigate the world of innovation, research and collaboration in a silo-based society and how to find an effective way to implement changes and innovation; bring innovations to practice as fast as possible.
Your final words and a New Year’s wish or message for Czech and Slovak Leaders Magazine readers?
Let the year 2018 be even better than 2017.
The interview was published in Czech & Slovak Leaders magazine.