My childhood dream was to become a soccer player!
Since I was a little boy, I have dreamed about being a scientist. And then… No, not really. That is not how my story begins. My childhood dream was to become a soccer player! Trust me, it is not very surprising for a kid from Turkey born in early 90s. Our generation was mostly about going out there after school, with a jersey of our favourite player and run around with the ball until we simply cannot run anymore. So how did I transform from a kid trying to recover the ball from an angry neighbour with a broken window, into a scientist who works with microscopes that allows visualisation of the development of brain vasculature in a live fish?
Coming from a family where school education did not go beyond primary school, mine and my brother’s education were a top priority for my parents. “I wanted to keep studying and become a lawyer, but it was not really easy for a little girl growing up in a small village in 1960s.” says Mom. With hers and the rest of my family’s persuasion, it was decided that I was “too smart” to run after a ball as a career. I was not really different than my classmates in that aspect, but I did enjoy studying a lot, which served me well about my grades. And the thought of being a soccer player faded away when I realised that it was not something that I wanted to devote my life to. I had started showing interest in biology when a new teacher arrived in the second year of high school. His passion about biology and being an educator, his beautiful illustrations on the blackboard and patience for students (including me) who did nothing but giggle during the class about the reproductive system, made him a truly inspirational figure for me. When I was going through the program booklet, I saw those magical words - molecular biology and genetics. Wow! I thought how amazing it would be to tell people that I am a molecular biologist and geneticist, without realising that I will spend rest of my life trying to explain what I do for a living and listen to people’s demands about getting themselves cloned.
I did not particularly enjoy the lectures where I had to memorise various gene names that I will eventually forget, but I was thrilled during laboratory practicals, even with simple experiments. I was fascinated when I loaded a blue liquid into a gel using a micropipette and watched it slowly sink to the bottom of the well. Then, I became aware of the capabilities of the recombinant DNA technology, and the infinite possibilities that this technology provided to study development and disease. After going through a “What am I doing with my life 1.0” phase during my three year Master’s studies in Istanbul, I have realised that I needed a new challenge in my life. This led me to the decision of pursuing a PhD abroad, as if the challenge of doing a PhD alone was not already enough. Since I left my hometown at the age of 16, I was used to being away from my family and adapting to new surroundings. However, leaving the country and studying in another language was still scary. I have only made applications for the PhD programs in Europe so that I could be close to my loved ones. Funny enough, I ended up in Australia (long story). Although it was not really hard to predict the difficulties of adjusting to a new life in a different country, the actually experience of living it was a completely new level. I have listened to people and nodded to things that I do not understand. I wanted to be a part of conversations, but words were just stuck somewhere between my brain and my mouth due to the language barrier and when they finally came out, they did not make much sense. When I look back, I am really glad that I took the leap and faced these challenges as it made me realise the importance of emotional resilience. On top of that, I have had the unique opportunity to work with the elegant roundworm C. elegans, where I investigated how particular conserved signalling pathways contribute to the development of neurons, providing me a snapshot of that infinite possibilities of genetic manipulations I had dreamt about during my undergraduate studies. Since July 2020, I have been working with another amazing model organism, zebrafish, on the development and integrity of the brain vasculature, which is crucial proper brain function and outcome of this project may provide fundamental knowledge for the development of therapeutics for brain cancer. This was indeed a big change in terms of the model and the field, which caused a significant amount of uncertainty. But when I walked into the aquarium and took my first image of the brain vasculature of a zebrafish larva, I have felt a warm sensation running through my abdomen. Just a few days ago, I watched blood cells running inside the vessels of the brain of a live fish and felt the same thing. Whenever I have the occasional uncertainty about the future, I try to think about these feelings. If we cannot go back and enjoy these moments, it would be really difficult to go on.
All these experiences feel so special that I often think how lucky I am to be in this field. I know that the word luck is quite controversial, but I have never believed in the saying “I make my own luck”. Of course, hard work, dedication and simply being nice to everyone will increase your chances to meet people alike, but you can still end up in an environment that just sucks the life out of you, regardless of how hard you try. Having the privilege of working with amazing people in my entire science journey, I am not afraid to say that I have been very lucky. I am grateful for what I have and very excited for the future ahead of me.
Figure legend: Illustration by Dr. Ava Handley, depicting my transition from C. elegans to zebrafish.
Dr Oguzhan Baltaci is a postdoctoral researcher in the Hogan laboratory, which is part of the Organogenesis and Cancer Program within the Peter Mac Research Faculty. Oguzhan obtained his PhD from Monash University in 2020. His expertise includes developmental genetics, vascular biology, C. elegans research, zebrafish research and imaging.
Dr Baltaci can be contacted by:
Email: [email protected]