Young Scientist of the Month: Emre Ozkumur

1) Would you please tell us about yourself and your journey that led

you to become a scholar.

I have always had interest on how new technology is used, or often created, to solve existing problems. Growing up, reading a book was a rather boring activity whereas opening up the broken walkman was a lot of fun. Without any knowledge of how electrical systems work, I would try to fix them; I got a few fuses blown out late at night in our high school dorm when I was trying to fix my tape player. Going to college, it was not surprise to anyone that I wanted to major in science and engineering.

I graduated from Koc University, where I double majored in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, and Physics. I have done small projects with various faculty members, there, and really enjoyed being in the lab. I actually enjoyed it a lot more than taking classes. So, I decided to have a research-focused career and attended Boston University for graduate school. I was very much into optics, lasers, and opto-electronic devices, hence I joined Prof. Selim Unlu’s research team and worked towards my PhD in the Photonics Center. My research was focused on novel biosensors that enable high-throughput detection of molecular interactions. After graduate school, I have joined Prof. Mehmet Toner’s team at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and developed microfluidic technologies for rare cell isolation from blood. At MGH, I worked within a large team where we focused on translating basic research into prototypes of potential products. This experience allowed me to see beyond basic research and understand the fundamentals of product development, during which I also gained an entrepreneurial perspective. I decided to continue on the entrepreneurial track and helped build the business plan for MicroMedicine Inc., to which I joined later. I also have an appointment at Ozyegin University.

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

My research is focused on developing novel tools to help basic biology or clinical research and improve healthcare. I have experience working with electro-optical methods, magnetic tools and microfluidic devices. Optical detection methods that I have helped develop during my PhD are later used for various applications from direct count of viral load in blood samples to identifying novel transcription mechanisms between various transcription factors and DNA sequences. At MGH, our goal was to isolate circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from cancer patients’ blood, and we developed microfluidic and magnetic isolation technologies for this. We worked in close collaboration with clinical researchers. Their goal was to uncover the mechanisms of cancer metastasis, and our goal was to provide them the best tools possible for their research. By first hand experience, I have seen how clinical experts utilized tools that I developed for expanding the understanding of deadly diseases. My most recent experience at MicroMedicine Inc. is teaching me how to take some of these novel technologies all the way to market, through commercialization. The product will be used in medical research, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Watching this evolution of new technologies over the years, from idea to implementation, from bench to prototype, and finally to final product, is very satisfying.

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.

I consider myself to be a patient and calm person which helped me become a good problem solver. During my studies, there were numerous instances when things were failing and I was not getting what I expected. It is very important to evaluate the outcome of such failing experiments with a peace of mind and without rushing it. Only then one can identify the root cause of the problem, and once it is identified, it can be fixed so that the same problem will not repeat. An important lesson I have learned over the years was that a failed experiment is more valuable than a working one as long as the root cause is correctly identified.

4) What are your immediate and long-term goals for the future?

My immediate future goals are focused on getting MicroMedicine to successfully launch its products. Being able to get to the finish line with some of the technologies I have helped create is my primary target. In the long-term, I am planning to continue on the entrepreneurial journey as I have really enjoyed creating value from cutting edge science instead of leaving it in the lab.

5) What do you recommend to aspiring scholars, or to young Turkish
scientists/scholars who are at the beginning of their careers?

It is very easy to get frustrated when conducting research. They must be patient. I recommend them to try enjoying the research process itself. Focus on and enjoy the problem solving, instead of perceiving the publications as the only target and failed experiments as hurdles on your way. Otherwise, one can get very easily frustrated and lose motivation when things start falling apart. The final outcome of the research, publications, presentations, etc., will be the icing on the cake.

The other important recommendation I would give is about picking the mentors. I have had the privilege to work with exceptional advisors through my career, starting from Koc University. When it comes to research and graduate/post-graduate studies, a student’s relationship with the advisor is at least as important as the project itself. So; I would recommend them to be more flexible about schools they would like to attend or projects they would like to pursue, but make sure they have good communication with the advisors they will pick.

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 have three children (a toddler and twin babies), and that pretty much sums up my “life outside of work” right now. I love skiing and snowboarding – in addition to the exercise and associated fun, I find it to be quite calming. As far as the books go, this may be a bit too classical, but everyone must read 1984 by Georg Orwell, at least once in their lifetime. It is both surprising and inspiring to see someone could draw a picture of future so accurately and describe how societies would be suppressed and mis-guided.