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Fearless Fulbrights: Dr. David Virag

Visiting Fulbright scholar Dr. David Virag shares his experience on campus with Dr. Peter Nemes’ research group studying cellular function—with the potential to alter our approaches to identifying and treating diseases.

1. For those who may be unfamiliar with you and your work, can you share a little bit about yourself, your research interests at UMD, and the scope of your Fulbright?

I received my Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences from Semmelweis University (Budapest, Hungary). My doctoral research focused on the mass spectrometric analysis of sugar-containing proteins (glycoproteins). The studies were aimed at answering the question of how these molecules undergo structural changes in skin tumors and how this knowledge can be applied to early detection of diseases. In September 2023, I joined Dr. Peter Nemes’ research group at the University of Maryland as a Fulbright visiting scholar for five months. The group develops ultrasensitive technologies based on liquid chromatography, capillary electrophoresis, and high-resolution mass spectrometry to detect and quantify proteins, peptides, and metabolites. These bioanalytical tools are then used to address critical biological questions, even at the single-cell level, using animal models, specifically the frog and mouse. The scope of my Fulbright scholarship is to extend the ongoing research to the analysis of glycoproteins, which primarily covers establishing analytical workflows.

2. How would you describe your work/project to someone who isn’t familiar with your field?

Proteins are large molecules that play a variety of roles in the life of cells and are essential for ensuring the structure of tissues and organs as well as regulating their functions. Although proteins are quite complex in themselves, several different molecules can be attached to them, making their structure and functionality even more diverse. One of the most important is glycosylation, in which sugar chains are linked to the protein, altering its structure and properties. Protein glycosylation is thought to play an essential role in many biological events, such as cell growth, division, and the formation of intercellular connections, so mapping these molecules is essential to understanding a wide variety of biological processes. 

One of the main priorities of scientists is to be able to study these processes at the single-cell level, the basic structural and functional unit of living organisms. While the analysis of genetic material (DNA, RNA) from single cells is nowadays considered a routine task, it is much more challenging for proteins and glycoproteins and the success depends largely on the sensitivity of the analytical workflow. Thanks to the recent advances in instrumentation, sample treatment, and smart data acquisition techniques, several breakthroughs have been made in this field over the past few years, giving us a more in-depth insight into cellular function than ever before.

3. What inspired you to start this process of becoming a Fulbright participant? What was your process in approaching the application?

After obtaining my doctorate, I had a strong desire to try myself in a new environment, preferably overseas. My former supervisor, Dr. Krisztina Ludányi, recommended Dr. Nemes’ group, where I could improve my skills and learn new techniques to become a better researcher. The specific opportunity was brought to my attention by Dr. Nemes, who had previously hosted Fulbright scholars in his lab and had a good experience with the program. The eligibility criteria and application process was very straightforward. In addition, the Fulbright staff provides a lot of assistance during the application process and in organizing the scholarship period for grantees.

4. In what ways does your work contribute to supporting the common good?

The next-generation technologies developed in Dr. Nemes’ lab are designed to deliver deep (glyco)proteomic and metabolomic information on neurons and differentiating embryonic cells. These data are essential to discover new molecular pathways, promoting the progress of the fields of developmental biology and neuroscience. Since the animal models used for the studies are powerful research tools to enlighten the pathogenesis of human diseases, the results could help to map the underlying molecular mechanisms of developmental disorders and neurodegenerative diseases in order to find new therapeutic targets and treatment options. In a broader context, the ultra-sensitive methodologies introduced may contribute to the development of related fields like biomarker discovery and clinical studies of protein biopharmaceuticals, in which the amount of biological samples obtained from the patients can be dramatically decreased.

5. What has been the most surprising thing you’ve found in your research and or scholarship at UMD?

I was very surprised to see how open-minded the researchers I met here were, and how they addressed arising research questions with a multidisciplinary approach to find the best and most relevant answers. The environment I worked in was incredibly supportive and can be characterized by a very positive ‘can do’ attitude, which made it much easier to get through temporary difficulties and to make more progress in research.

I was also impressed by how well-equipped the Dr. Nemes’ laboratory was. By this, I mean not only the high-end mass spectrometers and custom-built capillary electrophoresis systems, but also the fact that every important accessory needed for effective work was at hand.

6. How do you plan to carry forward what you learned and the relationships you’ve formed while abroad?

I believe the experience I gained at UMD has had a long-term impact on my professional and personal development, which will benefit my home institution. When I return to Hungary, I will incorporate the knowledge I have gained here into both my teaching and research activities. I have also met a lot of excellent young and senior researchers in my own and related fields during the scholarship period. I plan to take every opportunity to invite them to Hungary, fostering future collaborations and learning from each other.

7. For others that are interested in becoming Fulbright participants, what advice do you have for them?

You may be afraid to apply, thinking there are so many applicants that you do not stand a chance, but if you do not apply, you are sure to miss this unique opportunity. You never know! Let the judges decide; don’t miss your chance! Once you have decided that you would like to take part in the program, start looking for your ideal host institution as soon as possible and contact them. You will need an invitation letter, which will be prepared and signed by the leaders of the host institution. Expect them to be busy and leave enough time for them.

Think strategically about your application. Make a list of important deadlines that you should not miss, and do not start writing your application at the last minute. Leave enough time to study the relevant literature, and if you get stuck writing your proposal, step back and start again later. Inspiration will come in time. Feel free to ask for help. The Fulbright Program’s website has a wealth of useful information, but if you have any further questions, reach out to the Fulbright staff, colleagues from the host institution, or alumni. Their help will be essential for a successful application.

It is worth jumping in with a family, even if it is a little scary at first. My spouse and our baby accompanied me on the journey. We got a lot of support from the organizers, colleagues, and the local community we were immersed in for these few months. Also, the Washington D.C. Area provided them a lot of opportunities, including but not limited to English lessons, storytimes for little ones and great museums to visit. We will all look back on this time with great fondness.


Visit our Fulbright Scholars gallery to meet our fearless scholars engaging with the world. For general program information and application guidance, visit our "How to Fulbright at Maryland" section at the bottom of the page. Interested in applying for your own Fulbright, or want to learn more about the program? Email UMD’s Fulbright U.S. Scholars liaison  

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