Young Scientist of the Month: Funda Durupinar Babur

1) Would you please tell us about yourself and your journey that led you to become a scholar.

My journey to become a computer scientist started early in my life. I was inclined towards math and science. That and my fascination with video games –not just playing them but understanding their design and graphics steered me towards the decision to study computer engineering as a major. I took the university entrance exam with a particular goal in mind: studying computer engineering at the Middle East Technical University (METU).  I was fortunate enough to get in and have an excellent undergraduate education on a wonderful campus with countless social opportunities. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to study computer graphics. However, no classes were offered before my third year. So, I first familiarized myself with this field by working at the Modeling and Simulation Laboratory at METU as a summer intern after my junior year. In the end, I took the classes and did my senior project on facial animation. I was determined to continue working on computer graphics for my graduate studies. After graduation, I went on to another world-class university, Bilkent, to pursue an M.S. and later Ph.D. under the supervision of Prof. Ugur Gudukbay, who is specialized in computer graphics.

During my Ph.D. I received an international fellowship from The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK) and visited the  University of Pennsylvania for 9 months. Later, after I got my doctorate degree, I went on to work at the same research lab at Penn as a postdoctoral fellow. Interestingly, my supervisor there, Prof. Norman Badler, happens to be my academic great grandfather.  Confusing as it sounds, he is the Ph.D. advisor of the Ph.D. advisor of my Ph.D. advisor! Our collaboration still continues: we recently presented a paper at SIGGRAPH.

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

My research links computer graphics, animation and psychology with a focus on the realistic animation of virtual humans. Animated characters appear in a wide range of application domains such as movies and games, training environments, military or industrial settings. Regardless of their level of visual accuracy, their authentic behavior within a certain context is important for the user to relate with them and have meaningful interactions.  The main goal of my research is to create expressive virtual humans in such a manner that their behaviors are consistently distinguishable from each other. Personality is a key element to that makes each individual distinctive.  Our assessment of a game character, an educational virtual agent, a personal avatar or a simulated actor in a story environment is easily shaped by its personality, and animators can use this knowledge to elicit the reactions they desire. My research has shown that we can indeed create personality-driven virtual humans that successfully express their personalities through motion.

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 believe that perseverance and diligence are indispensable for success. Obviously, you also need to enjoy what you are doing; otherwise, no matter how skilled or persistent you are, something will always pull you down.

I must also note that, besides my personal qualities, I owe a lot to the Turkish Republic built upon the revolutions by Ataturk. I am completely aware that if it weren’t for him and his foresight, I wouldn’t be writing about my journey to become a scholar today. My generation is among the lucky ones provided with high-quality public education adhering to modern-world standards.  Today, I am proud to see that all my classmates turned out to be highly successful, well-rounded, progressive individuals.

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

My research plans involve pursuing the problems I have been working through so far; namely, the development of high-fidelity, believable virtual characters that exhibit diverse psychological and social behaviors. On top of the complexity of human behaviors, social interactions bring even more complications, opening a wide array of research directions. I contemplate several short-term goals to achieve a full-fledged psychologically-based human animation system that enables the development of scenarios involving multiple agents and their interactions.

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

Be persistent, don’t easily give up on the problems you are tackling with. Especially when you are at the beginning of your career, don’t get discouraged by having your papers rejected. Remember that if you work hard enough, you will be rewarded in the end. Don’t be afraid of changing your perspective. If you feel that you are stuck on a problem and not able to progress any more, take some time away from it; work on different problems for a while. When you go back to your original problem, you’ll be surprised to see how you can come up with a new solution. Read a lot -- not just about your own field though. You never know where inspiration comes from.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 live in Oregon and I intend to take advantage of its beautiful nature as much as possible. I like doing hiking, camping with my family and biking. I’ve had a variety of hobbies on and off, but photography has been on my list since I was a college student; and Pacific Northwest, with its amazing landscapes, is a photographer’s paradise.

I am an avid reader and no matter how busy I am, I can always find the time to read a book. Recently I’ve finished Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. It is a meticulously written and technically-accurate science fiction novel. The author weaves scientific knowledge into an exciting story. We humans take for granted what the Earth provides us. The book reminds me the fragility of “life” and how lucky we are to be living on this planet.