Veröffentlicht 21. Juni 2023 von Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Birgül Akolpoglu

Birgül in the lab. All photos/credit: in courtesy of Birgül Akolpoglu

Birgül from Turkey is a Ph.D. student at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (Stuttgart, Germany), Germany, and ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

She is actively involved in the field of biohybrid microrobots, where she works with microalgae and bacteria. By functionalising these microorganisms with functional materials, she enables precise control using magnetic fields and utilises them for medical imaging and targeted drug delivery applications.

Birgül participates in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Birgül and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

As a young child, I was always captivated by the natural world and had this desire to find out everything about it. I used to ask my parents many questions that they didn’t know the answers to. I remember spending many hours reading encyclopedias and being amased by the drawings, especially on the anatomy, animal world, and planets sections. The thought of discovering things and the potential to positively impact society through scientific advancements inspired me to pursue a career in science.

Who are your role models?

Birgül with her parents
Birgül is thankful for the support of her parents.

My parents have been my greatest supporters and sources of inspiration throughout my education. My father’s hard work and endless support have been crucial in my personal and professional growth. My mother, who always encouraged me and my sister to get a good education, and who helped us along the way with our homework and extracurricular activities, despite not having a high school education at the time. Later on, she graduated from high school, got herself into university at age 40, and graduated from her degree as the valedictorian of her class with the highest grades. She is a constant inspiration, and both my parents are my ultimate role models. Also, my husband and I have pursued the same programme of study, completing our master’s degrees together and pursuing our PhDs in the same institution. Throughout this journey, he has been a constant role model, motivating and inspiring me with his dedication, passion, and intellectual curiosity. Sharing this academic path with him has been a source of mutual support and has strengthened our commitment to achieving our scientific goals together.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world and had a strong curiosity for understanding how things work. Biology was, hands down, my favorite subject in school. Surprisingly, I ended up studying Chemical Engineering because I wanted to explore the practical applications of chemistry and biochemistry on a larger scale to solve real-world problems. The Chemical Engineering programme offered a unique perspective, allowing me to combine the principles of chemistry, materials, and engineering to tackle complex challenges. During my studies in this interdisciplinary programme, I sharpened my analytical thinking skills and realised the value of the transferable skills I was gaining. That’s why I decided to pursue a master’s degree, focusing on a material-based approach to curing diabetes. It was a bit of a shift for me since I didn’t have a medical background, but I was fortunate to have an amasing mentor, Prof. Dr. Seda Kizilel, who helped me get started. I faced some challenges along the way, especially coming from a country like Turkey, where scientific research can be challenging due to economic limitations and technology barriers. There were times when reagent orders took months to arrive, or equipment broke down without proper maintenance support. But with the guidance of my mentor, I pushed through and succeeded in my programme. Now, I’m involved in research on medical microrobotics, which is quite a different direction considering I didn’t have a background in this field. However, I’ve been able to draw on my knowledge of materials, biology, and engineering to come up with innovative solutions in this field. It’s a constant learning experience for me, constantly adapting and exploring new areas. That makes science so exciting—it’s the challenge of venturing into the unknown and making meaningful contributions to scientific advancements.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

I have worked in so many different, interesting, and cutting-edge projects, and one of them is called Hidroist. During my third year of university, I had the incredible opportunity to be part of an exciting project called Hidroist. Our name was a combination of Hydrogen and Istanbul, and our mission was to design and construct a futuristic, hydrogen-powered mini car that would participate in prestigious competitions like the Shell Eco-marathon.

As a member of the Hidroist Team in 2014-2015, I collaborated with a diverse group of engineering students from Istanbul University. Together, we worked tirelessly to bring our vision to life. With the support and guidance from our university, as well as our partners and sponsors, we were able to promote the importance of fuel-cell and renewable energy technologies at various events. We were honoured to win the first-place award in the Shell Eco-marathon Turkey, held in Istanbul.

Birgül in front of an e-car
Birgül learnt a lot while participating in the Hidroist project.

Additionally, our efforts were recognised on an international level, as we proudly secured the fifth-place award in the Shell Eco-marathon Europe, which took place in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The Hidroist project not only expanded my technical expertise but made me enjoy every step of the way where I was communicating with people and gaining essential leadership and management skills along the way. It remains a significant milestone in my academic and personal journey, reminding me of the incredible things that can be accomplished when individuals come together with a shared vision and determination.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

Graduation speech
Birgül had the honour to deliver the graduation speech of her Bachelor programme.

Graduations have always been happy events for me. Upon completing my bachelor’s programme, I had the honour of being recognised as the second-highest-ranked graduate in my class. This achievement led to an extraordinary opportunity—to deliver the graduation speech to a large audience comprising fellow graduates, their families, and esteemed faculty members. I vividly remember witnessing tears of joy in the eyes of parents, including my own, as I delivered my speech. It was an immensely proud moment that will forever hold a special place in my heart.

What is a “day in the life” of you like?

A typical day in my life involves a blend of various activities. As an experimental researcher, a significant portion of my time is devoted to working in the lab. This involves tasks such as culturing microorganisms and conducting extensive experiments under a microscope. Subsequently, I dedicate a considerable amount of time to analysing my data, generating insightful graphs, and creating schematics to enhance comprehension. Additionally, I have a passion for reading and writing, so I read up on the newest publications in my field to stay up to date. I actively follow Nature Briefing, and this not only keeps me updated on advancements within my research field but also enables me to stay aware of broader scientific developments.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I am motivated by my desire to make meaningful contributions to scientific knowledge that can one day be used in applications that touch human life. I get inspired by the success stories of accomplished women who have made remarkable progress in their respective fields, and one of the things I aspire is to serve as an inspirational role model for young girls and women in science.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

Research in a competitive environment can be demanding and stressful. To relax, I enjoy activities that take my mind off the daily lab life. I enjoy reading, learning languages (learning German currently), and playing video games. In the summertime, you can find me swimming all day long!

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

Birgül with two friends during graduation
„Graduations have always been happy events for me.“

My biggest advice for women interested in science is to believe in yourself and your abilities. Don’t let anyone undermine your capabilities or discourage you from pursuing your passion. You can do that by surrounding yourself with a supportive network of mentors, colleagues, and like-minded individuals who can inspire and guide you. I always sought opportunities for further development, whether it be learning languages, doing internships abroad, or networking at conferences. I believe this would play an enormous role in your confidence.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

I believe it will most likely be something related to the development and application of advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques. These technologies have already enabled faster and more accurate data analysis, prediction, and decision-making, and I am excited to see what is more to come!

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?

There are so many things to do! I can list some of them. I believe it starts at a very, very young age and at the family stage. It is crucial that parents create a supportive and inclusive environment that encourages and empowers little girls to pursue their dreams. Avoiding gendered language is key. On a school and educational level, initiatives such as science camps, outreach programmes, and promoting STEM education through various events where successful women role models give talks are one of several examples. But this doesn’t mean we should be empowered by only female role models. Male role models who use inclusive and supportive language, challenge stereotypes, and promote gender equality could even have a higher impact than anything else when it comes to increasing the number of future female scientists! Overall, I think this requires a collective effort from family, friends, teachers, and mentors, regardless of their gender.

Further Information

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.