Seizing Career Opportunities in Turkey

Credit: Courtesy of Cory Dunn

Not 2 years ago, American Cory Dunn was a postdoc researching cell signaling in New York City and hoping for a faculty job. Today, he's advertising job opportunities at a new molecular biology and genetics department he's helping to start -- in Turkey. Dunn, 33, is a member of a growing cohort of researchers trained in the United States who, often for family reasons, seek (and often find) their scientific fortunes in Turkey.

Although moving to Turkey was a risk, “the opportunity to start a whole new department is not something that many people get to take advantage of in their career,” especially so early, Cory says.

Establishing a lab in Turkey can take a bit longer than in other places because new faculty members there usually don’t receive start-up funds, getting supplies and attracting good postdocs can be difficult, and teaching loads tend to be heavy. But research funding in Turkey has increased rapidly in recent years, which translates into new job opportunities. “There is still a skepticism when you talk to people, that it is the right time to come back,” Dunn says. But when candidates “see what we’ve been able to build in a year’s time, ... they become less skeptical.”

Unusual opportunities

Cory and Gülayşe İnce Dunn, his scientist wife, began thinking about working in Turkey, Gülayşe’s homeland, after they started a family. Gülayşe’s mother had come to New York to help take care of their new baby, and moving to Turkey would ensure that she could continue to help.

Cory went on a scouting trip to investigate job opportunities in Turkey. An offer came from Koç University, a private research university in Istanbul that was setting up a new department. Cory joined as a full-time assistant professor. The university hired Gülayşe later.

As one of the university's first assistant professors, Cory was involved in setting up the new program. He helped design the laboratories, supervise their construction, and equip them with standard molecular biology gear, much of it to be shared. More than a year later, the new department is nearly up and running. The next big task is now to recruit five more faculty members.

In addition to paying to equip the new labs, the university gave the Dunns funding for at least a year’s worth of supplies for their research -- a luxury in Turkey, where researchers usually rely on grants for all of their funds, including start-up. Still, "there was an element of trust" in moving to Turkey, Cory says, since the university did not contractually guarantee any of the money.

Cory Dunn (Courtesy of Gülayşe İnce Dunn)

For additional funding, the Dunns, like most Turkish researchers, turned to Turkish and European sources. Europe came through: Last year, Cory received a European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Installation Grant for his lab in mitochondrial biogenesis, and Gülayşe won a Marie Curie International Reintegration Grant from the European Commission to study how single genes can yield different protein products in neurons. The grants will allow them to buy more supplies and perhaps hire a postdoc or technician. The Dunns, whose research interests are distinct but overlapping, have opted for sharing lab space until they hire enough students that the lab gets crowded.

The logistics of doing science in Turkey can be harder than in countries with scientific infrastructures that are better developed. For example, although everyday chemicals take only a day or two to reach U.S. labs, they can take up to 12 weeks to reach Turkish labs. That’s in part because they get delayed at the border but mostly because the supply companies don’t treat the orders as a priority, Cory says. A silver lining, he says, is that Turkish scientists have developed an ethic of planning ahead and sharing, which keeps costs down.

Although moving to Turkey was a risk, “the opportunity to start a whole new department is not something that many people get to take advantage of in their career,” especially so early, Cory says. Should things not work out in the next few years, he says, he can always return to another postdoctoral position in the United States.

Funding on the rise

Since a severe economic crisis in 2001,"Turkey has demonstrated remarkable progress,” says a 2010 report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, almost tripling its R&D expenditure between 2002 and 2007. Turkey's fast-growing economy is among the 20 largest in the world, and by 2008 Turkey was spending 0.73% of its gross domestic product on R&D, a larger percentage than Poland or the Slovak Republic, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Turkey has also worked to welcome foreign researchers by accepting grant applications written in English, making work permits and citizenship easier to get, and offering help in finding a job and settling in the country by participating in the European Commission’s EURAXESS mobility network.


Turkish nationals take a bigger risk when they return to Turkey to work, Cory says, because they often have to give up hard-won residency documents from other countries. (Gülayşe now has the advantage of dual U.S. and Turkish citizenship.) Yet some returning Turkish researchers -- including many who left the country in the 1990s to study abroad, often with scholarships from the Turkish government -- feel pushed home by the difficulty of obtaining the right to live and work abroad, or by anti-Muslim sentiment. Family and cultural connections pull others toward home. Whether pushed or pulled, most are eager to return.

Amitav Sanyal (Courtesy of Ozgul Gok.)

That’s true of Rana Sanyal, 37, an organic and medicinal chemist. Six years ago, she was working in private industry in California while her India-born husband, polymer and material chemist Amitav Sanyal, 39, worked as a lecturer at California State University. They were happy in their careers but wanted to raise their son in Turkey, near family and closer to India.

Rana Sanyal (Courtesy of Ozgul Gok.)

In 2004, the Sanyals found assistant professorships in the same department at Boğaziçi University, a public university in Istanbul. Both won career grants from the university and the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. In 2008, Novartis supported their joint work on chemotherapy delivery agents with its Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry Drug Design and Development Research Award. Rana won a Marie Curie International Reintegration Grant and a national fellowship from L'Oreal.

Upon returning, Rana was surprised to see how much the quality of life in Turkey had improved since she left in 1994. Infrastructure, bureaucracy, and banking services had all improved, she says. The Sanyals have a shared office where their son can play after school. “Here it is understood that we want to spend time with our kids,” Rana says, “and this is not looked upon as unprofessional.”

Finding a new home

Like Cory Dunn, American neuroscientist Michelle Adams, 42, has found an attractive opportunity in Turkey. Upon winning a coveted Mentored Research Scientist Development Award from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Adams took a nontenure-track assistant professor position at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Three years in, she sought work elsewhere, including Turkey (her partner is Turkish). Her best offer came from the private Bilkent University in Ankara. She has been an assistant professor there since late 2009.

Michelle Adams (Courtesy of Michelle Adams)

There is no neuroscience department at Bilkent, so Adams joined a new psychology department. She won an EMBO Installation Grant and plans to use it to continue her research into the effects of caloric restriction on aging in the brain, switching from rats to zebrafish to take advantage of the "excellent" zebrafish facility at Bilkent.

Adams teaches two courses each semester (in English, as at many universities in Turkey), and she has no teaching assistants. “That’s a pretty heavy load,” she says. She quickly adjusted to the culture thanks to her university’s support for foreign faculty and the openness of her colleagues and students. When she had to teach on Christmas last year, her students brought her flowers. “Immediately, you feel like you’re part of a Turkish family when you come to Turkey,” she says.

Stepping outside of the American research environment was daunting. “You do feel a little bit like once you leave, you shut a door that you can’t open again.” But her American mentors' and peers' encouragement during the transition surprised and emboldened her. “My plan is to stay.”

Chelsea Wald is a freelance writer in Vienna.

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