The Story Behind Digilent Design Contest’s Youngest Contestant

We sat down with Emil NOVÁK, the youngest contestant of this year’s Digilent Design Contest, to find out what makes him tick. His project is titled Fluid Spectrum Analyzer, and uses nuclear magnetic resonance to detect magnetic nuclei in the molecular structure of fluids. He is from Budapest, Hungary.


First of all tell us, who is Emil? What do you do?

I am a vocational high school senior studying chemical engineering, graduating this year. Still caught up in it. At school I do mainly chemistry, very little engineering. I took up electronics as a hobby, which ended up being essential to my project. I guess I have a passion for both, allowing me to delve the depths of it.

If I had to choose between the two, I would probably lean towards electronics. Specifically towards robotics, but electronics as an encompassing field. I find it hard choosing between projects.

So robotics is winning your heart…

Mostly yes, but chemistry still permeates my day-to-day life, so I can see it as well in my future. I would like to study mechatronics or bionics at a university.

What motivated you to participate in the contest?

I go to a lot of contests compared to my peers. In Hungary there is the Ifjúsági Innováció (Youth Innovation) and Tudok (“I know”) conferences, where I participated with a variation of my project. Finally I tried developing it further and bring it here. I go to Hackathons as well, to meet new people and develop personally. I consider it essential.

How did you find us?

On the Internet, of course. Alas, there was no professor to recommend it.

What were the obstacles you encountered?

Unfortunately, the project has been advancing slowly. The FPGA part of it was lacking support, barring any advancement past the concept stage. Graduation and future prospects put a lot of stress on me, so I could not devote as much time to it as I would have liked.

Tell us how the project came to be. With school, graduation and your adviser passing away, did they ever make you consider giving it up?

My adviser passing away was a definite setback. For a while nobody at school knew what had happened, my teacher just disappeared. It had a negative impact on the project, but there were a lot of other factors.

I consider electronics and this project a hobby. My research into NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) started quite some time ago, one and a half, maybe two years ago. In the past year I have been trying to switch the implementation into FPGA. Most of the issues stemmed from this. Not that getting information on NMR was any easier in the beginning, since these are considered confidential technical details. After talking to various people I managed to get to a new MR machine at the MTA TTK (Research Centre for Natural Sciences at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences). It was there where I met a group of knowledgeable people who could help me with my project.

What did you like about the contest? What did you not like? Was it what you expected it to be?

I would have liked to achieve more.  I wish I had more time for the project to be able to present something more “final,” not just a concept. On the other hand, the contest seems very well organized with good management. I had a good time and the jury was very positive.

What do you think about Digilent?

I find it great that the product offering is so diverse. I think a lot of the peripherals on system boards go ignored in every project, because they are not needed or there are simpler ways to achieve the goal. However, the products offer a good general view and lots of possibilities. A marketable end product will not necessarily take the same form, but they contribute greatly to the research and development phase.

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You are very similar to the “ideal candidate” that the contest is aimed at. Can you see yourself in that role?

I feel that, unfortunately, Hungarian secondary education is too focused on general knowledge and strict evaluation criteria. This is why there is really no motivation to participate in contests. People I met or spoke with at similar contests all tell me they do it on their own initiative. It happens mostly over the Internet, through various forums. However, if this or other similar contests were more visible in high schools through posters or any other means, in my view there would be more demand for it.

Since I am pretty close to leaving for university, I do not think that I would be that “ideal candidate”. That title would better fit freshman or sophomore high school students that have the free time to carry such a project from beginning to end.

We thank to our own Előd György for transcribing and translating the interview and Krisztina Radó, for doing the interview with Emil and giving him and us the chance to know each other.

Emil is an example of determination, courage and passion: between his teacher passing away in the middle of the project development, his graduation exam being on the morning of his travel to Romania for the contest, and with his entire work being wiped out from one computer at his school, we think he deserves his story being told.

We are looking forward to meeting Emil again in the next editions of the contest with other great projects!

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