Awards are the Sources of Motivation for Scientists


Elif Yılmaz

The “Koç University, Rahmi M. Koç Medal of Science” recognizes successful, pioneering scientists raised in Turkey who have contributed to the universal accumulation of knowledge both inside and outside the country, with the overall purpose of celebrating scientific progress. The medal, presented for the first time this year, has been awarded to Professor Aydoğan Özcan for his globally acclaimed work in the field of “Science, Engineering and Medicine”.

We talked to Professor Özcan about the research that led to this special award, as well as his current studies and future plans.

- You were granted this award for your work in developing innovative technologies in telemedicine, mobile sensing and diagnostic applications as well as top level scientific studies in computational imaging, microscopy and photonics. As the decision of the award explains, your studies combine a diversity of disciplines. What type of joint projects are you conducting, and in which branches of science?

- We work with many different disciplines of engineering. My own degree is in electrical and electronics engineering, which is in fact an interdisciplinary structure in itself. In this way, physical sciences, computer engineering, mechanics, bioengineering, chemistry, chemical engineering, materials science… we have a group, which brings together various small and pure fields in these sciences. We mostly work in a problem-oriented fashion; we identify problems that need a solution. These problems often raise certain limitations within our field. Hence to find a solution, such problems require a number of disciplines operating together. So you could say that we are carrying out interdisciplinary studies in response to this requirement.

- Some discoveries do come up while trying to find solutions for problems…

- Yes, some of these are applied sciences, some are systems that are developed based on a particular need or requirement, and some are purely interest-based, in other words research that is conducted because it is appealing. So, there is a broad spectrum, which ranges from necessity-based engineering solutions to more fundamental sciences, and from hypothesis to satisfying our curiosity. And we conduct research across several sections of this spectrum.

- Your invention of a cell phone-based mobile microscope has brought you considerable awards, but it has also served to open a rather different and novel field of study. Do such projects receive sufficient support?

- One of the major supporters of our project is the US Department of Defense. In a sense what we are doing, is working to deliver hospital functions directly to the soldiers, as it not easy to set up a hospital on a ship or a battlefield. Thus, our aim is to give access to self-diagnosing technologies to soldiers on the battlefield or in other difficult circumstances.

Aydoğan Özcan

Aydoğan Özcan giving a seminar at Koç University

 Suppose, for example, that some soldiers have made camp in a location and need water. Of course they have to know if the water in the area is safe to drink. Making the measuring devices used to do this cheaper, mobile and portable is essential for the army’s functionality. As a result, we received significant funding from the US Ministry of Defense. We also have support from other organizations including NIH (National Institutes of Health) and NSF (National Science Foundation) because our proposals can deliver solutions to different problems in different spectrums. These, as I mentioned earlier, allow the patient, even in a remote location, to perform measurements that are normally performed in advanced laboratories or hospitals using computational techniques. Thus, this technology can respond to a range of different needs.

- Your invention of a cell phone-based mobile microscope has brought you considerable awards, but it has also served to open a rather different and novel field of study. Do such projects receive sufficient support?

- One of the major supporters of our project is the US Department of Defense. In a sense what we are doing, is working to deliver hospital functions directly to the soldiers, as it not easy to set up a hospital on a ship or a battlefield. Thus, our aim is to give access to self-diagnosing technologies to soldiers on the battlefield or in other difficult circumstances. Suppose, for example, that some soldiers have made camp in a location and need water. Of course they have to know if the water in the area is safe to drink. Making the measuring devices used to do this cheaper, mobile and portable is essential for the army’s functionality. As a result, we received significant funding from the US Ministry of Defense. We also have support from other organizations including NIH (National Institutes of Health) and NSF (National Science Foundation) because our proposals can deliver solutions to different problems in different spectrums. These, as I mentioned earlier, allow the patient, even in a remote location, to perform measurements that are normally performed in advanced laboratories or hospitals using computational techniques. Thus, this technology can respond to a range of different needs.

- So, which diseases can these systems diagnose?

- These systems can diagnose all the diseases that can be diagnosed by a hospital’s pathology laboratory. They can identify any kind of disease that can be identified through microscopic images, by examining a cell, tissue, or blood sample under the microscope. In other words these systems are capable of performing all the tasks of a normal pathology laboratory.

- One of your studies on computational imaging and sensing techniques was on the discovery of three-dimensional swimming patterns. In what way will this discovery contribute to science? What kind of potential projects can be developed from this?

- This is one of the interest-based projects I mentioned earlier. A three dimensional imaging system that we developed out of curiosity. It enables us to see the three dimensional movements of micro-swimmers such as sperm, in a way that previous microscopes are not able to display. We have gained a critical tool to understand the mechanics, biophysics, and the structure of sperm. This is in fact a tool that can be used in fundamental research. If we were to ask, for example, “what if we understood the basic, biophysics of sperm?”… this could lead to the development of new micro-swimmer robots. These robots could be used to perform measurements in any environment, solve some of the problems we previously thought were unsolvable, enter environments we currently cannot because, for instance, our hands are too big, and thus attain new functions. Indeed, we can learn about biophysics by learning about movement, leading to the design of new micro-swimmers.

Another application of this, is measuring sperm health. Many couples are unable to conceive naturally. Some of these are caused by factors related to reduced sperm quality. So it is important to be able to measure sperm quality. Instead of having to go to a fertility clinic to have a sperm quality check, we may provide the patient a system that can be used at home to measure sperm quality day to day, week to week, or month to month. In fact, I’ve already secured a patent on this subject and plan take it to the next level, in commercial terms.

- Receiving an award certainly makes one proud. But, does it have any other benefits? Does it facilitate fund raising, for example? Does it allow you to associate with more suitable research and work teams?

- Of course, one of the best things about the award is that it increases the quality of people willing to join your team in the current or subsequent phases of your research, and enhances your ability to attract such people. In a sense it provides a significant driving power and energy to your career. It also gives you new personal motivation. No scientist works just to receive awards, but they are a real treat for us, and give real motivation to keep pushing forwards. “Congratulations, you are 38 and you received a great award! But don’t start letting expectations slip.” In this way, it works as a huge motivation for us. And so, I would like to express my gratitude to dear Mr. Rahmi Koç, the Koç Family and Koç University.

- You too belong to the young generation, and your words will act as a lasting message… What do you think are the most immediate needs of young scientists, or the important steps to be taken, in their best interest?

-Independence. This is not a political message. Young scientists need to maintain their independence against older scientists within the academic hierarchy. Meaning they need to have the same voting power, roughly the same salary, the same prestige, so that the “big ideas” may also be produced by an assistant professor, be preserved, and be carried out independent from others. This is an important difference, and is sadly, not the case in Europe, where there is a pyramid-like structure with professors at the very top, associate professors below them, and then the assistant professors below those. Assistant professors work for the associate professors, who in turn work for the professors. This is a typical loop, and I think it is a faulty system, completely antagonistic to innovation. All these persons should be in parallel positions, where an assistant professor is able to work side by side with a professor. The only difference being, “I am younger than you, you have entered the academic arena a little earlier than I did”. But the thing is, that “big idea” can come from me, as well as you. Sometimes, those young scientists really should be supported and given the right environment, where they can carry out their research uninhibited, without being dependent on means provided by others (for example, they should have their own laboratories). Achieving this, in other words creating a work environment befitting the spirit of innovation, will certainly be a powerful motivation for young scientists.