A conversation with Nihal Altan-Bonnet

1. Could you please give us a brief summary of your background?

I was born in Ankara. My father was a member of the Turkish Foreign Service and because of his postings I got to travel a lot and live in different countries as a child. When I was 14 we moved to New York City. Even though my family stayed for 5 years and then moved back to Turkey. I was interested in pursuing a scientific career so I decided to stay and continue on to college and graduate school in the US. I received my PhD from The Rockefeller University in 1998 and then went on to do post-doctoral training at the National Institutes of Health. I then became an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University in 2006. Since this September I have a new position as lab head at the National Institutes of Health. 

2. Could you also summarize your research? 

My research is focused on understanding the virus-host interface. Briefly, viruses are dependent on their hosts in order to replicate themselves. Soon after a virus infects a host cell, it starts to redesign that host cell according to its needs. What I am trying to understand is what those needs are and how the virus goes about meeting those needs. In addition rather then focusing on one type of virus, I have chosen to look at many different viral types in order to identify those common critical needs for replication. If we can identify those common needs, we can then go on to develop therapeutics that will block the replication of many different viruses. 

3. Please tell us about the award you received from President Obama.

I received a Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering. This is the highest honor given by the United States government to outstanding and promising scientists in the early stages of their research careers

4. Could you please talk about the human diseases caused by RNA viruses?

RNA viruses are the most common viruses on this planet and unfortunately they are the causative agents for many human devastating diseases including AIDS, Hepatitis, Polio, Influenza, Ebola and even the common cold. 

5. Where do you see Cell Biology studies in Turkey? What are your suggestions to improve the research in Turkey in this area?

Right now there is not a lot of research in the basic biomedical sciences, including cell biology and virology, being done in Turkey. One of the reasons for this is that \Turkish society does not place value and prestige on scientists who do basic research and the Turkish government as well as philanthropic societies do not invest much in basic science research. Salaries of basic scientists in Turkey are very low compared to those in the US; and they have great difficulties in obtaining funds to carry out their basic research. Much of the kudos in Turkish culture (just look at the newspapers) goes to people who do business or people who do very much translational applications in medicine and engineering (e.g. software development). This is unfortunate because what drives discoveries in medicine or engineering is basic scientific research. Until Turkey invests more in fundamental basic scientific research, until Turkish society places more value and prestige on basic scientists, Turkey will never be at the forefront of making important contributions to medicine or engineering. Many bright students come out of terrific Turkish universities like Bilkent, ODTU and Bogazici wanting to do basic science research. But when they see the lack of research funding in Turkey, the poor salaries of research scientists, they decide to come to the US for PhD study or post-doc study opportunities and end up staying on in the US to do science. 

6. Is it possible to build a bridge between Turkey and USA in Cell Biology and Virology? How? And how can TASSA contribute?

Absolutely. One way is by supporting more basic science conferences to be held in Turkey. Another is by helping Turkish scientists get funds to attend conferences in the US. Finally it would be great if TASSA could help in making contacts between Turkish scientists in the US and scientists in Turkey, some type of a directory based on common scientific interests, so that for example when I go to Turkey I can connect with these Turkish scientists and give talks, visit labs, establish collaborations, recruit or share students. 

7. Any last words for young scientists?

Doing science is not your average 9-5 job. If you are a scientist you practically eat, live and breathe science, 7 days a week. So you have to love what you do to stay motivated. But having said that it is one of the most rewarding careers and rewarding paths to take in life.


Comments or Suggestions?