Young Scientist of the Month, Can Bayram

1) Would you please tell us about yourself and your journey that led you to become a scholar.
Born to a family of teachers, I was immersed in outside-the-classroom learning experiences growing up. My earliest memories include me at home counting with an abacus and practicing fractions while eating orange slices. I recall ten-hour-long bus rides to my grandparents (who lived in central Turkey) turning into learning opportunities about crops, clouds, rocks - anything I could see out of the bus window. Growing up, my older brother and I certainly broke more electronics than we could fix as we looked for better ways to control our electronic toy cars. Being curious and having parents who allowed, and even encouraged, my brother and me to experiment helped us become explorers. Following my brother’s footsteps, I was fortunate enough to continue my middle school education at Bornova Anatolian High School. This middle school (now closed) was wonderful thanks to its resemblance to a university campus with its own mandarin garden and forest, home to my long afternoon walks. I later attended Izmir Science High School, where only 96 students are selected annually nationwide. I was introduced to the dorm life there and made many lasting friendships. I cannot forget our 7 – 8 am and 6:30 – 9:30 pm study periods. Upon graduation, I joined Bilkent University. I started as a physics major but ended up continuing along my brother’s footsteps by graduating in electrical engineering. When it was time for graduate school, I decided to focus on photonics and joined Northwestern University (IL, USA), where my advisor, Prof. Manijeh Razeghi, shaped my graduate career. My education helped me adapt to the high pace of doctoral studies. I recall working close to 100 hours weekly at times. It all paid off as I joined IBM Research in 2011 as a postdoctoral scholar and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a faculty in 2014.

2) Tell us about your research and how it is related to everyday life or other fields. My work is on energy conversion devices. Particularly, I research interactions between fundamental particles of light (i.e. photons) and electricity (i.e. electrons and holes) to generate light with unconventional properties and to detect light with high, such as single photon, resolution. For this research, I use semiconductors as the medium, converting electricity to light (for emitters) and light to electricity (for detectors). Today, we rely on semiconductors for almost all functions. Following the light emitting diode (LED) revolution (i.e. 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics) on GaN semiconductors, we alloy GaN semiconductors with aluminum for ultraviolet and with indium for visible emitters. Ultraviolet emitters are critical for disinfection, curing, and lithography and visible LEDs are critical for lighting, display, and bio-photonics. Building on the transistor revolution (i.e. 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics), I am exploring GaN semiconductors for novel transistor architectures for high-speed high power 5G applications. Overall, my research is at the intersection of quantum physics, semiconductor materials, and solid-state devices.

3) What do you consider important to your success?   Tell us about any skills or habits that you think helped you to become a successful scholar at such a young age.
Attention is a limited resource. I make sure that when I am working, I concentrate mindfully. This is difficult to do, now more than ever, with ever increasing distractions and responsibilities. I ease into complete concentration by prioritizing my work and performing the most important tasks earlier in the day. If attention is my gold, time is my platinum. You must spend time to make time. I dedicate time to manage and order my tasks per my priorities. In the end, such planning helps me manage my time more efficiently. At any time in life, loving what you do is critical. I am curious about the research conducted in my lab and am constantly fascinated by learning how my team has approached and, hopefully, got closer to understanding high-impact issues and solving the grandest challenges. I never distinguish between workdays and weekends. To me, every day is a wonderful opportunity to learn, to teach, and to contribute, either in or out of the lab.

4) What are your immediate and long-term goals for the future?
Research-wise, I am currently working on understanding the fundamental mechanisms of “droop” (i.e. reduction in efficiency under high injection current) in LEDs. This is a much-debated area, and I am targeting to fill the knowledge gap for enabling widespread LED applications. A droop-free LED will be the breakthrough in GaN photonics. I enjoy teaching. I just created a senior / 1st-year graduate level course titled "LEDs and Solar Cells". I am working on a new advanced graduate-level course on photonics, which is very exciting to me. My long-term research goals are coupled with my research and teaching. I am looking into understanding how our technical knowledge can be commercialized and the new technologies can be better integrated into the pillars of university education.

5) What do you recommend to aspiring scholars, or to young Turkish scientists/scholars who are at the beginning of their careers?
I have been fortunate enough to observe curious scientists, learn from experienced directors, and work with dynamic innovators. My recommendations to young Turkish scientists and scholars stem from my understanding of their success traits: Be observative. Be attentive. Be collaborative. Do Read. Do Think. Do Plan. Take Initiative. Take Charge. Take Responsibility. Don’t Give Up. Don’t Stop. Don’t Despair. My biggest inspiration has always been our Founding Father of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In 1937, Ataturk spoke to us directly. “Turkish Youth! You are intelligent. No doubt. Forget about your intelligence and work hard”.

6) 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?
I grew up in Izmir, Turkey, located by the Aegean Sea, and have always enjoyed waterfront views and swimming. I live by a lake now and enjoy our university’s swimming pools. Living near campus has its own benefits. I can play volleyball and soccer with the energetic university youth on any day, rain or shine.
I recommend everyone to read “The Turkish Einstein, Oktay Sinanoglu” where Prof. Sinanoglu, the youngest professor (with age 28) at Yale in the last 100 years, explains how he came to become who he was. I found this book, to be honest, inspiring, and reflecting parts of my own experiences. I commemorate Prof. Sinanoglu for narrating his challenges, thinking mechanisms, and life experiences in this easy-to-read book, available to all.