Canan Dagdeviren – An Inspiring Story

Dr. Canan Dagdeviren

This article was published in Fulbright Newsletter – Jan.-June 2015, Volume 4, Issue 1

Dr. Canan Dagdeviren
Dr. Canan Dagdeviren

Canan Dağdeviren received the Fulbright Doctorate Grant in 2009 and received her Ph.D. degree in Material Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a Post-Doctoral Associate under the supervision of Prof. Robert Langer at MIT. Her passion is to make valuable contributions to neuroscience and to advance engineering devices.  Canan says she would like to bridge the gap between cutting-edge neuroscience research and active advance electronic devices by developing a multi-functional, minimally invasive probe capable of addressing the spatial and temporal aspects of treating neural disorders such as Parkinson’s diseases, anxiety and mood disorders. She has published 18 research papers, is the inventor of one patent application, and holds over 30 prestigious awards. She has recently been selected as a Junior Fellow of Harvard by the Society of Fellows (SoF) at Harvard University, and is the first scientist from Turkey to be named as a Junior Fellow. In addition to this, she is on the “Forbes 30 under 30 in Science” list.

Her PZT MEH invention has enabled her to introduce a novel approach to energy harvesting from an intrinsic, continuous source of biological (cardiac) motion, with important clinical relevance to implantable cardiovascular devices. She has filed patents on this invention, and hopes to help commercialize this technology in the near future through entrepreneurial collaboration between the University of Illinois and University of Arizona. QUALIFIED Suppliers to the Medical Device Industry (Qmed) ranked her technology as number one out of the top five MedTech breakthroughs of this year, compared with Google’s glucose-reading contact lens which ranked second. Moreover, her work has received wide press coverage by prestigious information outlets such as the Smithsonian, Popular Mechanics, CBS News, LA Times, BBC News, New Scientist, and Medical Daily.

How did you decide on your field of specialization? Is there a particular person or event that motivated you to choose your field?

I have long been interested in science. I remember trying to find the atom by cutting a stone into pieces at a very young age. My father, who was very supportive of me, introduced me to an electron microscope that made me realize that it was an impossible task, but confirmed my passion for the field. This pursuit took a personal tone when I learned that my granddad passed away because of heart failure. Thus, I promised myself that I would do something for heart patients in the future, and I set 28 as the age to achieve this, which was the age of my granddad when he passed away. In February 2014 the device that I dedicated for heart patients was completed and the work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) magazine, which detailed how I had developed a new class of biocompatible devices to harvest and store piezoelectric energy directly from the motion of the heart, lung and diaphragm. This breakthrough technology promises to replace the pacemaker as the regulating source of an irregular heartbeat and is used to store energy to keep vital organs functioning in the event of their failure. My contribution, which was recognized on April 29, 2014 with the $20,000 Illinois Innovation Prize, came when I was at the age of 28!

Can you tell us about your higher education experience in Turkey?

Through the influence of the famous theoretical physicist and politician Prof. Erdal İnönü, I decided to study physics and received my Bachelor of Science degree in Physics Engineering from Hacettepe University. Throughout my undergraduate years at Hacettepe University, I gained a solid background in physics and material science and excellent laboratory skills. My strong belief in the essence of life as to learn, grow and contribute to this field guided me to pursue a Master of Science degree in the Material Science and Engineering Program at Sabancı University with a full-scholarship.

How did you hear about the Fulbright Program and what, in particular helped you to submit an application?

I heard about the prestigious Fulbright Program through its website when I was pursuing my Bachelor’s degree at Hacettepe University. At that time I was thinking of applying for the master’s studies grant, but I realized that I had missed the deadline. Then I decided to try my chance for the following year when I was a Master’s student at Sabancı University. I was lucky because when I applied for the fellowship in 2009, the doctoral studies grant had started to be given for the first time in Turkey.

I knew that I would like to have my own financial support before going to the U.S. to have the freedom to work on my dream project, so Fulbright was a great opportunity for me both financially and academically.

How did you start working with the Professor whom you have always dreamed of working with?

When I was an undergraduate student, I read an article by Professor John Rogers from University of Illinois, and I realized he was doing great things in this very field. Then I set a goal for myself to work under his supervision as a PhD student. Before coming to the U.S. as a Fulbright grantee, I came to the U.S. to give a presentation at a Materials Research Society Meeting in Boston in 2008 where Prof. Rogers was in the audience. The following year, I achieved my goal of enrolling at University of Illinois and started working under the supervision of Prof. Rogers. By working with him, I have developed novel micro-fabrication techniques that allow me to make devices that have the shape and mechanical properties matching those of human tissues, such as the heart, skin and so on.

How did you feel when you first arrived in the U.S.? How do you feel about living in the U.S. right now?

It was a victory for me as I was about to start my PhD journey on the topic that I had dreamed about for 18 years. However, although I had lived away from my family for educational purposes, being away from them was a bit hard for me in the first days. I must say that the Fulbright pre-academic orientation program that I attended for three weeks at Kansas University before starting my PhD at UIUC made a huge difference in my life. I literally was trained to adjust myself to live in the U.S. I remember that my first night in the U.S. was a little tough—I could not sleep. The next morning, I talked to myself in front of the mirror in the restroom and said to myself “Canan, you will spend your most energetic, young, and dynamic years here; take it as a priceless experience. Even if you cannot succeed, give yourself time and try to do your best. This is not only a personal journey, but this is a chance for you to touch many people’s lives and represent your beautiful country.”

Now, I feel like I have wings; I can both fly to my beloved ones in Turkey by plane and also fly and touch the hearts, skins of the people whom I do not know by my academic wings. I do believe that people resemble their home countries a bit. I am from Istanbul, the only city that connects two continents, Asia and Europe, via a bridge. Like Istanbul, I am a bridge; I bridge the gap between bulky, hard electronics and curvilinear, soft biology.

You have recently received the TASSA Young Scholar Awards 2014 and you also were among the winners of MIT Technology Review’s “Innovators under 35, Turkey.” We would like to congratulate you on these achievements. What would you like to tell us about these awards? Were you expecting to receive these at such an early age?

Thank you. It was an honor to receive these awards. I also have been named as the Innovator of the Year among the First Generation of MIT TR35 Turkey. In addition to these awards, I received several other awards, including the Illinois Innovation Prize, which is presented to the most innovative student, passionate innovator, and those working on world changing technologies, MRS (Material Research Society) 2014 Spring Meeting Grad Student Award, Racheff-Intel Award for Outstanding Materials Research, Representative of UIUC at 2014 Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS@one-north) of Singapore, and Outstanding Laboratory Citizen of Materials Research Laboratory. Additionally, I have been named as a ‘Rising Star’ in EECS among 40 globally selected women scientists. I was the youngest speaker invited to the “American Heart Association Innovation Forum,” which was held in late November in Chicago. I emphasized the importance of advanced materials science and engineering, and its impact on modern medicine by presenting my PhD research at the Forum. Moreover, I was invited to deliver a TED talk (TEDxReset) in Istanbul on April 19, 2014 to inspire young scientists from around the world.

I will be honest; yes, I was expecting these awards at my early age because I’m trying to run fast to do things in my limited lifetime.

What would you advise to those who are planning to apply for a Fulbright Program grant? Do you have any recommendations for the application process including the interviews?

First of all, I would advise them to know what they are good at, and what they want to do. This is the first step. Then they should search and find the best people in that particular research area and contact them while preparing their Fulbright application. They have to have a mutual balance between academia and social world. So they can find more innovative solutions for both their future path and real world problems. They should have recognizable academic success and a global understanding in their field. The rest is really easy. They just need to be themselves during the interview. The more transparent you are, the more trust you can build. I wish them the best of luck for their current and future endeavors. They also can contact me via Skype for additional questions. I would be happy to advise them. After my TEDx talk, I am approached by many young students who are currently in Turkey. I generally have 3-4 Skype meetings every Sunday. My Skype ID is dagdevirencanan.

You like volunteer work as well, and you help other students as well. Can you tell us about your volunteer work?

Throughout my doctoral studies, I have been an active educational volunteer. I was selected to join the UIUC Engineering Dean’s Graduate Student Advisory Committee to represent and discuss the needs and problems of graduate students from Fall 2009 until Spring 2013. Moreover, I represented the engineering graduate students in UIUC’s Engineering Steering Committee from 2010 to 2012. My role was to bridge the gap between the Engineering Departments and graduate students, and to convey academic problems faced by graduate students to the Engineering Council.

I also mentor and advise undergraduate researchers from an early stage, oftentimes until they graduate. Since 2009, I have had a hand in the shaping of nine undergraduates and one graduate visitor from Germany in the John Rogers Research Group, UIUC, which has strengthened my passion and commitment to innovation and advancement in materials science/engineering. I prepare my students to thrive in a research setting by instilling research skills, teamwork practices and training them on multiple types of equipment. Currently, five former students of mine are pursuing their PhD degrees at prestigious universities in the U.S.A. and in Germany.

Apart from mentoring students, I have been instrumental in organizing a research symposium for the undergraduate students who work in the Rogers Research Group, scheduled at the end of each term since the Spring Semester of 2011. The symposium allows students to present their work, share their experiences and communicate with peers in the research group. The symposium has given many undergraduate researchers the confidence to continue pursuing research and to even conceive their own engineering designs towards solving important challenges.

What do you like doing in your free time?

One of my major hobbies is to read historical biographies of key people, which makes me see successes and failures that people can face during their life-spans, and also understand the importance of the traces that they left behind for humanity. It may be strange to say this, but my other hobby is to ask questions. Even though people around me sometimes get annoyed, I love to ask questions. Asking questions helps to expand the world when it starts to shrink; it prompts people to find the right solutions for real world problems, to implement their dreams, to find out what they are good at, to expand their networking and to save time. I also am a runner, and my crazy device designs are generally developed in my mind during my 6 AM runs.

Apart from these, I am a music composer. I like to express my feelings in a delicate way and send my songs to my friends as a gift. I feel that music allows me to express my vivacity, grace and beauty. Last year, I also was an active member in Balkanalia Music Ensemble of UIUC and performed four concerts in Iowa, Urbana and Chicago. I can sing in seven different languages, which are Turkish, Greek, Bosnian, Armenian, Urdu, Russian, and Bulgarian. Signing in these languages helps me to know much more about the different cultures and life.

What are your future career goals?

I’m on my way to creating a first of its kind brain pacemaker to treat Parkinson’s disease and mood disorders. I will capitalize on my experience in micro-fabrication and animal studies to bridge the gap between cutting-edge neuroscience research and active advance electronic devices by developing a multi-functional, minimally invasive probe capable of addressing the spatial and temporal aspects of treating neural disorders. I plan to stay in academic world but also conduct company works to make my inventions to be commercialized. I would like to have an international, multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary teamwork between the U.S. and Turkey. In addition to my ongoing invention and research efforts, I also am working with young generations of inventors in the Society of Women Engineers. I plan to develop a fellowship program in my late grandfather’s name, which can inspire and support Turkish young students to come to the U.S. like the Fulbright Program, which brought me to the U.S.