A Conversation with Serap Aksoy

In every issue of The Bridge, we aim to introduce a member of our diaspora.  These individuals touched the lives of many by their research, teaching or service activities. They are mentors who train the next generation of scientists, they are innovators whose innovations make our lives better, and they are teachers who educate hundreds of students. But they all have one thing in common; they make a difference. Our guest on this issue of The Bridge is Serap Aksoy, Professor of Epidemiology, Yale Shcool of Public Health.

The Bridge : Could you please give us a brief summary of your background?

Serap Aksoy:  I was born in Fatih, Istanbul. After graduating from Robert College, I received a BS from Vassar College and a PhD in Biology from Columbia University.  In 1985, I completed a postdoctoral fellowship, and joined the faculty at Yale School of Public Health.  Since 2001, I have been a full professor at the Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases where I was the Chair between 2002-2010.

T.B. :  Could you also summarize your studies/research?  

S. A.:  As a tropical medicine scientist, I am studying viruses and parasites, which are transmitted by insects, such as mosquitoes, ticks and tsetse flies and cause disease in humans and animals. These diseases, like malaria, dengue, chikungunya and leishmaniasis, pose a threat to public health worldwide –especially in recent times due to increased travel, climate change and environmental/ecological perturbations.  The parasite that I work on, the African trypanosome, has to be transmitted by the blood-feeding tsetse fly. The disease called, Sleeping Sickness, is fatal to humans but also these parasites cause similar diseases in animals in Africa. The animal diseases are arguably the biggest impediment to the economic prosperity on the continent. Effective solutions to control these diseases have not yet been found.  My research investigates tsetse flies and African trypanosome parasites, with direct implications and links for disease control in Africa. Our studies span basic research on insect and parasite biology in the laboratory to the population genetics/genomics of insects and parasites in natural populations, and disease epidemiology in the field— in order to develop innovative and affordable control methods that do not rely on use of chemicals.

T.B. :   Where do you see studies of your area of specialty in Turkey? What are your suggestions to improve the research in Turkey in this area?

S. A.:  Insect transmitted diseases are a threat to public health in Turkey as well. Leishmaniasis, known as sark cibani, is endemic in the south-eastern regions of Turkey – particularly increasing in recent times, but a visceral form of the disease is also seen along the Aegean coast.  Only a few years ago, Crimean-Congo virus transmitted by ticks made head-lines in the country, rightly causing much concern in the public.  Mosquito transmitted viral diseases, like dengue and chikungunya, pose a threat to the entire Mediterranean basin, including Turkey.  It is essential that Turkey invests in academic programs and public health and surveillance infrastructure to understand and control these diseases so that sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions can be developed before unwanted epidemics emerge.  Also insect transmitted diseases devastate animal and plant health as well.  The genetic and biological strategies we develop to control human diseases by insects are equally applicable to prevent disease transmission to animals and plants.

T.B. :  Would you please tell us about the current status of collaboration between the US and Turkish research institutions in your field? What can be done to increase the collaboration and strengthen the bridge between Turkey and the US? And how can TASSA, in your opinion, contribute to it?

S. A.:  I had the privilege to interact with some great Turkish scientists who work in my field, and there have been several excellent international scientific meetings organized around these themes in Turkey.  However, there is a need for US exchange programs, which promote scientific research, invest in and fund educational resources within Turkey, which engage students in US research programs. Several successful bilateral exchange programs have been organized between US and overseas researchers.  I am involved in the programs established between Yale University and universities in Kenya, Brazil and China. Briefly, these programs provide seed funds for bilateral research collaborations that involve exchange of scientists and students both ways.  Training the PhD and postdoctoral students in the context of these bilateral research collaborations, rather than sending students abroad for a 5-year period, is bearing fruit for these countries as evidenced by increased high-quality publications in international journals as well as increased research funds from international donors.  Turkey would benefit from a similar model in the long term.

T.B. :  You have been mentoring many international scientists and scholars and also graduate students  throughout your career. What would you advise young scientist for a successful  scientific career?

S. A.:  As a postdoctoral fellow, my first scientific grant at the National Institutes of Health was unscored by the review panel, which was disappointing and meant there was little to no enthusiasm for my great ideas!   One of the reviewers however commented that I had some pretty good ideas, but poor writing skills and recommended that I seek some mentorship.  Well, I have been grateful to that reviewer for his/her advice forever!  As the Editor-in-Chief of a prominent Tropical Medicine journal, Public Library of Sciences Neglected Tropical Diseases, I often lecture worldwide on the tenants of good scientific writing skills.  While we cannot all be great novelist, scientific writing can be learned!  My advise to young scientists, particularly in the academic fields, is to invest in developing good presentation and writing skill sets early on in their career. There are some great books and web resources out there on these topics that they can explore.  It will serve them well the rest of their career.

T.B. :  Could you please tell us about your life outside of your work? Do you have hobbies? What are your favorite activities? If you recommend a book, what would that be and why?

S. A.:  One of the privileges of an academic career is that my work takes me around the world to some wonderful and often less traveled places.  I try to explore new cultures and their histories during my travels. As my scientific exchange program is set in Kenya, I am now reading an excellent book by a Kenyan author, Ngugiwa Thiong’o, “A Grain of Wheat”.