Turkey needs to have a new and more comprehensive strategy for science, according to Canan Dağdeviren, a top scientist who currently leads a research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“Unfortunately, I feel like the quality of education has been lowered dramatically … But if I could do it then they can also do it,” said Dağdeviren, who mentors young Turkish minds from the U.S. and who in 2015 was named in the “Top 35 Innovators Under 35” (inventor category) by MIT Technology Review and in the “Top 30 Under 30 in Science” by Forbes.
Q: Who is Canan Dağdeviren and what is she working on?
A: I believe people resemble their hometowns. I am like Istanbul, the city that connects two continents via bridges. Like Istanbul I bridge the gap between hard, boxy electronics and soft, time-dynamic elastic biology. Today’s electronics are up to six times stiffer than soft tissue in the human body. So when you want to integrate electronics with the body there are severe challenges. Because we cannot change biology we come up with new ways to make electronic devices that have the shape and mechanical properties matching human tissues. I create mechanically adaptive electro mechanical systems in the form of sensors and trans-users and these devices can be seamlessly applied to any curvy part of your body. They are mechanically invisible and you don’t feel like you have something on your skin; it acts like a skin, while trying to translate biological language into electronic language in order to understand what is happening in your body. These devices are smart interfaces between patients and medical doctors.
Q: Can you give a concrete example of a device you have been working on?
A: We make devices, for instance, that can be part of one’s personal garment such as your bra, underwear, shirt or trousers, so you can place these devices on the top of your body and they can monitor changes in stiffness. For example, for melanoma and skin cancer patients we have a device that is kind of like a tattoo that you can apply to part of your body and this device can create a colorful map of stiffness variation. When you go to a doctor they first conduct physical palpation on your skin in order to find the stiffer region, but with the device you don’t need a doctor or to rely on the sensitivity of a doctor’s fingers.
Q: Tell us, positive or negative, how your journey in Turkey has been a factor in your career.
A: My culture has helped me a lot. It is very embracing, it means you are good at talking to people by using a cup of Turkish coffee or a piece of Turkish delight. The colors of my culture help me too: For example, the different colors in a Turkish carpet inspire me to create my devices in a different way.
The main obstacle I have had comes from trying to convince people of my faculty for physics even though I am a woman, trying to convince people that I can do it. Unfortunately, in Turkey core science such as chemistry, physics and mathematics are assumed to be non-ideal for women. I could do whatever I have done in either the U.S. or in Turkey, we have the same materials, tools, etc. But the main missing thing is the ecosystem: In Turkey I could only create my devices after around 10 years, compared to one year in the U.S. Over there they don’t question you and don’t question the nature of your research. The only question you get is: How can we help you? In Turkey you always have to convince people about your research and say you can do it. In Turkey you have to gain the trust of people, while in the U.S. people tend to trust others by default.
Q: Do you think this is related to the fact that Turkey lags behind in science?
A: In Turkey I think we don’t ask enough questions. There is no freedom to question; you cannot judge your teacher. If you do so, you may fail in your class and your peers may look at you in a different way. But in science you have to ask questions. Without questioning you cannot pursue science. And you can only ask questions in a free environment. If freedom is limited, it means you are confined.
Q: Who are the main personalities that have inspired you?
A: [The late theoretical physicist and politician] Erdal inönü and Pierre Curie are my biggest inspirations. My mum is my biggest motivation; I am what I am today because of her.
Q: What is the most meaningful of all awards you have received?
A: My election to the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, when I was selected as the first researcher from Turkey since 1933. It is an amazing networking place. The award went beyond my personal success, as it is a way for me to represent my beautiful country. In Turkey I don’t only talk about science, I also talk about culture, family members Istanbul, and my interactions with students.
Q: How do you share your experiences with people in Turkey?
A: I use social media and online platforms to interact with young Turkish minds. Every Sunday I sleep two hours less and I do Skype mentoring with Turkish primary school students, high school students and parents. And I try to give inspiring talks in cities across Anatolia. I have been to many cities such as Adana, Konya and Erzurum. I want to students the resolution in their mind. I want them to think: “If she can do it, we can also do it.” I was also educated in Turkey, and if I could do it then they can also do it. We have to share positive things, not only negative ones.
Q: It has been more than a decade since you have be directly involved with the education system in Turkey. What are your observations about the education system through these interactions?
A: Unfortunately, I feel like the quality of education has been lowered dramatically. As a scientist I try to be very objective, but it is very obvious that students are sad and upset. They don’t even understand what they are reading. They can’t solve questions critically; they have to have selective answers. I once asked my nephew a question and she asked me: “What are the options?” She couldn’t answer unless she had options. This is unbelievable. We cannot build a future on this kind of educational system, we have to make a change.
Q: What is gender discrimination like in the U.S., in your experience?
A: Gender discrimination is everywhere. It is a global problem. It is not an ideal situation anywhere, but things are getting better. Even in this century, even at an amazing institution like MIT female scientists are paid 10 percent less than male scientists. During my negotiations for my job, I told them that if I am offered a dollar less than my male colleagues I would not take the position.
Q: Can Turkey make a leap forward and catch up with the advanced world in science?
A: If there is enough dedication, time and labor, then there is always hope. We just need a more systematic way of pursuing science in our country. We should not do “politics of science,” we should do “strategy of science.” Barçın Yinanç Hurriyet