Young Scholar Profile: Ahmet F. Coşkun

The Bridge: Would you please tell us about yourself and your journey that led you to become a scientist.

Ahmet F. Coşkun: My journey to curiosity began in my early college years at Koç University, Turkey. I started majoring in Electrical Engineering with the intent to develop medical devices that can save lives. I could have contributed to human health by attending a medical school, but I wanted to stay on the technology side of health research. This gave me the chance to approach biological problems with an engineering mindset. I was also fascinated by the Physics lectures in my college years, especially those on the philosophy behind quantum principles. I then wanted to learn more about the fundamentals of Physics, which brought me a second degree in Physics. The fuse of Engineering and Physics was indeed complementary to grasp the nature of inventions (although I had to adjust myself back and forth between different definitions such as the imaginary unit being named as either “i” or “ j”). During my college years, I was exposed to the research efforts in the field of “Optics and Photonics” with a focus on new laser development and applications of lasers in Nano-optics. My dual backgrounds in Physics and Engineering helped me progress in these fields.

Inspired by my great mentors at Koç University, I wanted to continue my graduate studies in the USA. I joined the Electrical Engineering Department of UCLA, and the BioPhotonics Laboratory directed by Dr. Aydogan Ozcan as a graduate student researcher. My graduate experience was phenomenal, as I had a chance to fully equip myself with countless skills while developing a visionary lookout. In the meantime, my curiosity led me to study the fields of Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Bioengineering, which had all been minor studies in my graduate education at UCLA. With these updates in my career, I started to call my background “interdisciplinary”.

After receiving my PhD from UCLA, I looked for new fields that could benefit from my cocktail background. I ended up at California Institute of Technology (CaltEch) as a research fellow in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, performing “systems biology” research. I am currently combining engineering tools with genomics technologies to answer biological questions in stem cell research.

T.B. Tell us about your research and how it is related to everyday life or other fields. 

A.F.C.:  At the core of my research lie novel methodologies and devices that have potential to transform health and technology.  An example is to develop unconventional imaging techniques to diagnose diseases in low-resource settings. With this in mind, I was instrumental in the development of microscopy methods without the use of lenses and other bulky components.  Instead, computational approaches were employed to create microscopic images. The implication of these devices is that we are now able to develop microscopes that fit in your pocket.   You can perform testing of your blood, for instance, in remote locations. Along the same lines, I devised gadgets that can convert mobile phones into personalized testing tools in public venues.  For instance, you can screen allergens in food samples or detect hazardous markers in urine samples.  I believe that these innovations will enable early and frequent monitoring of many diseases so that the quality of life will increase in our society.

My recent research interests follow the same method-driven approach, but they answer basic science questions. Current biomedical technologies are limited in terms of the number of species that we can analyze. For instance, we can only use 5-6 color channels in fluorescent microscopy, but we need to analyze thousands of different targets (e.g., genes) in cells with these colors. Therefore, we develop sequencing methods based on combinatorial barcoding of these existing colors to map the expression profiles of the many genes in single-cells. We aim to understand the heterogeneity of the cell populations by deciphering cell-to-cell variations. This will help us understand the underlying mechanisms of life-threatening diseases such as cancer. Interestingly, we observe these barcodes in nature too. For instance, inside human cells, the number of biomolecules is limited but the number of events is countless.  This refers to a “combinatorial” use of molecules to create many more functions.

T.B. What do you consider important to your success?  Tell us about any skills or habits that you think helped you to become a successful scientist at such a young age.

A.F.C.:  I believe that success in an academic career is not simply a measure of how “smart” one is. It is, rather, a measure of “persistence” and “passion”. For instance, researchers should not get devastated from the negative results that they obtain. These negative results might lead to some unexpected discoveries. Being able to get over failures before successful results has been an important skill that I have practiced throughout my research.  In addition, I have always thought of my job as my “hobby”, thus, I would not mind working day and night to finish the tasks.

T.B. What are your immediate and long-term goals for the future?

A.F.C.:  My short-term goal is to broaden my horizon in biological sciences. Particularly, my aim is to advance my skills in the molecular biology and biochemistry fields. The unique integration of engineering and biology might shed light on unseen or undetected phenomena. In addition to research advancements, I am interested in teaching students who will become the future leaders, researchers, and scientists. I believe that transferring experience to the next-generation is crucial to assure the continuation of knowledge, idealism, and impact.

T.B. What do you recommend to aspiring scientists, or to young Turkish scientists who are at the beginning of their careers?

A.F.C.:  Young researchers should do what they love. Once they select an exciting research question, they should follow all the relevant literature in their fields, and attend as many seminars and conferences as possible. They should be aware of what problems are currently being explored and what problems are still unsolved in their fields.  Developing “depth” and “breadth” in their research fields is critical for future scientists. I recommend avoiding “differential” improvements in their fields. Instead, they should bring in “visionary” ideas with substantial contributions. Lastly, it is essential to advance presentation and writing skills.