Around the world in a science haze

A scientist’s journey from Istanbul to Rhode Island, from Rhode Island to Nijmegen and from Nijmegen to Baltimore.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) revolutionized cognitive neuroscience and how we understand the mind-body relationship in human research. With the use of fMRI, we can localize brain functions with precision and test theoretical assumptions about the nature of cognitive processes. fMRIs are also million dollar machines that cost ~$500 per scan. That means allocating this machine for solely asking questions about the mind, might not be feasible for every budget. I was confronted with this reality pretty early in my scientific career in Istanbul, Turkey where I was working at Prof. Resit Canbeyli’s animal neuroscience lab as an undergraduate research assistant.

There, Resit was working on the effects of ketamine on the animal models of depression. He had the tools to dislocate the sacrificed animals’ brains and directly see the effects of depression on the brain structure. It was amazing! A type of dissociative drug with ‘psychedelic’ effects that could ameliorate depression in animals, the effects of which you could directly observe in the brain! What about in humans? Could I also look at the human brain to see that? How would I do that? Pretty sure NOT by using the methods Resit used!!

The questions I wanted to ask about the human mind demanded this expensive technology that wasn’t easily available for research use in Turkey at the time. And not only that, but there were almost no research institutes which both hosted cognitive neuroscience technologies AND had institutional approval to use psychedelic drugs on humans in the world at the time, let alone in Turkey. So, I decided to take the first step and apply for cognitive neuroscience Ph.D. programs in the USA to start accessing these cogneuro tools. Ironically, in my first year applying to Ph.D. programs for this purpose, my interviewers kept asking me if I had prior fMRI research experience. Some fMRI experience was (not required but) “preferred”, and so I was “recommended” to work at an animal lab, where I had experience.

Hmm… but that was not my topic of interest, was it? If I couldn’t have experience with this machine where I was, I could at least develop an expertise in another desired domain, I thought – that other domain being programming. Working as a lab manager to Dr. Fuat Balci’s and Dr. Ilke Oztekin’s cognitive psychology labs, I remember crying in agony while debugging Matlab scripts over late nights, all for that one moment of joy and satisfaction to see the script finally running without errors. After 2 years of getting to know each other, Matlab and I were bffs! With my friend Matlab backing me up (yes, I spent THAT MUCH time with Matlab that I started anthropomorphizing it), I was ready to try my shot at Ph.D. applications once again.

That’s how I ended up moving across the Atlantic with my cat Incik from Istanbul to Rhode Island in order to start my Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience at Brown University with Dr. David Badre. Coming from Istanbul, I wasn’t particularly used to Rhode Island’s cold and/or the determination of its residents to drive to work during snowstorms. But we adjust when willing, don’t we? In no time, I got training in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), electroencephalogram (EEG) and became certified to be an independent fMRI scanner, scanning around 100 people after work hours, by collecting brain data during a cognitive task I developed, together with my brilliant undergraduate assistants.

During my time at Brown University, I was also approached by a senior graduate student, Megan, who took my attention to the disproportionately low number of women senior scientists in our field. Although women earned more undergraduate and graduate degrees in biomedical sciences, they were the minority in faculty positions. It was one of those things, when you saw it, you really couldn’t unsee it. So, Megan and I started a mentorship program for women in our field at Brown to connect junior women scientists with senior women scientists, who shared the challenges they faced during their professional journeys and their attempts to resolve them. There, I realized the importance of having a role model as a junior scientist, because a scientific career was more than being trained in research; it was also about professional development. People who came from different cultural backgrounds had to deal with completely different challenges thrown their way. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time, we just needed to connect with people who overcome similar challenges. That’s why having role models mattered!

In the quest for a role model, I met Prof. Roshan Cools, who is a strong, established woman scientist in the field of psychopharmacology. She was willing and more than helpful to have me as a postdoc. The only issue was that her lab was situated across the oceans, in the Netherlands!!

So there I was, 5 years after I moved from Turkey to the USA, crossing the Atlantic again with my cat, this time to Nijmegen, a cute, small city; just 1.5 hrs south of Amsterdam. The weather was more moderate than in Rhode Island but the sky was almost always overcast. Moving there in the beginning of December, I was struck by how early the nights fell. I was also struck by the number of women colleagues I had in the lab, all empowered and finding support from each other. I fit so much work in the short two years I had there, even as the isolation and research ban of COVID19 pandemic hit, I motivated myself to learn a completely new programming language (JavaScript – thanks to my software developer partner Josh’s skills and endless patience!) so that we could test our tasks in online samples. Context and support did matter, specifically for an occupation that’s fueled by intrinsic motivation – which is what I found in the Netherlands.

Being a resident alien in the Netherlands, I applied to multiple European grant agencies to extend my postdoc with Roshan, which always always and ALWAYS failed. I opened a Twitter account during that time to stay up to date with grant agency’s communications. Despite the bad news it mostly brought me, around mid-2020 on a Sunday morning, locked-in my house during COVID, I came across a job posting by Dr. Fred Barrett. He was looking for a postdoc to work on the neurocognitive mechanisms of psilocybin-assisted therapy in a psychedelic research institute recently founded at Johns Hopkins University!!! He was looking for a postdoc with fMRI experience… Check! TMS experience. Check! EEG. Check! So, someone who does cognitive neuroscience…. check check CHECK?! I was SO excited. Was I closing the circle I started in Turkey!?

You guessed right. I was crossing the Atlantic once again. This time from a small, obscure city called Nijmegen in the Netherlands to the industrial heart of the US, Baltimore. My cat now being 17 years old and the most traveled cat of the world. The weather was warm and humid and thankfully there were no COVID lockdowns when I arrived. I jumped right into research as soon as I got here. This was the first time I had to use all the skills I developed traveling the scientific world, in one lab, all at the same time. There are SO MANY questions to ask in the field I can’t do justice trying to summarize them all right now. All I know is that life keeps bringing me questions. Then, I try to solve them. And when I realize I can’t solve them with the tools or the skills I currently have, I cross the Atlantic to acquire them. For now, this seems to be a place where I have both the questions and the tools to answer them. Will I be able to find the answers?? I guess you’ll have to find out along with me as I start my journey into blogging them…