Interview with Dr Orkun Soyer
Dr Orkun Soyer is one of Exeter’s brightest young academics. A systems biologist, Orkun was appointed as part of the University’s Science Strategy, an £80 million investment in infrastructure and staff over 5 years. His career thus far has taken him from Istanbul, Turkey where he gained his BSc, to a PhD at the University of Michigan in the US, before positions at ETH in Zurich, Switzerland and COSBI in Trento, Italy.
We took some time to talk to Orkun about his travels, his research at Exeter, and about the exciting and unique Frontiers of Multidisciplinary Research: Mathematics, Engineering, and Biology conference that he has helped to organise at the University in September this year.
Like many scientists and researchers, Orkun’s work has taken him around the world. “It’s increasingly common nowadays that you travel; diversity and experience are good things. It’s very common for academics to go to the UK or the US for PhD education. Moving to Switzerland was a switch in the field I was working in, from protein evolution to network level analysis, and then Italy was another interesting opportunity. Exeter is my first academic position; it’s a really happening place at the moment for systems biology research.”
“While doing my PhD I toyed with the idea of going into industry. In the US they are good at giving you potential directions, options for industry, patent attorneys, consultancy, and so on. My post-doctoral research got me hooked on the academic life though.”
So far Orkun’s work at the University has been about establishing a research base in systems biology, but he is moving into teaching for the first time soon. “Lecturing starts this coming term; building research was the primary reason behind me getting hired, but there is a masters in systems biology starting next term, and I’ll be teaching in that.”
Research is still his main focus though. “My research has two aspects; firstly that there is an increasing tendency to look at biological things as systems rather than as small parts working in isolation. Understanding the interconnectedness of things, networks where all parts are connected, and that the entirety of the system gives it its features rather than the individual parts. We are trying to understand the connectedness of that system from a dynamics point of view; how does a system change over time? How does the system respond to small changes in one component or parameter? That is the big picture."
“The specific niche I apply is looking at this from an evolutionary perspective. Whenever you talk about complex interconnected systems there is the question of how they came about in the first place. Since we know there is not an intelligent designer, the question is how does the evolutionary process shape and create these systems, why are they so complex? Why is a certain system that way in one bacteria and different in another? Or why is it different in humans than in bacteria? Is it because of some adaptive process, or are there are neutral, random processes at play? Which environmental and ecological conditions shape these adaptive and neutral processes and how? All these evolutionary questions interest me.”
“The concept of networks, change, and interconnectedness is very powerful, and can apply across the sciences and the social sciences. A person might talk about social networks and sociology and psychology, and in systems biology we talk about cellular networks and proteins, so there are details on top, but the basic idea is surprisingly very similar. That is the neat thing about systems biology, that it has attracted people from across the disciplines, from social sciences to maths to physics to biology.”
I probably would have been a professional sailor if I’d not been an academic. My 4-year BSc programme took me 7 years to finish because I was mostly sailing. I sailed dinghies and small boats, a lot of competition sailing. I finished my PhD in a record short time though, so I guess if I focus I can do well! Sailing was a big part of my life, until I decided that focusing on education was better. I wasn’t too good at sailing which helped the decision!
This September sees the University of Exeter hosting a prestigious and unique conference which Orkun has been instrumental in organising.
“The idea is to bring a diverse group of people together to discuss science under the umbrella of systems biology. We have mathematicians, engineers, physicists, all with interest in biology, but applying very different techniques and ideas; computer science, condensed matter physics, graph theory. We have traditional biologists too, not in their thinking but in their tools; experimentalists who have been working in model systems where they have devised unique setups. We are trying to find connections between these people and generate new ideas.”
“The workshop is structured around interaction and discussion. My post-doctoral position was at a very multi-disciplinary place, with both experimental and theoretical elements; theoretical discussions linked to the reality of experiments. You don’t often find that mixture. We had a similar workshop in Italy and it was successful, everybody was impressed. So we decided to try it again at Exeter, but to make it broader by bringing in more engineers and less biologists.”
“Having a panel of organisers helped us to select the invited speakers, which are a big part of the conference. The speakers, who are all very high profile in their fields, are a vehicle to promote the diversity of the attendees. To attract attendees you have to pick leaders from their fields, so that somebody working in mathematical biology or computational science sees someone who is speaking here and thinks ‘I have to attend because this person is a leader in my field, even though the other people are not in my field’. At the same time we’re trying to be careful in selecting people who have interdisciplinary backgrounds in their own careers, views about science in general and how their own work connects with other work.”
“Having all these people together is the biggest part of it, to see if it works or not. That’s all you can do, put it together and hope it works. There’s no recipe to create interdisciplinary science, or good science for that matter; this is just one way of trying and if it works that’s very wonderful. So I'm very excited about the conference but also anxious at the same time; it might go badly, but just trying and having the experience is worth the risk. Luckily a lot of the funders felt that way too! We have funding from EPSRC, Microsoft Research, Company of Biologists, and Signet. And big support from the University as well, from the College of Engineering, Mathematics, and Physical Sciences, from the science strategy, and from Research and Knowledge Transfer too.”
“The thing I like best about Exeter is that for systems biology it’s really just happening now, it’s a growing group and field, and there are no predispositions. It’s very dynamic and flexible, and we are all involved in shaping it. You don’t find that everywhere. A lot of places you go in and things are already in shape, you are part of the wheel that is already turning. But here we are making the wheel, and that is exciting for a young guy to be involved in.”
Orkun is balancing his research and career with a busy family life; he and his wife have two young children. “The kids are keeping us busy; there is not much spare time for sailing anymore! But the kids are our spare time. They are two and four now and everyone tells us that this is the best time, when they are old enough to not be crying and not so old that they think you are uncool!”
“It’s likely I will stay in Exeter longer than other places because of this; because of my family and because of what we are building here in systems biology research. Shaping it makes it yours. That’s the reason I came here in the first place; potential.”