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Dr. Ayse Turak is Associate Professor and Associate Undergraduate Chair of the Department of Engineering Physics at McMaster University. Ayse received her B.Sc. in Metallurgical and Materials Engineering from Queens’s University and her PhD from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto, where she was a Canada Graduate Scholar. Afterwards, Ayse conducted research as a Marie Curie Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Metals Research and subsequently worked as a visiting professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey before joining the faculty at McMaster University. Ayse has received numerous awards and honors throughout her career, including the Early Researcher Award, the Petro-Canada Young Innovators Award, and a Leadership in Teaching and Learning Fellowship from McMaster University. In addition, she was recently nominated as a Full member at Sigma Xi, and she is the co-chair of the Canadian Chapter of the Society of Information Display. In our interview, Ayse shares more about her life and research.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:34)
In her free time, Ayse loves to travel, visit new places, see new things, explore new cultures, and seek adventure. She also enjoys theatre, writing, and volunteering with various social justice organizations.
The Scientific Side (3:44)
Ayse develops and studies plastic-based electronic materials, such as solar cells and light-emitting diodes. Her goal is to create affordable, sustainable, and ubiquitous plastic materials to provide power and light for people around the world.
A Dose of Motivation (6:58)
“There is lots of room at the bottom of the scale.” – Richard Feynman
What Got You Hooked on Science? (10:12)
Ayse’s father was a chemical engineer who worked in the petroleum and coal industry. Her family immigrated to Canada from Turkey when she was three years old, and he worked initially as a coal extraction engineer. He later accepted a position with Alberta Energy and did work in photovoltaics (the conversion of light to energy using semiconducting materials). Ayse’s family always encouraged her curiosity, and she remembers following her dad around the lab and doing mini experiments with his colleagues. In junior high, Ayse and a friend visited her friend’s father’s chemistry lab to practice the titrations they were doing in class, and it was a lot of fun. Up until she went to college, Ayse was convinced that she wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. However, she completely changed her trajectory after taking a chemistry class taught by an amazing professor. The class included optional lectures on materials science, and Ayse was captivated by the content of these lectures. She changed her major to materials science and never looked back. After finishing college, Ayse spent eight months traveling around Europe and Turkey before starting graduate school. This was a phenomenal experience, and she entered graduate school reinvigorated and ready to start her graduate training.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (28:32)
During her postdoctoral fellowship, Ayse had an opportunity to perform experiments at a synchrotron facility about an hour away from their lab. It was common for people in the lab to visit the facility and use the high energy electrons to do x-ray diffraction to determine the structure of materials they were working on. However, since the facility was in such high-demand, it was difficult to get a time slot to do experiments. Before going there for the first time, Ayse spent months planning, and she worked around the clock in the days before the trip to get her samples ready. When she arrived in the morning, Ayse spent a few hours setting up her experiment. Once everything was running, she went out to grab a quick meal with colleagues. When she returned, everything was a disaster. Her experiments hadn’t run, she had no data, and she was distraught. Ayse went to her room, and as soon as she sat on her bed, the bed collapsed under her. After leaving a tearful and distressed phone message for her parents, Ayse went to sleep. When she returned to the facility the next morning, Ayse learned from a technician that a transformer had exploded, causing the beam to go down and all of the experiments to crash. She was able to reset her experiment and get some data, but it was a traumatic experience. Though the technician assured her that this had never happened before, and it was a highly unlikely event, the same thing happened when Ayse returned to the facility about 4 weeks later. In these incidents where the circumstances were completely beyond Ayse’s control, it was important to take a step back, get some perspective, and try again.
A Shining Success! (34:19)
Recently, Ayse and one of the students in her lab did some preliminary experiments in their lab, and though the results were promising, they were not yet ready to publish. She planned a visit to the lab of one of their collaborators in Austria to confirm their results and obtain a clear spectrum to include in their paper. They only had three weeks to set everything up, prepare the samples, and collect the necessary data, so Ayse and the student worked frantically to get everything done in time. The sample preparation procedure is complex and finicky, and the first time they tried to collect data, it didn’t work. On the second to the last day, Ayse left to visit other colleagues in the Czech Republic, and while she was gone, the student got everything to work! He wrote to her to share the fantastic news, and Ayse was so excited. The visit to Austria was extremely productive, and it was wonderful to see her student succeed after all the hard work that went into this project.
Book Recommendations (36:35)
How To Travel With A Salmon: and Other Essays by Umberto Eco, Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, and By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey.
Most Treasured Travel (40:17)
Ayse has had so many wonderful travel experiences for science. Prior to accepting a position as a visiting professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey, Ayse served on the thesis committee for one of the students there. She flew to Istanbul to attend the defense, and it was an amazing experience. After the defense, they decided to have İskender, a renowned dish in Turkey, and they decided to visit the original İskender shop in Bursa. After a long drive and a ferry ride in the summer heat, they finally made it. All of the committee members came and the student came as well. It was a fun adventure on Ayse’s whirlwind trip to Turkey.
On another particularly memorable trip, Ayse traveled to Brussels to attend a conference. While she was there, she took time to visit the Atomium. The Atomium is a remarkable building and science museum built for the 1958 World’s Fair. Ayse’s grandmother attended the World’s Fair in 1958, and she gave a small replica model of the building to Ayse’s father as a gift. Ayse remembers always seeing the Atomium model on her father’s desk when she would visit him. It is a really cool-looking building in the shape of an array of atoms. When Ayse visited the Atomium, she bought a replica for her own desk, and she was honored when her father passed down his own Atomium model to her when she accepted her faculty position at McMaster University. Now, she keeps them both on her desk, and being able to see this landmark in person was one of the most amazing experiences of her life.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (44:00)
While a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Metals Research, Ayse worked with a fun, creative, and diverse group of people. Their department attended beer festivals together, went out to parties and dance all night, and her colleagues often shared delicious food from their cultures. In terms of lab traditions, Ayse was introduced to a great tradition during a visit to a colleague’s lab in Austria. Whenever a student or postdoc finishes their time in the lab, the student throws a dart or pen into the ceiling. They then draw a circle around where it sticks in the ceiling and write their name and the date. The ceiling tiles serve as a tangible record of who has been in the lab. When the lab moved or was renovated, the ceiling tiles were carefully cut out and framed, and the tradition continued in the new lab space.
Advice For Us All (48:14)
The person doing the experiment should be the expert on the project. Ayse continues to learn from her students and the work they are doing. Everyone should strive to continue learning. Also, never stifle your curiosity. Always ask questions, don’t accept everything you hear as fact, and try to prove things for yourself.
Ayse’s research vision is to develop easy, versatile, and inexpensive methods of functionalizing surfaces and interfaces to tackle critical problems. Her main research passions are in organic/perovskite solar cells and light emitting diodes, to light the world and make cheap sustainable energy. By making solar and lighting products cheaper, more accessible, and more flexible, her research aims to have a huge impact on the way people use clean energy. To achieve this vision, the Turak group uses simple manufacturing approaches (reverse micelle deposition of nanoparticles), allows nature to dictate morphology (entropic self-assembly, beneficial dewetting), and develops widely applicable characterization tools (“MORPHOLOGIES” Monte Carlo simulation code, “dis-Locate” spatial order classification package, 3D printed environmental testing chamber). When she is not in the lab, Ayse can be found curled up with a good book, traveling to far-flung locals to snorkel with the fishes or at the theatre enjoying works by the latest playwrights. She and her wife enjoy watching the deer who regularly visits their backyard in Ontario, Canada.