Andrea Balassy

Mallinckrodt Corporate Fellow

McKelvey School of Engineering: Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering (PhD)

Andrea Balassy

Cohort 2012


Graduated 2017


Andrea Balassy was a fifth-year doctoral student in energy, environmental & chemical engineering and one of the McDonnell Scholars in Engineering. A native of Hungary, she came to WashU from Budapest University of Technology & Economics.

Woman in lab with experiment

Andrea Balassy, a fifth-year doctoral student in energy, environmental & chemical engineering and a McDonnell Scholar, came to WashU from her native Hungary. Photo by Devon Hill

“The McDonnell scholarship helped me a lot because I knew I had the support for five years to do my research,” she says. “It’s been a positive experience. I’ve learned how to interact with people and have grown a lot.”

Andrea said her opportunity to serve as ambassador to Hungary for the undergraduate International Experience trip in the Summer of 2016 was a real highlight of her time at WashU.

The McDonnell International Scholars Academy, a network of 33 universities worldwide, focuses on attracting talented international and domestic doctoral students in areas such as climate change, energy and environment, public health and social development. Scholars also participate in social and cultural experiences that focus on international issues.



Scholar Highlights

Unexpected Stories of Hungarian Immigrants

Stories. They inspire, delight, and touch. They are all around us to help understand the past and give guidance to the future. Storytelling through the lens of a camera is a powerful approach. It can change one’s life in an unexpected way.

A photograph taken during the 1956 revolution on Budapest Muzeum Boulevard was featured in the November issue of Paris Match. The picture depicted a young couple, determined yet worried. He had a machine gun; she had a bandage on her face. They have been considered heroes in the West, but criminals in the East. Who were they? Have they survived the revolution? Forty-five years later, two researchers – a Hungarian historian and a French journalist – started to track them down and made an award winning documentary about their findings published in 2006. The boy’s name was Gyuri. He died during the fighting. Yutka, the girl, was 19 and was a textile worker. She fled Hungary to Switzerland, but first spent some time in an Austrian refugee camp. By the time she arrived at the camp people had seen her picture in the newspaper. Everyone was asking her about the photo and eventually she became a celebrity.

Making the leap from being alone to being a part of a new society can be a difficult journey. By 2006 only a few people were found in Switzerland who still remembered Yutka. According to these individuals, Yutka was reserved and smiled a lot, but she didn’t tell anyone what she’d been through. Resetting your life in a new country and connecting with unfamiliar people is not straightforward, especially if you have something to hide. She had tattoos all over her body. It has been discovered that Yutka (her real name was Julianna Sponga) had witnessed her 9-year-old brother’s death by a Russian bullet just one day after the revolution started. This heartbreaking event contributed to her participation against the Russian military. She had a gun and shot many people. After Switzerland, she ended up in Australia by 1961, worked as a waitress, and married another Hungarian immigrant. Surprisingly, in 1975 her picture appeared again in the newspapers as the winner of the Australian National Lottery. Julianna was afraid of being hanged, and therefore never returned to Budapest. Her ashes were thrown to the ocean. In 2006, her enlarged pictures, as part of 50th anniversary celebration of the revolution, were displayed in many places around Budapest. She would have remained one of the unknown faces without exposing her life story by the movie.

Telling a story through movies not only makes it more memorable for us but also enhances the entire experience and how we can uncover the details of it. We love movies because they can take us on an exciting visual journey, encourage us to dream big, help us to understand the patterns of life, and connect us to people emotionally and intellectually.

The highest grossing films of all time were distributed by two distinguished Hollywood studios: 20th Century Fox and Paramount pictures. But who was behind the curtains when this all started? Little known is that the movie industry was partially a Hungarian creation.  Two legendary figures in particular, William Fox and Adolph Zukor, came from the same region of Hungary — Tokaj. Interestingly, both of them started their career in the fur business in America. In the 1930s there was a saying: “It’s not enough to be Hungarian to make films. One must also have talent.” Although William Fox went bankrupt and was no longer the head of the company by the end of the Great Depression, his name is still in the studio’s logo. Furthermore, Fox theaters are also named after him. He firmly believed that the visual and performing arts must be used as tools in education.

Adolph Zukor, “Paramount’s Papa” as he’s called in Time magazine, was also a true visionary. His motto was: “look ahead a little and gamble a lot.” Zukor’s first job at age 16 in New York was sweeping the floor in a fur store for $2 per week. Soon he was promoted to be a fur cutter and doubled his income. After he had seen the Edison kinetoscope at the 1893 World’s Fair, he bought his own penny arcade, quit working in the fur business, and converted fur shops and bakeries into exhibition halls. The first feature-length film to be shown in America, Queen Elizabeth starring Sarah Bernhardt, premiered on the night of July 12, 1912. Zukor’s idea to place films from nickelodeon automats into cinema theaters created stars out of the actors. He saw before most others did that motion pictures could become the significant mass entertainment platform that it is today. He also recognized that the key elements of the film business are production, exhibition, and distribution which were somewhat analogous to building the Ford Model T automobile.

Zukor had also seen another invention at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York – 3D film. But at that time the public was not ready for 3D, as he mentioned in his autobiography in 1953. By this time, television had gained significant popularity, and in order to reduce market loss, he suggested embracing it as a new tool to deliver movies. Paramount pictures marked its 100th year in show business in 2012 demonstrating how a vision can become a long lasting reality. “Ideas matter. The world matters. Our lives matter, and the choices we make as we navigate our lives perhaps matter most of all.”

Julianna Sponga became famous by her picture exposed in Paris Match 1956. Adolph Zukor had already been famous as a film mogul by the time he appeared in the Time magazine cover in 1929. He realized the potential role of movies in our life, and that realization contributed circuitously to the reconstruction of the life of Julianna. Through the movie we came to know that she was a survivor who fought for justice. As Julianna’s husband said to the camera, “She did not want to be connected to one country; she was a citizen of the world.”