Interview with Turkish science women from Harvard and MIT

Interview with Turkish science women from Harvard and MIT

There are Turkish science women as well working in laboratories of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) named among the best universities of the world. We visited Canan Dağdeviren, a member of Young Academicians of Harvard, taken into the list of “30 scientists below 30 years of age” of Forbes, and Beste Mutlu who has completed her doctorate study in biology laboratories of Harvard. And students of Bilfen High Schools, the first educational institution accepted with their projects from outside USA to the science fair organized in MIT, backed Dağdeviren and Mutlu quite into a corner!  

It is foretold what type of a task the friends could entrust with those planning to travel from Turkey to Boston city of USA: “Would you please also take with you the umbilical cords of our children there?” Then, umbilical cords kept somewhere since years are slipped into hands of travelers feeling confident that they can find an excuse if such umbilical cords are found and detected in passport or luggage checks, and they are asked to be buried into somewhere in the gardens of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) or Harvard University. Taking into account also those who take the umbilical cords of their children themselves, today you can even find several umbilical cords per square meter in the gardens of those universities! Over and above, if this method is of service in education, it means that these schools will soon not have a chance to accept anyone other than the Turkish students. Political quarrels occasionally emerging between countries are of no importance indeed. Turks know where the science is and certainly desire to take it for themselves. And they fear no sacrifice for the sake of education of their children.

In the past, Boğaziçi University was the popular site for burying umbilical cords of children. Of course, we broadened our horizon by time, and set our eyes on such universities as Harvard having a budget of more than 20 billion dollars. They are not many yet, but there are some scientists of us who have already rated with the universities in Boston. Included among the important names at this level are Canan Dağdeviren, a member of Young Academicians of Harvard, taken into the list of “30 scientists below 30 years of age” of Forbes, and a faculty member in MIT, as well as Beste Mutlu who is a doctorate student in Harvard…

Of course, there are some universities developing and growing in our country as well. Maybe they become capable of competing with Boston. And the projects presented by students of Bilfen High Schools during Harvard and MIT visits got my hopes up. Studies of the students of Bilfen İskenderun High School and Bilfen Ankara Çayyolu High School were the sole projects accepted to the fair from outside the state. And in Boston the Turkish students were most attended personally by Canan Dağdeviren, our young science woman, and Beste Mutlu, having put her signature under successful studies in Harvard. Eh, umbilical cords are not enough, you must of course have some acquaintances to take care of you and act as your reference herein! 

According to news written by Aysun Öz from HT Sunday, Dağdeviren for whom a new and large laboratory has been prepared in MIT showed us around her institute. Then she had a long talk with students in Media Lab which was also visited by the ex-US President Obama. Our first object of curiosity was which types of difficulties she had faced here as a woman… Here is our eye-opening conversation with Dağdeviren: 


Is it difficult to be a woman in MIT?

Struggle is everywhere indeed. When I came for my doctorate study, I was the single woman researcher in the group. When I asked a question, most would not deign to answer me. Though I had enough theoretical knowledge, I had only a little practice, because we could not frequently conduct tests and trials in Turkey. I found a simple method. In the laboratories, I was watching everyone from morning till night. How are they using their hands, which materials are they selecting? And by time I managed to settle my own system and started to work hard. I would go to meetings prepared very well, both as I liked my professor and as I had self-respect. When I had very good meetings, the men in the group would always tell me: “Of course, the meeting was good for you, because you are a woman, and if it had not been good, you would sit and cry. That is why the professor is behaving you well.” Not even remotely close! None of my projects worked for three years. I passed through a very challenging process. To collect and try information and make mistakes… It took a long time.

At the end of the 3rdyear...

Everything started going great guns. I established my own team. I started to work with 9 students. In the last 2 years, we put our signature under wonderful projects, and our articles are published in very prestigious journals. This came to the university’s attention, and I am deemed worthy of “Perfectionism” award of 10 thousand dollars for my studies and projects. When I won it, one of my friends said: “Of course, they would give this award to you, because otherwise you would sit and cry.” “Look at me,” I told him. “I have now 10 thousand dollars and can give it to you. You can go to California and undergo an operation for becoming a woman, and then you can also feel at ease!” Therefore, I did not ever hear such comments. I do not think one may get anywhere solely under the auspices of positive discrimination towards or importance attached to women. One may get somewhere only by working together and entering into joint projects with men. I have given a promise to myself. If I had 5 male students, I would definitely have 5 female students as well. Because both men and women should have the chance to see to which extent it is cheerful and pleasant to work together. I am giving the best answer with my works and projects. I have a suggestion to all students: Be man enough! Rather than quarreling with people around you, try to find a common point. Always be together with people who do not think like you. 


And now you have surmounted all difficulties, and I suppose you are getting a bang out of work. To be a woman is a very pleasing thing. I believe in equality between women and men. But nevertheless when I do science I do it fully like a woman.

What does it mean to do science like a woman?

I am making multi-functional, precise and colorful tools and instruments just like a woman. We must not of course separate the genders much, but it is a fact that women are more combative. After we start to do something, we do not leave or desert it ever.


Is doing science in Turkey difficult?

Turkey is not a place convenient for doing science. I don’t know whether I could do in Turkey what I did in the United States. Maybe not in 5 years, but only in 30 years… But time is very important, because someone else may do it in the meantime. It is difficult to bring materials into Turkey, there are customs clearance problems. It is also not easy to do pure science by wriggling yourself out of ideologies and political identities. In Turkey, everyone is talking on politics, even the children… This is a problem. 


You have experienced 1999 earthquake, and then gone to high school in Adana. How did you motivate yourself from those days to this level? And where have you fixed your eyes on now?

I was in Kocaeli in 99 earthquake. I lost a great many of my friends, my teacher and my beloved ones. Then I am sent to Adana as a guest student. And I lived there up to such time that I started to speak as “I’m from Adana and a man of God”. I had a project in my mind, for my grandfather… Of course, while you are working, you are facing a lot of things: courses, environmental factors, your family’s not being with you, a different environment, etc. But when something does not go well, I am used to think like Atatürk. It was he who founded and created a new and modern Turkey out of nothing in an environment and an era full of nothing with only very few financial possibilities. Then he says: “If ever what I say is contrary to science, always choose science.”  That is why my main source of motivation is always Atatürk. I am trying to do many things in a short time. The first condition precedent of being successful is to dream, second is to run in the pursuit of your dreams, third is to read as the first commandment of the God, forth is to plan, and fifth is to review and check the whole literature. If you wish to be successful, you have to do something not ever done before in the literature. If you are going something already done by someone else, there is a problem.

We see some traumas in general in the past of those making a difference. Is yours the earthquake? Does it bring the talents forward?

Scientists are influence from nature, but I was influenced by sicknesses in my family members. I have lost my family cancers due to cancer. Recently we lost my aunt due to breast cancer when she was only 50 years old. Now I am making electronic brassiere for her. Rather than demoralizing myself and sitting down, I am going into action. I am designing tools and instruments out of my traumas. I wish humans to touch my tools and instruments.  And one of my missions is to inspire the idea ‘I can also do’ in brains of the youth in Turkey. I will continue.


You are indeed a physicist. And the main problem of the world is energy. In CERN, they are willing to produce radiationless and unlimited energy by combining molecules and to carry it everywhere in small boxes, rather than producing nuclear energy by splitting the atom. Maybe atomic energy will be used in automobiles or houses in the future. Is it possible?

Why not? Last year I was invited to Global Innovation Summit in Paris. Emmanuel Macron, new President of France, has not yet tossed his hat into the ring. He has listened to everyone speaking there, and asked questions. Though it is not his field, he also talked to me about my project, and we spoke on his promises. I believe that like all other fields the politics also needs innovation and change is a must therein as well.


  • In medical technology field, she developed a battery-free wearable cardiac chip (PZT MEH) and a device diagnosing skin cancer.
  • Entered into the list of “30 scientists below the age of 30” of Forbes Magazine. 
  • Elected as Junior Fellow of Harvard University.
  • Named in the list of Below-35 Inventors edited and published annually by MIT Technology Review.


In Biology Laboratories of Harvard University, we are hosted by Beste Mutlu, a former student of Bilfen and presently a doctorate student in molecular biology department in Harvard University. After graduating from the Engineering and Natural Sciences Faculty of Sabancı University, Mutlu came to Harvard University for molecular biology doctorate study. “I have not ever thought biology as my profession, but it is no my profession,” says Mutlu. And Mutlu has chosen a very interesting subject of study: “Young embryos may, when they are unicellular, transform into a muscle cell or an eye cell, shortly into almost everything. Just like a computer where all software programs are open at the same time… But as time passes, they decide to which they will transform, and the programs are closed slowly one by one. If it decides to become an eye cell, muscle cell is closed. Only the needed cells remain open.” She is conducting her studies relating to this mechanism on earthworms which will give a result in a short time. And the question asked most frequently by students to Beste Mutlu was how they could be accepted for postgraduate and doctorate programs in Harvard University. Mutlu gives a very clear answer to this question:

“Prefer universities where professors have good links abroad. Most of my professors have themselves studied in the United States and had still ongoing links and connections there.” After a summer internship in Harvard, she has got a reference letter which further smoothed the way for her. In the meantime, let me give a note: Starting from the next week, you can read in HT Sunday the articles and news regarding the science world to be written by Beste Mutlu at the heart of science! Her first subject will be focused on the recent stem cell researches. 


It is not for nothing that schools such as Harvard and MIT are dreamed of by students. The most important reason is of course better education and research warranty, because PISA results are obvious. We have hit rock bottom in the report of this year. However, in fact, all kinds of investments done in education return in dollars to the gross domestic product. In the report titled “High Cost of Low Education Performance” published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it is stated that standard success of a country in PISA results is directly proportional and linked to its economic growth. According to the report, every increase of 50 points in exam results paves the way for a rise of 0.87 percent in annual growth rate of the country. Considering the annual average growth rate of 1.5 percent in OECD member states, this rate of rise is a considerable amount in fact. There are some countries which have already succeeded in it. Now at rather high levels in PISA ranking, South Korea’s national income was at the same level with Afghanistan in 1960s. However, today, greatly due to the importance attached to education, South Korea is among the richest economies of the world.


In MIT, questions asked by biology division students coming from different campuses of Bilfen were surprising also for Canan Dağdeviren...

You have said that the device you designed for skin cancer can measure also arteriosclerosis and blood pressure. Do you think to further develop it? Can it be possible to create a health map in order to prevent such sickness as heart attack or paralysis?

Yes, I am of the same opinion. Instruments we make do not indeed treat, but diagnose sicknesses early. For instance, the small “purge” instrument made for skin cancer is now being developed further. We are developing a platform into which information about not only the upperlayer of the skin tissue, but also the depths may be inserted. We are doing this for breast cancer. We are designing an electronic brassiere. By means of electronic devices and components contained therein, how can we uncover the changes at the depths of skin tissue? We naturally need early data for early diagnosis. And it is not possible with the data collected from only one single point. When we monitor continuously, we shall be able to see what happened in the past, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future. We can make maps. Indeed, earthquake maps are also identical to it. They are always collecting data and creating equations which know to which extent the fault lines can break and at which degree of earthquake may occur. Ours are very long and troublesome tests and trials. For example, a trial of us takes a time of more than 12 hours. I am continuing to work with my flask full of Turkish coffee and with bags under my eyes.

How does a pacemaker accommodate itself at a time of no heart attack, but an increase in cardiac rhythm, for instance while doing intensive sports?

Super.  I have also asked the same question to cardiac surgeons I am collaborating with. While designing the devices, we are working in collaboration with cardiac surgeons. We have performed this test on animals. We intravenously injected the active ingredient, and heart’s straining and relaxation increased.  We created a state of excitement and even in such circumstances we noted that the device can continue to work on heart without any problem. We are performing the tests on the most difficult organ, so as to have an easy touch thereafter. For example, heart was one of them, because if it stops to work, you die. If this device is of use on heart, it can work at any point in the body. At present, we are developing another version of this device together with my students in MIT. Without need to be stuck on heart, it will be capable of operating entirely outside, for instance under your shoes, as a part of your knee, or maybe inside your underwear. While you walk, you will be able to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy and send it to these devices wireless.


All of these devices are inventions you made on human health. However, we know that you studied on physics and material engineering. Have you also taken education on biology or are your results a product of teamwork?

Another marvelous question. Absolutely it is a product of teamwork. But though I am a physicist and an engineer, I can make for instance brain and heart operations here. I have taken special education and training for it here. And I want to add also: a physicist can do everything. You can do everything with adequate education and time. Tests I am doing are animal tests, but indeed I feel so sad about death of animals. Therefore, I am performing the tests with so much attention that they generally take a very long time. That is why I have very muscular legs. I am running so as to be able to keep standing for long hours.


Project of Nazlı Sarnav, Betül Korkmaz and Simay Güler from Bilfen İskenderun High School is related to use of biological technique in treatment of dyes used in textile industry:

“Releasing into nature the dyes used on fabrics without any treatment is causing a lot of biological and chemical destructions. In our day, the treatment process is made by physical and chemical methods and is very expensive. However, in spite of it, the treatment process can accomplish the desired results only up to 90 percent, and a danger of 10 percent still continues to exist. They make great damages and harms on humans, animals and environment. Coloring agents contain a high salt concentration and most bacteria cannot resist it. But we thought that if we work with salt lover ARKEs, we can get a good result. ARKE bacteria safeguard and maintain their own metabolism even in environments of excessive pollution and contamination. This means to say that if these bacteria are placed in water containing contaminated, poisonous and toxic substances, they can make the toxic substances available therein non-poisonous. By doing so, both the water is whitened and an environment convenient for reproduction of creatures in water occurs, and the toxic substance is reduced by 95 percent.”

Project of Ege Mert Özgürtaş from Bilfen Ankara Çayyolu High School is a biological sensor measuring level of bacteria in water:

Determination of biological contamination of waters takes a few days and is too costly. We have studied the contamination occurring as a result of contamination of water by feces. While determining it, we made use of a feature of another bacterium. Bacteria have a communication between each other. Vibrio bacteria we are using are emitting lights.  But they have another feature as well and if and when a relation occurs with another bacterium, they are emitting more light.  We are using these lights and radiations in our project. If you have watched the movie named “Pi”, you will recall that there was a radiation while fish were passing under the raft. Indeed these are the bacteria causing that radiation. Bacteria leading to phosphorence in the sea. We also took from fish the vibrio needed for the device we designed. We marked the places they are radiating. And we saw that there is even a more intensive radiation at places we put them. We created a vibrio liquid. Then we established this mechanism by using their interaction. We cut an ayran bottle, and wrapped it so as to prevent ingress of light. We placed a sensor which enters into interaction with software there, and lights come on. There are 8 led lamps. The more contaminated the water is, the more lamps come on. There are bacteria in everything we eat, but this system may help us so as to understand after which stage these bacteria may become harmful.”