Young Scholar Profile: Ayça Yalçın Özkumur

In every issue of The Bridge, we highlight a young scholar profile from our diaspora. These accomplished and early career individuals demonstrate the potential of next generation Turkish-American scientists and scholars. The young scholar in this issue is Ayca YalcinÖzkumur who is a new faculty participating in a collaboration between Bahcesehir and Boston Universities.

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

Ayça Yalçın Özkumur:  The thought of becoming a scientist came to me rather late in life. The summer I finished high school, I visited my father who was at the time working on a collaborative research project in the Physics department at Montana State University. It was my first time in the US, and the gorgeous mountains, lakes, and rivers aside, the town did not offer much entertainment. So, I’ve started accompanying my dad on his bike rides to the lab in the mornings and asking to help with little tasks here and there. They were trivial things like cutting silicon wafer pieces with a diamond pen or writing tiny code scripts that would help plot a graph or analyze data in a different way. I loved the lab environment and the continuous excitement that was in the air. Nothing seemed dull: people were constantly thinking, planning, experimenting, and carefully analyzing the results for their next move. I think my journey to become a scientist started that summer when to my 17 year old self, a scientist was a person who took the problem at hand very seriously, and curiously and persistently worked on it at a flexible schedule while enjoying the whole process. At hard times, I try to remember that “slightly” over-optimistic perception.

My favorite subject during my undergraduate years in Bilkent University was Optics, and I believe that having attended Optics courses thought by two exceptional professors, Dr. Haldun Özaktaş and Dr. Orhan Aytür, had a considerable effect in that matter. To me, it felt natural to proceed in that field in graduate school, and having worked in various laboratories during summer breaks, I had a passion for experimental research. I came to Boston University for a Masters degree in Photonics, and received a PhD degree in Electrical Engineering at the same institution under Dr. Selim Ünlü’s supervision. After a multidisciplinary PhD thesis, I wanted to be more involved in the application side of biotechnology, and I joined Dr. Chris Love’s laboratory at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Overall, I believe the 10 years I’ve spent in the US had an immense effect on my research career, and the diversity of the problems I have faced, the multidisciplinary aspect of the research field, and the extremely cultivating environment and brilliant scientists continually provided the motivation to keep me on track. I consider myself very lucky since I have been privileged to work in cutting-edge research settings, with great coworkers and amazing mentors.

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

A. Y. Ö.:  Put in very broad terms, my research is based on developing engineering solutions to contribute to advancements in human disease diagnostics and treatment. I specialize in development and application of advanced optical microscopy, biosensing, and lab-on-chip tools for in vitro detection of biomarkers and analysis of cells in a high-throughput, rapid, and accurate fashion. I am interested in developing systems capable of extracting multifaceted information to help understand human diseases, and state-of-the-art tools to aid medical specialists in developing new cures. The outcomes of my research may find practical applications in diagnostics, prognostics and personalized treatment of various diseases.

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. Y. Ö.:  When it comes to work, I like planning things ahead of time and rehearse the steps I will take and think about likely scenarios and backup plans. I am rather a pessimist and keep raining on my own parade until I convince myself that something will work. Taking the time for careful planning and organization helps me save a great deal of time later by eliminating potential obstacles along the way and keeps me sane during times of struggle with multitasking.

I also try to benefit from this feeling of uneasiness I get upon facing an issue, no matter how minor. The urge to put my mind at ease provides me with the motivation needed to keep on going when dealing with tasks that fail short in delivering curiosity or excitement within the big picture and feel just plain “boring”. Even though it can be utterly difficult to find the patience to work on such tedious tasks, they end up clearing the path to success in research most of the time.

T.B.:  What are your immediate and long-term goals?

A. Y. Ö.:  Inspired by the model I had the chance to observe and be a part of in the US, I would like to establish a functioning bridge between the faculties of engineering and medicine at my current position in Turkey at Bahcesehir University. My laboratory is located within the newly established School of Medicine, and together with my former PhD advisor Dr. Selim Ünlü, long term collaborator Dr. Marcella Chiari, and medical specialists in Turkey, Europe, and USA, we are currently working on developing diagnostics solutions for infectious diseases and different types of cancer. In the long run, I would like to see the successful application of a technology developed in my laboratory for routine use in the medical field.

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

A. Y. Ö.:  From a personal standpoint, the two things I consider had major impact on shaping my career have been the collaborations I have established, and the mentors I have chosen. International collaborations have provided me with an invaluable personal and professional network, a much broader vision, and a strong training that would not be attainable in any other way. The amazing advisors and mentors I continue to look up to, especially Dr. Selim Ünlü, Dr. Marcella Chiari, Dr. Chris Love, and Dr. Mehmet Toner have set exceptional examples and extremely high standards to follow. I would recommend young scientists to keep their minds open to collaborations in previously unexplored fields, which keeps one constantly renewed and active, and surround themselves with inspiring people who provide guidance and support in times of need. Finally, I recommend resisting the temptation to push social life and family to second place, and working hard on keeping a healthy work/life balance on a daily basis.

T.B.:  Would you please tell us a little about your life outside of your work as well? Do you have hobbies? What are your favorite activities?

A. Y. Ö.:  I have a two-year-old son, Sinan, and that pretty much sums up my life outside of work. I love how parenthood forces you to question your every action which leads to continued personal education and being a better person. Being a mother also teaches one to be more organized and efficient, and it has positively affected my work in that sense. Besides spending quality time with my husband and my son, I enjoy outdoor activities, and experimenting with cooking and baking whenever I find the time.

T.B.:  Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.