Prof. Aykut Üren Dialogue Scripts

The script of Prof. Aykut Üren’s Dialogue Interview.

Istanbul, 02 June 2020

TDG, a global leader in digital transformation, released “Dialogue Sessions” for society to accelerate digital business competitiveness.

Dialogue Sessions are aligned with the TDG’s vision statement and the latest Dialogue was done by Didem Saraç with Prof. Aykut Üren on 6th of May 2020.

You can watch the interview video here.

Here is the script of the interview;

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Didem Saraç: Hello everyone! Professor Doctor Aykut Üren from Georgetown University is our guest of today. Mr. Aykut, welcome! How are you?

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: Thank you! Hi! I’m fine. How about you?

Didem Saraç: I’m fine, too. Thank you very much. We shall get to know you better. What have you done since college years? What processes did you undergo on the path to Georgetown university? Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: Sure. I studied in medical faculty in English at Hacettepe University. I graduated from there in 1994. I came here in the year of graduation and began to research on cancer. I’ve been here since then. Since 1994. I was coming here to do research in every summer when I was a student at the University. When I had finished the fifth grade, I froze my registration for six months and came here. I had done some studies on cancer here, already I had connections. I got a job offer under the name of postdoctoral fellowship. when I had graduated. While I was busy with visa and passport procedures for about six months after graduation, I worked as a general practitioner in a health centre in Uşak. We’ve been researching on basic cancer here in the lab since 1994. When the first time I have come here -there is a national cancer institute under NIH outside of Washington-. I had worked there as a postdoctoral fellow for five years. Afterwards, I worked as a postdoctoral fellow for two years at the University of Maryland at Baltimore- also a nearby city here- . After all of this, I came to Georgetown University in 2002. I started here as an assistant professor. Assistant professor and then professor… I have been at Georgetown University for 18 years. I spend most of my time here on my own lab to research on cancer. But beside professoriate, there are time-consuming institutions, boards and administrative duties at university. We also render training service. I give a lecture of anatomy to medical faculty students. We make a cadaver dissection. I also give lecture of tumour biology to doctoral and graduate students. Thus, I spend 20 percent of my time to give a lecture and the other 80 percent to research on cancer.

Didem Saraç: Well, at this point, I would like to ask you, who is your inspirer? Yes, during the college years you shuttled back and forth between two countries. You had connections there- but I have heard something- While you were at university, who did notice your success? I am not talking about consultancy. The assistants normally mentor to students. This is quite another but… Is there someone, who causes you to begin your journey to US?

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: It is hard to talk about just one person. Of course, I had teachers who supported me a lot both during my university years and before. I owe them big-time. I would like to go back more and before not starting to elementary school, when they have said ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’, I was used to say ‘ I want to be a scientist’. My primary school teacher has backed me up. And also science teacher at the middle-school, Fatma Genç. She has supported my interest in science. How to experiment? How to hypothesize? They engrained things like these in me when I was in secondary school. My teacher Zekeriya Cızeri at elementary school and my science teacher at my secondary school was a great supporter in my work in this field. I had two golden teachers at the university. Dear Ayşe Ayhan and Dear Wayne Criss. These teachers had grounded me in science besides lecturing two or three hours by coming to class. We were deep in article conversation together. How must be the scientific thought, how to hypothesize, how to critically assess information that is in a published article… I have got somewhere thanks to them. All of these happened outside of class, on weekends, evenings and with times from their private lives that they had kept for me. I started researching with their support in summers. I didn’t have much time at university. These kinds of summer’s researches have gradually gone up and finally when I graduated from the medical school, I has invested my whole time in study.

Didem Saraç: It is really good you are saying ‘I will be a scientist’ since childhood. Everyone says normally, ‘ I will be a doctor or a lawyer’ but saying ‘I will be a scientist’ deserves an incredible vision. I mean that it shows the passion inside you. So, it means that this is an endowment for you. I think that being a doctor requires skill a little bit. You have concentrated on cancer. You both teach at university and research in the laboratory. This is not a piece of cake even now. I mean that you have thoroughly reached your goal step by step. You have come to the head. Of course, you are continuing to move on and to research. This is an inspirational thing. Not only being a doctor, but also serving such a purpose… The people around you supported you well. They discover these things. They saw the tinder inside you and stood by you. This is terrific thing. There is also another subject, of course. Have you ever had an opportunity to work together with Prof. Dr Aziz Sancar in these related years?

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: Unfortunately, I have not never had collaboration with Master Aziz, but just like everyone else here, I have been knowing and following him for years because of his work. About 10 years ago, a seminar was organized here, at Georgetown. In our department, a professor from other university is invited every month to give a speech. I was choosing the guest speakers that year. And I invited Master Aziz, as well. It was 2010. I said, ‘Could you come here to give a speech for one day?’ He did not offend me and came. The first face to face meet with him was like that. He came to Georgetown, visited us, and gave the speech. Later, when I was having talk with other American professors anywhere else, I mentioned him in conversation. I said and so on. They were surprized. They said like, ‘ He never go anywhere and never gives a seminar. How did you do that?’. Then I appreciated him all the more so. Then I realized that he probably did not reject because of the request from a Turk and came by courtesy. He gave a speech in this way.

Master Aziz is very humble. Even before he received the Nobel prize, he had already made significant studies. And as well, he is a member of the national academy of science. To be a part of this academy is not easy. That’s way out of everyone’s league. He was a member of this academy even at that time. I mean, we all were keeping informed about his studies and were following him. I really appreciate him coming and giving a speech. Two or three years later, I happened to pass North Carolina. I was going to stay for one or two days there. I wrote to him. ‘If you are not busy, I would like to pay you a visit to have a talk’. I said, ‘ we are to talk together about the experiments with the team in the lab.’ And he said, ‘Of course, Shall we meet in that day?’ I said I would come at 11 o’clock on Friday. He gave his address and his room. I was going to go and find him in his room. I went to university at 11 o’clock. And he was waiting for me at the door of the faculty building, in anteroom by sitting. He was not waiting in his room. I was just a new assistant professor then. I had just started my career. He was an academy member and a professor. He has made many studies that deserve to receive the Nobel. He had not received it then. Even so, because I was a guest, he waited in outside of the building and welcomed me and we went his room. So, what I am saying is, beside he is successful, also very humble person. He attaches value on everyone and the people around him. For this reason, I commend him so much.

People in North Caroline know it better. He has helped both scientifically and socially all to the students, doctors, all of them in North Caroline. He supported them. He founded a Turkish house in North Caroline for students. Most of the students, who go there, also appreciate him, not only for science, but also for his personality, and being a good person.

Didem Hanım: I think that because medical science is engaged in people; because he understands the importance of this. Maybe he may have acted like so against you. Even if you were at the beginning of your career, you were also a successful doctor. If my memory does not fail me, I remember that you started working on a drug even 10 years ago.

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: Yes, there is a drug, which is currently coming out of our lab, is currently in clinical study.

There is a type of cancer called ‘Ewing Sarcoma’ that grows in bones and soft tissues. It is mostly seen in children. We have started working on this cancer in 1999. As a result, these studies, which we have started 20 years ago, can be tested on the patient only now. This study is now in the first phase in children. In this phase, we are trying to ascertain, whether this drug is injurious to humans, or which dose can be used. I mean, what is the highest dose of this drug without damaging anyone? These participants in this study are affected people of course, who were caught Ewing sarcoma, who did not get a good result from all of them by trying to receive all therapies and who have one or two months to live. They volunteer as participate in this kind of study making great self-sacrifices to take a medicine late in their life that is not known and not tried. After all, in this phase, it is not a drug that is expected to save their lives. Because these people are patients with terminal cancer, but they still volunteer to help patients who come after them. Thanks to these patients, we can find the dose of this drug. After that, the studies for the phase 2 will be started, and then this drug will be given to early-diagnosed patients, and it will be proved whether it is really good for Ewing Sarcoma. Promising results in our study in the lab are a matter of. That’s why these people are so valuable. But because Ewing Sarcoma is a rarely encountered disease, the patients are insufficient. These kinds of clinical studies are progressing very slowly as there are few patients. I hope the phase one, the phase two, and all of these will be finished in one or two years and the results will be clear. If the medicine will be really good for cancer, it may be going to become a medicine for Ewing Sarcoma by receiving approval from FDA.

Didem Saraç: I hope you will get good results. There are studies on all kinds of cancer of course but all of them look so scary by us, I mean by who are not in science. So, it has to be a remedy. We are expecting a solution. You are working on it… I hope… Of course, it is important that the number of patients does not increase, but if the medicine affects positively on these patients in a couple of years, you will give something incredibly beautiful to the world. I am sure that you are already doing other studies. Are there any other medicine trials that you have just started?

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: Yes, we are trying to develop drugs for the Sarcoma types that are seen in other children at the same time. There is another tumour called Osteosarcoma, too. In this study, we try to produce a medicine that will prevent the tumours spreading to the lung. We have done as far as we can do in the lab. Now this is going to be tried in dogs at home. This disease is the same in dogs. This Osteosarcoma is a quite common disease in dogs. Our cats and dogs living in our home, not as a laboratory animal, are also affected by this disease like humans. Rate of incidence in dogs is also extremely high. In America, Osteosarcoma occurs circa in 800-900 people in a year, while occurring in 10-15 thousand dogs in a year. Therefore, the number of patients in dogs is more suitable for the clinical study. The course of the disease in dogs is very similar to that of children’s, as well. Consequently, dogs die through lung metastasis, too. For this reason, we make efforts to try this medicine first in dogs. If we can see that it is good for dogs, then it will be much easier to try in children. In this way, we will be going to correctly proportion the dose. In what way should it be given or when should it be given…

We will have found them. We have such an effort for Osteosarcoma. Besides that, there is another muscle tumour called Rhabdomyosarcoma that is encountered in children. We are trying to develop a medicine for it, too. For this, we are coming from behind. The study is on the onset yet. These studies are time-consuming. A lot of money is needed. Because frequency of children’s cancers is relatively rare, it does not be invested the money in these studies. Not much money comes from research funding. If someone blew in and paid 50-100 million dollars, these drugs will be ready in 3 years, not in 10 years. Money comes first, so we are trying to progress as fast as possible with the opportunities we have.

Didem Saraç: But you are working, I mean, there is a progress, a contribution, and of course your team. There are people, who follow you. The treatment of such rarely encountered disease is more difficult. Even in the current situation, there are a lot of unknown diseases. You are trying to find a way for a couple of them. This is actually a very hope-inspiring situation. I mean, it is a good that we know it. Well, based on this, you have very good successes, and you have a lot of patents. You also have an Oscar Award. In other words, the academy’s Oscar, which is actually given by the National Academy Inventors. You are one of the three Turkish inventors selected among 168 people from all over the world. This was the study in 2019 recently. Well, now I am not going to ask so. I mean, of course, I will not ask you if you have been proud of it. You have surely been. How have you entered in this list of inventors? I mean, scientists from all over the world are researched and their studies are followed. What was it that had provided you have entering in this list? I don’t know, it can be your study or studies. Can you give some information about that?

Didem Saraç: In selection phase, each university sends a candidate from own university by preparing a file every year. Later, the institution called the National Academy of Investors creates own arbitration committee in itself, and then consider the candidates among references. They pick out 100-150 people every year to be included in their teams. I am saying that their fellowship status is not given for a study. They examine in detail all points of the file. What inventions have you made, what patents you have got, and how these patents have been applied during your career… Besides, what kind of articles have you published, how did your knowledge on the field has affected other scientists… I mean, it does not be given for a study. They make this selection by considering everything you do in your career. An award ceremony would be in Arizona in April; but of course, it was cancelled this year because of this pandemic. I guess that they will combine the awards of these two years and make only one award ceremony next year.

Didem Saraç:  It’s beautiful in fact, I congratulate you very much. I mean, I was very proud of it as a Turk. I think that everybody should hear it, and this should be announced in the media. It is more like that it remains inside of own field. I can say it because of the research I have done. Well, now I’m going to ask something. You have also some golden objects. I mean that you have an Oscar. I heard you having golden apples.

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: Yes.

Didem Saraç: I guess that you even have a golden apple garden.

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: Yes. It is an award given by the students here. Every year, medical faculty students give this. There are 40-100 teachers who give a lecture to each class. They choose the best one among these teachers. And also they give a golden apple award to the teacher, who they choice. This situation is traditional here. Students choose the teacher and give them an apple. As a reward, they give golden apples to the teachers every year. Thank you to my student, they like and appreciate the lectures that I have given them. So, they gave me many golden apples. Also the other awards, the best teacher award, the best anatomy teacher award, and awards of the best teacher of all the medical faculty, have been given to me. After at one point, if you already have 3-5 gold apples, they put you in the status of Golden Orchard and after that you cannot be a candidate for new awards. They said, ‘Stand back, in order that the others are able to receive an award’. So, these are the prizes, of that I am really proud. Students appreciate your effort. I also had very good teachers when I was in university. My teachers were not only going to class, but also dedicating their life to their students. They were an example for me. I try to give to my own students what I got from them. I hope my students will do the same to their students in the future.

Didem Saraç: Most likely they will do the same. Because people do what they see. I mean, we try to give good and evil equally. You have succeeded in it, so that your students chose you as the teacher of the year. This is so nice. Probably your students will behave in the same way to the students they will educate. This is really nice. And it’s also very good that. Normally, teachers reward their students, but this time, the shoe is on the other foot. It is also nice that the given thing is an apple. It’s a nice symbol. I liked it very much when I had read it. In other words, I had found it humoristic. Of course, you are pleased as a teacher with your studies. But receiving a feedback from your students is also a satisfaction. At least, you can know better with this, where you are and whether you have done good things.

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: Students take it seriously. Golden apple awards are arranged once a year. They rent a hotel or a ballroom or something. It’s an evening ball. There are five candidates in each category, just like Oscar. The candidates of this year are these and these teachers. The envelope is opened. They say, ‘this year’s winner is this teacher’ and you get on the stage and then they give you the golden reward – not real golden-. Plaques of these awards have been hung on the university walls. All of them have listings. This award is given by the students. This is a ceremony that students organize to show their appreciation. But not only Georgetown but also other universities give importance to students’ opinions. Each professor gets marks from the students for each lesson and laboratory class. Not only teachers give marks to students, but also students give marks to teachers. So, when the university employs a professor, it pays attention to notes from those students. The students don’t just give notes, they also write the detailed report for every professor. ‘He does it well, he does it bad, he can make it right even more’. In other words, as a professor, you help yourself to improve yourself by reading these ratings. The university take into account these rating while evaluating a lecturer at the faculty. I mean, students’ thoughts set the tone of the university. They never ignore this.

Didem Saraç: This is not the situation that we see very often. Normally, the vertical management is in the issue. Also in companies, it is like that. But for some reason, horizontal management is quite rare because the founder at the top, in other word, the people at top management, are very timid. I guess this is because of the ego, but you give feedback and you take feedback, too. The aim here is to make studies better. This is quite clear. For this reason, to be applying this by all universities teach students to be fair in their future lives, as well as to criticize. Like they criticize themselves, they can be criticized. In fact, this should be denoted that it is mutual and that the aim here is to be able to develop the work and to attach importance to the given work. Well, towards the end of conversation, do you have any motto? I mean, what do you say to your students? Maybe in the first meet in the class, or do you give a motto to someone, who know you? Is there any motto in a corner of your mind when you wake up in the morning?

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: I say to students, ‘do not run away from difficulties.’ As a result, do not find a pretext, do not give up because it is difficult. NEVER GIVE UP! Don’t give up on your dreams. Do not let others saying that you cannot do this and do not let other directing your own life. Draw your own plan and decide what you want to do. If there is a hurdle in front of you, do not change your way. Find a way to overcome. If everyone had given up when they met with an obstacle, there would be no progress up until now. The progresses happen when something is overcome. When these obstacles are overcome, new information is created. So, don’t run away from difficulties. Come over the difficulties. Only then you can broaden your horizons, however then you can be a better person or more productive person. If it is easy, everyone can do that, but ‘hard’ does not mean impossible. That’s why I say to everyone, don’t run away from difficulties.

Didem Saraç: So nice. You actually say, ‘be a warrior’. Well, finally, what would you like to say to young people, young scientists? What suggestions would you like to make?

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: My biggest suggestion for young people is them following up the knowledge and the science. They should not be Facebook, Twitter, or Google youth that we see a lot on the street today. Do not believe everything you read on the Internet. Be sure that you are searching the source of information and questioning it. It’s not just for the internet. Do not be take someone at his word, who says ‘Look, there is that information on the internet’. Search the source. An article may have been published, even a scientific article. Read the article, how were gathered information in it? How it was analysed? Or is It correct? Question everything. Retrace the source of everything. Do not believe smatterings and the first thing that you search on Facebook, Twitter, Google. Believe in knowing the truth better, not because everyone knows it very well, not because everyone says it. Investigate the facts. Don’t take at face value.

Didem Saraç: Thank you so much. I am also in the technology industry. And technology has a good side and a bad side. We are now entering a technological period. When we use this to human account, only then it helps us. But if you really believe everything we see, as you said… There are a lot of misinformation and now it can reach everyone. For this reason, both our lives are getting worse and our level of knowledge decreases, as a result, we get off the point of research. If we can balance them together, we can be much more helpful. Our youth are the ones who should be able to do this. As you already know, most of our children are folic acid(intelligent) children. They are born very intelligent; they are born much more advanced than we are. We must direct their intelligence well, without forgetting research. Now there will be internet research, not from the books, everything will be reached digitally. I believe we can go to a more beautiful world if we can make it. At least we need that. We need to work, to fight, to hope and to always produce. Maybe we should bring it out every moment until we die.

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: That’s right.

Didem Saraç: Thank you very much, Mr. Aykut, for having this good time with us. It was a very nice conversation. You said somethings nice. I wish you continued success. We want to hear your good news. I hope you will achieve good results with these medicines. And that you have done all of these as a Turk is important. Thanks again.

Prof. Dr. Aykut Üren: Your welcome. I wish you have a nice day.

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