Saturday, April 28, 2018

66 books read in 2017

Here are 66 books I finished in 2017. Let me know which ones you also read and liked.
You can also find my scoring for each next to numbering (from 1=worst to 5=best). Top ten in the list are some of my suggestions.
1 5 Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist , The Great Courses, Michael Shermer
2 5 The 10X Rule: The Only Difference Between Success and Failure , Grant Cardone
3 5 Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success , Brad Stulberg, Steve Magness
4 5 Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow , Yuval Noah Harari
5 5 TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking , Chris Anderson
6 5 Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood , Trevor Noah
7 5 Mindset: The New Psychology of Success , Carol Dweck
8 5 Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health , Jo Robinson
9 4.5 The Obesity Code , Dr. Jason Fung
10 4.5 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found a Self-Help That Actually Works , Dan Harris
11 4.5 Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success , Shane Snow
12 2.5 Hero: Becoming the Strong Father Your Children Need , Meg Meeker, MD
13 4 A Life in Parts , Bryan Cranston
14 4 Origin: A Novel , Dan Brown
15 5 Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change , Frank Sesno, Wolf Blitzer - foreword
16 4.5 World Without End , Ken Follett
17 4 The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative , Florence Williams
18 5 Light Falls: Space, Time, and an Obsession of Einstein , Brian Greene
19 4.5 Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence , Max Tegmark
20 3.5 The 5 Second Rule: Transform your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage , Mel Robbins
21 2 How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain , Lisa Feldman Barrett
22 4 The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever , Michael Bungay Stanier
23 5 No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline for Success in Your Life , Brian Tracy
24 4.5 Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships , Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jetha
25 4.5 In the Country We Love: My Family Divided , Diane Guerrero, Michelle Burford
26 4.5 Sell or Be Sold: How to Get Your Way in Business and in Life , Grant Cardone
27 4.5 Not My Father's Son: A Memoir , Alan Cumming
28 4 Seven Years in Tibet , Heinrich Harrer, Richard Graves
29 4.5 My Favorite Universe , The Great Courses
30 4 True Grit , Charles Portis
31 4 Leadership & Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box , The Arbinger Institute
32 3.5 The Magnolia Story , Chip Gaines, Joanna Gaines
33 4.5 The Ottoman Empire , The Great Courses
34 4.5 Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science , The Great Courses, Robert Sapolsky
35 4.5 Earth's Changing Climate , The Great Courses
36 5 Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive , The Great Courses
37 3.5 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life , Cami Walker
38 4 The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers , Matt Bird
39 4.5 Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics , Richard Thaler
40 4.5 Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health , William Davis
41 2 First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies , Kate Andersen Brower
42 2 The Selfish Gene , Richard Dawkins
43 4.5 Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data , Charles Wheelan
44 4 The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin , Steven Lee Myers
45 4 Blindness , Jose Saramago
46 3 How to Live a Good Life: Soulful Stories, Surprising Science, and Practical Wisdom , Jonathan Fields
47 3 Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy , Sheryl Sandberg, Adam Grant
48 4.5 The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon , Brad Stone
49 4 Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built , Duncan Clark
50 4 Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win , Jocko Willink, Leif Babin
51 3.5 The Ethical Slut , Janet W. Hardy, Dossie Easton
52 4 Unshakeable: Your Financial Freedom Playbook , Tony Robbins
53 4 The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo , Amy Schumer
54 4 The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life , Mark Manson
55 4.5 English Grammar Boot Camp , The Great Courses
56 5 Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success , Shawn Stevenson, Sara Gottfried MD - foreword
57 4.5 Thinking, Fast and Slow , Daniel Kahneman
58 4.5 Money Management Skills , The Great Courses
59 4.5 The More of Less , Joshua Becker
60 4 Get Smart: How to Think and Act Like the Most Successful and Highest-Paid People in Every Field , Brian Tracy
61 4 The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America's Leading Design Firm , Tom Kelley, Jonathan Littman - contributor, Tom Peters - foreword
62 4.5 The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World , Pedro Domingos
63 4.5 The Art of Critical Decision Making , The Great Courses, Michael A. Roberto
64 4 Mindfulness in Plain English , Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
65 4 Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions , Brian Christian, Tom Griffiths
66 4 The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters , Daniel M. Wegner, Kurt Gray

Monday, July 20, 2015

10 tips to give killer presentations

Presenting what we are doing in profession is one of the most critical skills that we need to have. If we cannot communicate what we do well, chances are we will not sell our work high enough to get funds, publications, and possibly we will not be at a manager/leading position in future. While I am not an expert in presentation skills, I hope I can give you a few tips that are useful. I wrote it for scientists but of course the tips can be easily generalized.  

1-Be excited and confident about your work: If you are not excited, if you don’t care, why should others care about what you do? You should express your enthusiasm and feel that your work is one of the most elegant ever conducted in the field. Of course be yourself and tell your story as you really feel. Do not forget, you are the top expert in the world for the experiments that you performed. All of the audience is there just to learn from you.

Speaking slowly and clearly and giving a few seconds pause before the important slides will bring you the attention of the audience. Also use your body language to demonstrate your excitement. TED talks have many inspiring examples, have a look at them if you haven’t already. A few samples that I like:

2-Make eye contact and focus on pleasant people: It is typical to have some people sleeping or people who shake their heads in disapprovement of what you are talking about. Do not look at these people but rather focus on pleasant people who have eye contact with you and who have look curious. You can choose 2-3 of such people (ideally at least one at the front and one at the back) and shift your gaze from one to another. Do not shift your gaze from one to another while you’re in the middle of a sentence though. This is important to give impression that you are having personal conversation with them, not speaking at a crowd. 

3-Do not give it to chance, be fully equipped and test your gear: I am sure you all witnessed speakers with videos that are not working, or shifted text and images. Each presentation is a one-time chance, hence, do not let others steer your fate. To avoid such catastrophes, bring all your equipment including your laptop, charger, pointer, Mac adaptor etc. If the hosts insist on using the seminar room computer, politely let them know that you have images/videos that can only be shown on your computer. Even if it takes a bit of time to hook up your computer, do not give it to chance. Ideally, go to the seminar room a few hours before and check everything. If not, you would still have some time to fix major issues. Finally, if you are showing video files, put all video files into the same folder as the presentation file and insert them from that folder. You can copy this folder to another computer if needed and have the video files carried, which can also be played outside of power point.

4-Use simple, organized and accurate slides: Do not overload slides with text and images that cannot be seen from everywhere in the room. Do not have anything on the slide that you don’t mention. I also found that making transition slides prepares the audience to upcoming “important” data. For example just a simple sentence in the middle of a new slide: “We then asked the question if blocking A would cause B”. Check very carefully not to have any spelling mistakes and different font sizes. Ideally, do not use more than 2 colors for text (one for title one for the content). Check for the consistency: for example, use comma, dot or nothing at the end of each bullet point consistently. Carefully align your text and images like a figure in a paper. Do not copy-paste paper figures into the presentation. Use the original images without annotations and enlarge them well in your slides. While most of the article figures are in portrait orientation, your slides are in landscape; hence copy-pasted images are typically very small. In addition, if you give the impression that you just copy-pasted images from here and there, the audience will be turned off by thinking that they will not learn something new from the presentation. Hence, they can sleep during your talk to get ready for the next one and read your paper when they are at home (if ever).

Visuals (colorful images, videos) are good but do not overdo it. Similarly, too many transition affects and clicks on one slide are destructive and give the impression that you try to impress the audience with some effects rather than real content. Hence, use only 1-2 of such visuals to draw attention to the most important information.

5-Be unique: If you are in a symposium when it is your turn, change the position of where the previous speakers stood. Most speakers will stay close the computer or behind the desk. Go to the other side of the podium to give the signal that something different is coming.
Use widescreen slide templates (16:9 or 16:10), which look more professional and more unique than 4:3. Make sure to have large images and text flowing left to right. If you use widescreen, you also need to make sure that the projector can show your presentation adequately. Again, do not to give it to chance, also prepare the 4:3 format and use it if needed.
I also like to use a unique background color. If previous users are using mostly white, then use black. You guessed it right, that means you might need to prepare two versions with different backgrounds. I personally always use black, since the majority of speakers use white and images look better on black background.
Do not copy-paste other’s drawings/data. If you need to mention them, use your own words or illustration. This is your presentation and you are there to tell what you think and believe, not the others. Again, if you are there to present something unique, the audience will quickly sense it and give you their attention.

6-Repeat questions and address them honestly: It is always a good idea to repeat/rephrase the questions that you are asked. This will make sure that 1) you understood the question correctly, 2) everyone heard the questions and 3) will give you time to think of the best answer.
If you don’t know the answer, state clearly that you do not know it and speculate if you have got an idea e.g. ”I don’t have the data to answer this question but If I were to speculate….”. If you feel that the questioner is openly attacking, don’t be defensive, smile and acknowledge that this is the best you can tell based on your data and you are happy to discuss this in more depth after the seminar.

7-Get prepared well: Ideally finish the preparation of your slides days 1-2 weeks before the presentation and make 3-5 rehearsals. Buy some pizza or drinks and invite your colleagues to listen to your presentation. Ask their genuine feedback on your presentation (not their praises, this will not help you in front of real audience). Volunteer to present at every opportunity to practice your presentation skills.

8-Simplify and repeat: Regardless of the level of your audience (even if there are many experts), you should simplify your story and give clear and easy background. In a typical scientific seminar, the majority of the audience looses its interest already at the introduction. Do not let this happen. Simplify the background information and questions that you would like to address. Clearly repeat your major conclusion at the end of the respective slide with a sentence and prepare section summaries to make the audience ready for the next part. Ideally, even if they sleep up to this point, they should be able to follow you after hearing the section summary. You should make clear that this slide is the most important slide so far and they should follow it. For example, you can say “Please wake up all (with a smile), here are the core findings so far”.  

9-Acknowledge contributors and experts: People will expect your acknowledgment even if they slightly contributed to your work. Ideally, put their photos and read their contributions and names. If time is very limited, acknowledge the major contributors and write the name of others on the acknowledgement slide. Also try to keep this slide projected while you address the questions.
If you are in a symposium, check the list of attendees and if there are experts in your field, mention their name. For example, as XYZ (who is sitting in the audience) elegantly showed… they are most probably your reviewers, praising their names is the best that you can do to get their approval of your science. In addition, if you can talk to them later, they will be more likely to give you good tips that can elevate the quality of your work.

10-Be aware of  the time: Be aware of the time and make sure to finish your presentation on time. Importantly, make sure that your audience knows that you are in control of time. In the middle of your presentation, you may say something like “We are perfectly on time” or “We will have a good amount of time for discussions” which can stimulate people to think about a question to ask. A presentation with lots of questions/discussions is perceived more impactful than a presentation that barely finishes with just a few or no questions. Actually, if you want to make additional impact, it may be better to finish the presentation a few minutes earlier, to have more time for discussion. During the QA, observe how many people raised their hands for questions and address the questions to shuffle the remaining time. Typically, after rephrasing the question, a brief answer to the point would be the most efficient when there are many questions. In case of a few questions, you may elongate the answer and give time to the audience to think of the next question. In such cases, going back to important result / summary slides may remind the audience of the major points. In case of no questions -which normally should not happen if the talk was clear and stimulating enough- you may ask a question to yourself by saying “while you think of your questions, I want to answer a question that I always have been asked….”.

I hope that I could give you some tips how to improve your presentation skills. I would also like to advise you to go to seminars often and pay particular attention to successful scientists, which are typically also very good presenters. There is always something to learn and improve for all of us.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

My research: The brain, the most complicated structure in the universe

Do you remember from your biology course, what a synapse is? Actually, we are still trying to understand it, so if you already forget, no worries. It has been estimated that the number of possible connections (synapses) that could be formed in our brain is higher than the number of the atoms in the universe! While our brain is this complex, a simplified view is necessary to understand its functions and to be able to develop treatments for devastating neurological diseases.

The main research focus of my laboratory is to investigate the changes in the brain structure after an injury. Upon a brain injury, for example due to a traffic or sports accident, the brain region that is exposed to the direct injury is damaged and mostly degenerates itself. This can be considered as hitting one side of our car to the wall while we are parking. The impact site will be destroyed while the rest of the car remains physically unaffected. However, when we follow brain injury patients at the clinic over years and decades, we observe degeneration of the brain far away from the lesion side. This spreading of degeneration in the brain eventually results in long-term complications including early onset of dementia such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease or neuropsychiatric disorder such as schizophrenia and depression. We are familiar with Muhammed Ali, who got Parkinson’s disease at the age of 42, due to the head injuries he was exposed to during boxing. On the other hand, we also know various American Football players having psychiatric problems, committing suicide or being heavily depressed, again due to head injuries they receive during their professional career. All these long-term complications that are observed over years to decades in humans after brain injuries imply that their brain structure continuously changes. How does this happen? How does damage at one corner of the brain physically spread to the rest of it? What are the mechanisms driving this spread? My research group is now trying to address these important questions.

Mild brain injuries occur often in children when they play. We mostly ignore such small injuries in children. However, it is possible that they are the cause of complications such as ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and epilepsy seen later in life.

One way to study brain function in health and disease is to visualize its structure and activity with imaging techniques. Most of us probably have seen MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) pictures showing the general structure of the brain. They help doctors to identify brain regions with abnormalities, such as a tumor or degenerating tissue. However, the zoom ability of MRI is very low and usually can only show the large changes, not the details. We can imagine this as the satellite view over a city. If there is a fire in a particular region, the satellite view will help us to determine which building is on fire. However, this view will be insufficient to resolve the source of the problem, whether it started at an electricity connection, gas pipe, or someone’s cigarette bud, which was not extinguished. Similarly, while MRI pictures can show the overall brain structure, they cannot resolve sufficient details to see the cellular mechanisms that can cause dementia and psychiatric diseases. To overcome this limitation, my group develops novel imaging techniques to observe detailed structures in the brain and help to identify the source of brain diseases. An important limitation of brain imaging is that the light cannot penetrate deep into brain structures, because it is blocked by opaque tissue -such as skull- at the surface. One way to light up the deep brain structures for visualization is to make them transparent. In recent years, we developed methods to render the brain transparent to be able to ‘look inside’ the brain. This is similar to making the buildings transparent via glass constructions from top to bottom. Now, using the satellites with high zoom features, one can see through the buildings and identify the source of a possible fire, because now we are able to zoom and image every detail of the building. We call this method 3DISCO. You can see some examples of such transparent organs at the following link:

Monday, June 9, 2014

In business for life

When I asked Eduard how he likes working at Genentech, he told me that he loves working and being here, with a big smile on his face. He was sincerely bound to his workplace. What makes this story special is that Edison was not the one of the highest paid employees at top management level, in contrast, he was probably at the bottom scale in the company, cleaning dirty cages of the animals.

When my interest in working in the US was combined with my curiosity to learn more about how the brain functions in health and disease, I contacted to Dr. Morgan Sheng at MIT. During our phone interview, he told me that he was moving to Genentech soon, if I were to come to his lab, I could join him at Genentech. I must admit that I did not know much about Genentech before that phone conversation. He briefly mentioned that it is a great place, and I should just check it out. I immediately googled Genentech and started reading about it on the Wikipedia page…Besides numerous achievements in research, Genentech was number 1 employer in Forbes Magazine “100 places to work in the US” in 2006 and 2nd after Google in 2007. Neither in Turkey or Germany, I was aware of the ‘best places to work for’ concept. As science scholars, we normally don’t really think about how we are treated at work anyway. While being at the top of list sounded only good, it did not have much impact on me, first, because I was not really aware of what it means, and second, I cared more about resources as a scientist that would be given to me to do great research.
As soon as I singed the contract with Genentech, I started receiving calls/emails from various people regarding my needs to live in the US: my visa, driver’s license, bank account, finding an apartment etc. Various professional services hired by the company were responsible for the relocation of new employees, and they take literally care of everything. When I arrived to the US, I was given a rental car and hotel. Next day Kelly from the relocation company picked me up and showed me neighborhoods in San Francisco and explained why they are good or not. Then when I told her that I liked the Pacific Heights neighborhood, she made appointments at the same evening, and picked me up the next day to visit the apartments. With her help, I could find a great place on the same day. San Francisco has probably one of the toughest rental markets in the world but with such a professional help, it went smoothly. An additional problem for me as someone just moving to the US, was not having a credit history (meaning that a person needs to have various transactions with banks/credit cards over months/years to prove that they are financially trustable). This makes it difficult for foreigners to rent a place with regular market price. After hearing that I just started working at Genentech, the landlady did not requested my non-exciting credit history and rented me our lovely place at the most beautiful part of the city:). All these sequels of events, even before I stepped into the company, did prove the care that they give to employees and further showed me the existence of high quality work environment.

There are probably many details and stories how Genentech –and similarly succesfull companies in the US– treats employees at different levels. I would like to give examples from my experiences and my friends at Genentech are of course welcome to add their experiences and thoughts at the comment section.

First of all, what I really like about Genentech was the quality of the food :) I love food, as all of you do I am sure :) and I have never been to a work environment that has better food quality. In various cafeterias at Genentech, there is a variety of cuisines including Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Asian etc. I particularly loved Rotisserie, Sushi and Pasta. My pasta chef was from Spain and we always had chats about football, life in America compared to Europe and so forth while he prepared my special whole-wheat fettuccini with fresh sea food (muscles, salmon, tuna, shrimps or even sometimes with halibut and scallops), which were not on the regular menu. That was special for me:). Overall, I loved the options of having whole wheat bread, pasta, even brown rice for the sushi. In addition, the food at Genentech is relatively cheap and very high quality as being organic, fresh and also with many local selections.

The quality of food with tons of healthy selections is not the only way to keep people healthy and fit. Genentech has a great gym within campus, with a SPA and all kinds of machines and courses. In addition, we could use a larger gym close by for free, which has a swimming pool and tennis courts. I visited the gym about 4-5 times per week. In addition to keeping myself fit and relaxing my mind, I loved chatting with people from different divisions, which otherwise I would have probably never met in a company with 12000 employees. I also played at the Genentech soccer team. We went to RIFT (Roche International Football Tournament), which took place in different countries in Europe every year, for which the company paid all costs of the team :).

Some additional amazing services that I benefited are in campus car wash, dry clean, medical unit and concierge. For example, I could leave the car more or less where I park everyday, and they would wash it while I work. If you want to book a table at French Laundry –which was chosen the best restaurant in the world 2 times in a row– you call the concierge, they will do it for you. Otherwise, one has to try calling several days until finding a table –probably some time earliest 2-3 months later.

Genentech is also a green company that cares and courageous employee to care of the environment. Already many electrical vehicles are used on campus. There are also several shuttles (with Wi-Fi) from city to work and back (even though I preferred to drive:)) to reduce the individual driving, and on campus bikes that everyone can use. Fascinatingly, the company pays you additionally every time you take the shuttle, bike to work or carpool :). 

The company would also make regular happy hours (parties) with food and music, and organize large events during special days like Halloween or Christmas with entertainment, music, delicious food for thousands of employees and their families. Once in a year, there is a Giveback event that goes for a week. During this week, the company and the employees make donations, and involve in charitable activities, for example, going to neighborhoods in the city and helping people to build their houses, schools etc., which fills up our contentment tank. After all, we become most happy when we give to others (sounds like another article topic here:)). “Do you have any idea who is coming”…”I heard that Lady Gaga is in town” are regular talks every year to guess who will take the stage at Genentech’s annual AT&T park concert, where famous artists/bands like Black Eye Peas, Pitbull and Bruno Mars appeared. In addition, during the concert, all food and drinks are free as much as you can eat:). Everyone is allowed to bring one additional person and their kids, which at the end probably becomes something like 20-25 thousand people. Imagine the cost of such an event, which is organized solely to make the employee and their family happy.

There are regular surveys to evaluate the company, where employees can give their feedback regarding the company’s policies and culture. Indeed, Fortune Magazine’s "100 Best Companies To Work For" is based on such anonymous employee responses to the survey. There is also a regular evaluation of the individual employee from the people they work with. This helps to identify how the individuals can fit to the company’s work environment, whether they contribute or not. For example, if there is a bad manager you and some others suffer from; you have a good chance to make a change with your feedbacks contrary to most of the other work places where one usually does not have any power to criticize upper management.

In academia, it is mostly individuals who are responsible for themselves and their efficiency, however, in a company like Genentech, individuals are pieces of a whole unit, and need to learn how to communicate and work together with others to make great discoveries that could change the world. I really enjoyed learning this aspect of work ethics. I believe that I improved over years from being a rather individual researcher, to someone who could see and value collective team efforts. The more I learnt about Genentech and the Bay Area culture, the easier it got for me to communicate with others and follow some regulations –which were originally against my rebellious personality :)- that are needed for the protection of the entire system.

Because of such great benefits and work environment, Genentech can hire the best scientists and conduct the most cutting-edge research. Hence, Genentech has become a top-notch biotech firm with world-renowned researchers. It has a great postdoctoral program (where I worked) that aims to generate excellent basic research and publications like a university. Many people asked me why Genentech invests so much on basic research, where the money is spent for not producing drugs but rather to explore basic principles of science. I believe there are two main motivations behind this: first, Genentech can hire great scientists from academic environments by saying, look, you can come to us and still continue doing basic research that you love, while you can contribute to finding treatments for devastating diseases to make a substantial impact. Secondly, Genentech still can benefit from the basic research in long-term for drug development even though it may cost more effort and money. For example, one of the most famous drugs of the company for breast cancer treatment called Herceptin was the result of a postdoctoral fellow exploring the basic biology behind the HER2 gene. Almost every basic research topic even if they look so far from it, has a therapeutical value. The capacity to translate such knowledge into a treatment that the human being can benefit needs time, large investments and cooperation of many divisions to develop the idea. Genentech has these valuable assets.

Besides of all good aspects, naturally there is always room to grow and get better. Sometimes people in such great companies may think that there is already a lot of achievements accomplished and not much to learn and improve. Therefore, they might be more closed to feedbacks and critics. Expression of our thoughts to people with a predetermined mind needs extra skills in communication. Overall, I learnt that being “politically correct” is a safer and more effective way to express my opinions rather than directly putting a finger on the issue, which is not very welcomed in the American culture. I am not going into details of this topic but I can recommend a few books, which can help to improve your communication skills and be more effective when the stakes are high: “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson and “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” by Stephen R. Covey. Finally, there will be always some people who are not happy with the company regardless of the quality and improvements even if well majority of the employee is very content. This could be simply due to incompatibility between these individuals and work ethics/environment of the company. In such cases, one may need to take more concrete steps and move on to a better fitting environment instead of accumulating negative feelings/thoughts over time. 

Finally I would like to talk a bit about research at Genentech in simple words. Genentech is famous with its antibody-based drugs for cancer treatments. A typical Pharmaceutical company, which aims to develop drugs, makes screens with thousands maybe millions of chemicals. For example, if they want to find out a drug that kills the cancer cells, the different chemicals are dropped onto isolated cancer cell lines in laboratory conditions to find out which chemical can kill the cancer cells. The main advantage of this approach is that it is fast and cost effective. The downside of this approach is that it is very hard to know what other effects would these chemicals have when they are given to humans. For example, the chemicals that can kill the cancer cells may also kill healthy cells in the body. In a metaphor, this can be considered as a zombie hunt in a large city. Let’s assume that we want to develop a drop of toxin that can eliminate some zombies hidden in the city before they expand more and further harm the city and people. If we were to mix our potential toxin medicine into raindrops, this toxin would affect almost every individual in the city, and besides zombies many people would also die. Because of the same reason, people who receive chemotherapy for cancer treatment may loose their hair and partially destroy various other tissues, hence they have serious side effects. As the first biotech company in the world, Genentech started with a different approach to develop drugs and bring treatment to people. The mission had been, first, to understand the biology behind the disease and later target the cancer cells or pathogens more specifically by employing biological substances. This is also the base of the personalized medicine, which you probably started to hear more and more. For example, in cancer studies, Genentech tries to discover specific features of cancer cells and subsequently targets them with antibodies that can kill only cancer cells. This can be considered as guided-toxins in the zombie hunt. The aim is to release the toxins only when a real zombie (real zombie? :)) is on target. To this end of course, one has to figure out unmistakably what a zombie is and what not and how to deliver the toxin specifically to an individual zombie. While a typical chemotherapy is designed to kill anyone, for example, it is delivered as raindrops and would kill anyone walking regardless being a human or zombie, an antibody can be more targeted, for example, it can be carried by trained soldiers and delivered onto creatures that walk with an awkward shamble posture unlike a typical human who stands straight (for more info read Physical Characteristics of Zombies :)).  Therefore, only when we could find out what makes cancer cells (zombies) different to normal healthy cells (human being), then we could specifically find and eliminate the bad guys to protect the healthy ones.

Overall, I had a great experience at Genentech and strongly suggest it to anyone who would like to work in such an environment (there were no zombies :)). Apart from  the basic neuroscience projects that I performed aiming to understand how our brain functions, I also learnt a great deal about the translational research, that aims to discover new drugs and treatments for devastating diseases. In a next article, I would like to talk more about what my research more in detail. I know that there is a clear communication problem between scientists and the rest of the society :), which is mostly due to the complicated nature of science and our inability to simplify it correctly for non-scientist. I am down to give it a try :), which might be helpful for many people around me finally to understand what actually I am doing.

Monday, April 14, 2014

How to perform cutting-edge science and advance technology: breaking the norms

After my undergrad study in Ankara, I moved to Munich for my Ph.D., to live in abroad at the age of 23. During the five and half years that I spent there, I believed I learnt a lot both in terms of science and life experience. I then moved to the Bay Area to do my postdoctoral study at Genentech, where I was deeply impressed by the quality of science and life. Throughout my articles, I’ll give examples of famous tech and research companies/institutions from the Bay Area including Apple, Google, Facebook, Stanford, Genentech and Tesla Motors because of two reasons: 1) I am simply more familiar with them because I lived there J 2) they are mostly worldwide known institutions and it is easy to grasp how they change our life. The advantage of living there is also being ahead of the wave. For example, it is not very unusual to see a driverless car with the label “Google self-driving car” on Highway 101 in San Francisco next to your car. Overall, my point is also not a praise of the US over Turkey and Germany but just an emphasis on their strength in developing cutting-edge science and technology. In some future articles, I would like to write about why Turkey and Germany are also great countries to live. I believe that both Germany and Turkey have the potential to create a Bay Area environment to generate their own breakthroughs if they would break certain norms.

Advances in science and technology unavoidably change our life in many aspects. From young to old, we benefit from the developments that facilitate our daily activities and help us to fight diseases. Many diseases now can be treated, and people with chronic conditions have gained better life conditions. While the societies who conduct cutting-edge research are at the peak of the wave to find solutions to problems, the followers/imitators would mostly try to adopt pioneers’ inventions to seek their own solutions. Naturally, not every advance of leading societies will be a proper answer for the others. They even may create more problems if not well adopted. Hence, it is highly desirable that followers/imitators would develop their own innovations. In addition, if we don’t want to be concerned about others spying on our government officials, and personal life -which will naturally happen as long as we all use Gmail, iPhones J- we better develop and use our own solutions. But how can we create a society that could come up with its own breakthroughs?

I believe that this requires an environment that encourages liberal thinking, which can welcome challenging –out of the box– ideas even if they seem out of the standardized life norms. While one can build a city like Dubai by pouring money into any society, a similar approach would not be sufficient to create a Harvard University or a Google in any society. The latter requires infrastructure, culture and complete freedom of individuals to come up with innovative ideas again and again as quick as possible. Even Germany, which is one of the most developed countries, lags behind the US system in that regard due to a somewhat conservative system and thinking. For example, Germans are famous to make high quality products: if something has "made in Germany" label, we know that it is strong, stable and long lasting. Even if it is more expensive, we would invest on high quality German products considering the future. However, to develop treatments for devastating diseases and develop our own technological advances rather being solely users of others' technologies requires more radical thinking and quicker accomplishments. For example, if iPhones were to be made in Germany, most of them would not come to market that quickly because they would fail quality tests of German standards due to e.g. their antenna problems, software problems etc. When they come to the market though, they would work perfectly. However, in that case, now we would most probably be using iPhone 2 rather than iPhone 5. Development of the best electrical cars (Tesla), Internet search engine (Google), online social networks (Facebook, G+) are similarly products of environment having complete freedom of individual to come up with leading-edge ideas to change the world without authoritarian restrictions. It is noteworthy to mention that most of these companies were founded within the last 10-15 years, by young individuals at their early 20ies or 30ies, unlike established, well-trusted big-brother companies/governments, who most of the time would dislike and try to suppress such young and creative initiations in the conservative societies.

One great example of such an innovative company is Tesla Motors. It was founded by visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk, 11 years ago, when he was 31! Today, Tesla Motors produces the best electrical car (Model S) in the world (ahead of established companies like Toyota and BMW). If someone were to come up with the idea of making such an electrical car company in another country, in addition to lack of innovative environment, they would mostly liked be suppressed by rich and powerful establishments and vanished in a short time. Not to mention, SpaceX, the other company founded by Musk is has another hard to perceive vision: travelling common people to space. It is interesting that Elon Musk studied Art and Science, which might be a critical component of his visionary personality, who thinks of and produces novel ideas again and again. I would strongly suggest to you at least to have a look at his TED talk. Maybe the most famous CEO of the last decades, Steve Jobs had similar visions to come up with novel and inspiring ideas and products, which significantly changed our lives. Steve Jobs was also very curious about art and had been always fascinated by design. His rebellious nature to challenge authoritarian systems (norms) was evident even before funding Apple. For example, he and his buddy and co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak, developed and marketed "Blue Box" which could hack into large phone company in the US to make free international calls instead of paying fortunes. When they started producing the Apple 1, one of the main aims was to challenge the concept that the computers, which were very expensive at that time, were only for rich people, companies and banks.

Being first in developing novel science and technology is also very important from an economical standpoint. Tesla Motors market value reached to ~$ 36 billion within 12 years! WhatsApp, which was founded in 2009 by two former Yahoo employees (Brian Acton (41) and Jan Koum (38)), was recently sold to Facebook for $ 19 billion, an amount that is larger than major investments of countries often are. For example, the cost of the much discussed 3rd bridge in Istanbul is ~$ 6 billion and the Eurosia tunel is ~$ 1.3 billion. The amazing football stadium of Bayern Munich, the Allianz Arena, cost ~$ 0.34 billion. The research budget of the entire European Union in the framework of Horizon 2020 is about ~$ 15 billion per year! While there have been other similar applications, WhatsApp was the first to create a user-friendly and stable app as a solution to the need of free texting, hence it dominated the market. Being the first in science and technology is like being first in art. When we see the worldwide famous art pieces from Picasso or the ‘Blaue Reiter’, we can easily think that we could do the same. Yes, most probably, some could make the same artwork but what matters is that they were the first to make such ingenious art in their time, which had a certain fixed focus and understanding of art.

How have such companies been flourishing in the Bay Area? At first glance, I think it is due to two characteristics of the west coast which do not really exist in European culture (1) Rewarding everyone: Such companies take care of all their employees from the lowest status workers to top management and reward all of them whenever success if achieved (see the figure below). (2) Valuing everyone’s idea: They create an environment that everyone feels equal and valued. A CEO of the company may dress up in away that you may not notice if she/he is the CEO or the one cleaning the floor. Highest management people would communicate with the people from each level and listen to their perspectives. These two critical aspects give the feeling of belonging –being a piece of the puzzle– in which then every individual gives their best to improve the work environment and the quality in a synergy. Additional 3 criteria for success in my opinion are the availability of top niche resources, professional work ethics and quality of individuals as briefly discussed below.
(3) Resources: Presented resources should be compatible with the targets of the organization. For example, if an institution aims to have the market for solar-power systems, it should have sufficient resources -both information and cash reserves- to develop innovative ideas and be ahead of competitors.
(4) Professional work ethics: A professional organization would have clear targets and proper methodologies to reach the targets. This would depend on visionary leadership and talented managers. They would find and hire the best individuals suited for the work without discriminating them by their identity and background.

(5) Quality of individuals: Last, which may be the first in importance, is the quality of the individuals forming the organization. The quality of individuals at each level matters in such organizations similar to the importance of each brick forming the Galata Tower in Istanbul. Strong individuals are those who care about their health, their family (spending quality of time with family), and their environment/society (helping to charities, contributing their knowledge and feedbacks to improve the conditions they live in). Steve Jobs once said, “A” players would like to work with “A” players. Institutions, which value individuals at each level, invest a lot of resources to improve their employees both at work and outside of the workplace. Even if they are not “A” players initially, they could develop to be “A” players in an environment that they value and are valued by. This surely pays off well in the long run to have stable and happy team players who are loyal and sincerely bound to the organization. In my next article, I will go into details of such a company, and give details of how they create a state-of-the-art innovation environment to come up with various breakthroughs.

Edit by Caroline Hojer.