Aysegul Birand: A Turkish scientist in the Himalayas

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birand

The guest in our series of interviews with scientists around Turkey is now Assoc. Prof. Dr. Aysegul Birand. Despite spending her childhood in different parts of Turkey, Birand also squeezed three continents into her academic research life. After getting her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in biology at Middle East Technical University (METU), she climbed on trees in the rainforests of Indian Peninsula, discovered species, and got her PhD degree in biology at New Mexico State University in the USA. Her endless researcher spirit dragged her from fallow deer to carnivorous mammals to birds. She is now working on mathematical models in speciation field at METU and giving exciting and groundbreaking courses to students, which has them looking for the unanswered questions in ecology and evolution. Let’s hear her.

“Most of my childhood was spent in the nature”

Bilgenur Baloglu– On behalf of Bilim.org, I would like to thank you for accepting my request to having an interview. Your childhood and youth may have had some influence on your personal and academic life and your view of biology. Could you please tell us about yourself?

Aysegul Birand – I was not a child running after a worm or a bird but most of my childhood was spent in the nature. My father was working in State Hydraulic Works, so I actually grew up in dams. We lived in Manavgat-Antalya for a long time, then in Bafra-Samsun and in the capital Ankara since the middle school years. Until I started middle school, I was always on the street, playing and so nature was always important for me. I actually wanted to be an architect, and everyone encouraged me since I was talented in drawings and math courses. I love architecture but could not imagine myself working in an office. I chose biology because I had to be in the nature or at least do something related to nature.

– Did your family have an influence on your decision?

No, they said ‘do not choose biology,’ ‘what will you do, be a lycee biology teacher only?’ It was the general case at that time, you just study something and then be appointed as a teacher in high schools. Hence, they motivated me for architecture but did not say anything when I chose biology.

The reason I chose METU was the Underwater Association (SAT).”

– Your Bachelor’s degree is from METU. Why did you choose this university?

In fact, the reason I chose METU was the Underwater Association (SAT). They had articles in the (Turkish daily) Newspaper Cumhuriyet. On their excursions they sometimes were finding archeological submerged remains. I did not know whether they were a student association, a major or a master’s program but wanted to join them still. My motivation was not biology, but rather SAT for choosing METU. I knew that the bachelors program at METU was strongly concentrated on molecular biology, and the subjects appealing to me were mainly at Hacettepe University.

– So did you join this and other students groups after starting your undergraduate studies?

Yes, I did. I was very active at SAT throughout my undergraduate years and also many years after that. I also attended cross country skiing training at Mountaneering and Winter Sports Association (DKSK).

– While studying biology, did you have a preference for a particular major/field to work on for your postgraduate career?

SAT was satisfying me for being out in the nature but my grades were not that good, because I did not like the molecular work much, I was an average student. Although it was an optional subject, I would not choose biology in my high school years, the molecular part was just not appealing to me. In my final year at the university, Prof. Can Bilgin started teaching an Animal Diversity course, and also Sargun Tont’s Ecology and Meryem Beklioglu’s Freshwater Ecology courses got my interest. When I finally was able to take courses that I was interested in, I could increase my average score and the courses were a lot more fun, too. Then I stayed at Bilgin’s lab for my master’s degree.

– What was your master’s project about?

We were going to study the fallow deer (Cervus dama) population at Duzlercami National Park (Antalya), of which the individual numbers were quite low. We could not see any deer during many of the field excursions. Then I was awarded a scholarship to study in India. One of the researchers there was studying fecal extracts from carnivorous animals. By working on fecal samples, one can understand the diet and habitat use of animals. After I came back to Turkey, we changed my subject to carnivores.

– Working in Nature Conservation Foundation and Wildlife Institute of India, you gained paramount experience in field work. You also wrote popular science articles about your work at Atlas magazine. Could you please tell us more about the projects you contributed to?

The Ministry of National Education were giving scholarships to many different countries under the name of the Cultural Exchange Program. They published one list with the country names, there was China, India, Israel and many others. To me, India was very interesting, well I could also choose a country in Africa if there were any, but hearing fascinating things about tigers and field work oppportunities in India made me choose there. Upon winning the scholarship, I suspended my studies and went to India. But preparation for getting there took a long time. India had its own list for the places I could work. We started corresponding by mail frequently but for a long time I heard nothing. If burocracy is one office in Turkey, I would say it is 100 offices in India. I applied in March and received the letter in July, which stated that I was supposed to be there by August! So I went there hastily. For one year, I joined the field work excursions of the postgraduate students there. The institute had many research projects and field stations all over India, hence I could visit many national parks during my stay. I also attended courses and worked on deers, where we did transect studies. That is when I realized that studying fallow deer would be quite tough in Duzlercami National Park, because their numbers were very low and the animals seemed to be scared, you could not even see them properly. We only had a chance for working on scat samples.

– You said you were analysing these fecal samples, what kind of information you can derive from them about the deer populations?

I mainly studied the fecal samples of carnivores, you can basically understand their diet and also do biochemical analysis. Moreover, you can do DNA analysis of the species. Upon my arrival to Turkey, I understood that I could not study this fallow deer, because it was hard to collect information due to their low number.

I started working on birds in Eastern Himalayas.”

– What did you do after getting your masters degree?

After completing my thesis on carnivores, I again went to India. I got married with a friend from that institute. Together, we wrote a project proposal about Eastern Himalayas. Since it is very close to Bangladesh Gulf, there is enormous amount of rain and the Himalayas rise up very steeply from the sea level, hence all the humidity just stays there. You can see tropical rainforest at 26th Parallel North there, imagine it occurs in Southern Turkey! That place is as if it emerges from the textbooks, the biodiversity is enormously high. For instance, there are 680 bird species in one of the national parks, as a reference point it is around 460 in whole Turkey. My ex-husband was working with reptiles such as snakes and frogs, and I started working on birds.

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– Could you please give out more details about that ‘natural lab’ you were working in?

Eastern Himalayas are located in the east of Bangladesh, there are roughly 9 states, which are independent from mainland India, so to speak autonomous regions. Even the Indian people living in the mainland could get there only with a special permission, and that was only for a short-term visit. Because there are indigenous people and tribal communities, of which the culture mainly resembles Bhurma, they had strict rules and regulations in order to protect biological and cultural diversity, and that made it even harder for foreigners to get there.

– Seemingly, it was quite compelling by bureaucratic manners, what other difficulties did you encounter?

After mailing back and forth for a long time, we were able to get the permission, but finding funding was also a big issue. Nature Conservation Foundation recruited us as researchers, and they were very interested in our project too. Besides us, they had two or three more researchers in that region.

– Was your project only about recording the bird diversity, or did you study other species as well?

We studied diversity of reptiles, amphibians (A/N: Organisms living both in the land and in the water) and birds. Due to the isolation of the area from humans, there was not much work done to record the species diversity there, hence we did not know what species were there and in which distribution.

How did you decide working in that area, particularly?

My ex-husband finished his masters degree in a national park in that region and was thus very interested in the species distribution there. I thought it was a good opportunity to get to know that place. But I was not a birder, have not studied birds before. For 6-7 months, I studied from the ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent’ book sentence by sentence, such as the spot on the wing of this species, the particular function of that beak etc. There were in total 1200 bird species, and I studied them through book without yet observing them in the field. After getting theoretical background and information, we went out to the field. Afterwards, we stayed out in the field for 9 months, with binoculars hanged on our necks. It was a very educational time period. We visited 9 national parks, and got lots of results out of our study.

Where did you stay, in tents most of the time?

We were not even setting tents, mainly sleeping in the field with no cover, nothing. We almost spent a month in each national park. Funding, writing the project proposals, field work they all took very long time of us.

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What did you do after India days?

After we got back, we had many results, when compiled it was almost equal to a PhD project. We had a lot of data accumulated throughout these nine months, so we tried to put them in order and extract the main ideas. It was a very fruitful and mind-boggling period. My ex-husband started his PhD in the US, and so did I. I started mine at New Mexico State University.

“I find it hard to enjoy biology only through textbooks.”

After studying biology in both your undergraduate and postgraduate studies and doing intensive field work, you decide to switch your field and start studying in mathematical modeling of ecology and evolutionary biology subjects. How did that happen?

Fieldwork is absolutely joyful, that is what biology is all about. Without seeing the field conditions and biodiversity out there and only through textbooks, I find it hard to enjoy biology. But the truth is that you need to commit yourself to one place. For a certain question you ask in any of the field works, you need at least 5-10 years of data collection. It is hard to find answers in a short time period. The fieldwork itself is not the hardest part, but data collection is. I did not want to stay in one place that long and therefore wanted to use my experience to answer more general questions. The questions that excite me now have actually come from my time spent doing fieldwork. I started studying speciation with the question lingered in my mind: Why is there such a high amount of species diversity?

Why did you specifically apply PhD program in New Mexico State University (NMSU), but nowhere else?

I initially had to choose a subject, and at that time I was still working on birds in tropical rainforest. It took me a while to choose a question, then I decided to study speciation and found the academic stuff working in that field. My mentor (Daniel Howard) was working at NMSU, he was a prominent scientist in his field and a prolific writer having many articles being published. He did lots of research with having read the literature in speciation field starting from 1800s, and so he was very knowledgeable. I started studying under his mentorship upon his acceptance. He left me a big space for my freedom and supported me for studying modeling. I did a minor with mathematics when I was there; also the faculty supported me by means of taking courses and providing the requirements. Everything was in order basically.

I noticed one thing, most of the time you worked interdisciplinary, in your work we can see the contribution of biology, mathematics, fieldwork and ecology. The biology education in Turkey however is mainly based on memorization and that may be the reason why the students run away from biology. How do you think our biology education should be tailored?

This subject is very problematic. I did not choose the optional biology course during my high school years, because it was only taxonomy and species categorization focused on, which I found not very appealing. We need radical changes in our understanding of education. While I was graduating from my undergraduate studies, I had the feeling that everything was found and we already knew everything. You are exposed to all bunch of information in the classroom. But the lacking part is that there is neither synthesis of the information nor of what is unknown in the field. All of the system is based on the information given to you, and you have to give it back to the lecturer.

But there is no analysis of the information and its combination with other studies, right?

Currently within classroom teaching it is rarely mentioned that many things are unknown, failing to increase the students excitement about them. On the other hand, there are many questions that matter in the scientific world, and they may not necessarily overthrow what we know by today but generate excitement. However, they do not actually reflect on our education system. Hence, if you can give the already known things in encyclopedic information set, you get the credit, otherwise you do not.

If we get back to India, the research you conducted there made you excited, and you also discovered new species, right?

For someone coming from the temperate region the tropics are already very exciting. While working in the field, you already notice the paramount amount of unknowns, ranging from the number of species to their distribution. I was not able to conceive the idea of discovering new species. I thought to myself ‘do not we already know all of them?’ In fact there are many places undiscovered, and maybe millions of species not being recorded. Hence, I learned the dynamism of biology in the field.

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Since the places you worked were tropical, they were also biodiversity hotpots. Did your work anyhow intervene with the national park regulations aiming to protect the biodiversity or they were already very well protected?

Some regions were already declared as national parks, for which the main motivation was the aim of protecting the tiger population. In order to develop a logical conservation method, you need information, and as I previously mentioned the species diversity and distribution in that region were not yet known. I assume that in a long term, our research results will be useful as they provide information. In one of our studies that was published, we conducted a research on the single-species based management. We got interesting results regarding to conservation methods. For instance, bird protection comes after the big mammals, and it drove us to the following question: Can we predict the distribution of amphibians and reptiles by looking at the bird diversity? Well, not really. We actually need to protect different group in several levels. Our institute conducted biodiversity research for many years. One of our colleagues (Aparajita Datta) was studying hornbill (a type of bird, lat. Bucerotidae) and she recently received one of England’s the most prestigious environment award, Whitley. Professor Cagan Sekercioglu also received 20th year Whitley Gold Award, which is again a prestigious international nature conservation prize.

– In Turkey currently dams are built and deforestation is taking place in protected areas and national parks while the policymakers are shutting their eyes to scientific knowledge and data. For instance, there are 249 bird species in Aras River Wetlands, that is roughly the half of the bird species of Turkey and it is one of the richest places for mammals and reptiles. However, despite a large amount of NGO work and scientific studies against it, government has plans to build the dam. How much do you think the scientific knowledge is included in policy-making and decision-making processes?

We are in a tragic situation by means of conservation. Scientific knowledge is not applied well enough but spreading the word is the matter of self-devotion and personal effort. For example, Cagan Sekercioglu initiated a petition at Change.org to prevent the dam construction at Aras bird paradise. He is constantly lobbying in Turkey, trying to reach more people about the importance of this river valley. Under his leadership, KuzeyDoga Society conducts various research projects. There are many other NGOs too, such as Doga Koruma Merkezi (Nature Conservation Center (DKM)), and basically it all comes down to personal effort.

”In India, you can immediately see whatever you do comes at a price.”

– In the early 2000’s you wrote at Atlas magazine about your projects, and seemingly you also like to give voice to your studies. Could you give more details about what you wrote?

Actually, writing in the magazine was from the help of my friend (Gokhan Tan) from SAT, who was working there. He was also in Amateur Photographers Society (AFT) during university years, and very keen in photography. He encouraged me to write about all of the places I went out to explore. Initially 9 months of fieldwork experience was very intense, I took some pictures but mainly focused on data collection and research part. When I got back, I showed the pictures to Gokhan, he liked those but found them insufficient. Later on, I went to the same region again for a month for only taking pictures but with the support from Atlas. Getting there takes a long time that is roughly 8 days for a round trip. I also went to Southern India to meet my friends and took pictures there too and as a result, I wrote two articles in a row. There are many stories to write about, and you can definitely see the human pressure. India’s surface area is four times of Turkey, and the population is more than ten times that of Turkey. Some ingredients of the tea we drink in Turkey comes from India. Most of the tea plantations are crossing their borders into rainforests and in order to produce more tea and coffee, the trees are cut down. In India, you can immediately see whatever you do comes at a price. It was a good opportunity for me to write about all those, Atlas supported me and I wrote those articles very eagerly and happily.

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– You must be publishing your current modeling work but do you also aim to write them in a more simplistic, so to speak in a popular scientific way?

I did not have much of a chance when I was in abroad. Of course, with my colleagues from the US working on ecology and evolution fields and also friends from SAT, we sometimes encouraged each other for writing to certain magazines, for which each of us writes about their own specialization. We wrote to NTV Bilim (science magazine) two times about speciation and diversity. It has been a long time since the last article was out but whenever possible, I like to write.

– Are you still in contact with your colleagues from previous institutes? How much do you value the collaboration in your academic career?

There are two chapters from my PhD project that I still cannot look through. We are still e-mailing each other with the academic stuff from Faculty of Maths, and I can always ask questions to my PhD advisor. We are working on similar projects and we also plan to start a new project bringing together our knowledge and shared ideas. And yes, I do collaborate.

– Currently you are teaching Adaptation & Speciation and Evolution courses. When did you start teaching at METU? Do you teach some other courses as well?

I was teaching modeling for undergraduates and ecology course for last semester. I started at METU in 2011 and that was by chance. I came for a visit at the time I was doing my post-doc in the USA, and whenever I do so, I visit the staff. I met Prof. Beklioglu, and she told me ‘Come back, let’s provide a staff position to you at METU.’ I said, if METU would call me, I would love to come. They did indeed, and that is how I came back. I was thinking about coming back to Turkey, as the US is quite far away. METU was a place I wanted to be in, however I was not sure if they would be interested since my research focuses on speciation and modeling but not molecular work.

– What are your insights when you compare the grant and research opportunities between the US and Turkey?

Research is hard in the US, you need be competitive and prolific enough to deal with the pressure. It is necessary to get high number of grants and publish a lot. The situation in Turkey is less competitive, but of course you need to publish a lot here too. The main problem of the academics face in Turkey is that they are spending a greater proportion of their time teaching, which leaves relatively little time for research. In the US, academics can teach a course per semester. When they find grants, they have a chance of not teaching at all. The courses they are teaching are generally in post-graduate level in their own research field. Therefore, they can follow the literature more often, be competitive and collaborative. However, here is little time left to research, since we have to prepare lecture materials and teach many modules. The pressure here is rather different, and the funding is less compared to the US. If you want to receive generous grants from Europe, then you need to be very competitive, which means you do not have any private life at all.

– Can you propose any solutions to enhance academics and distribute more time to research?

Teaching requirements should be reduced. The presence of adjunct faculty is a great solution in US universities. There are many PhD students not doing intensive research and they teach many of the undergraduate-level courses. The distinction between lecturer and researcher should also be integral in our system. Furthermore, the students applying to post-graduate studies in the US are already motivated and self-sufficient in terms of conducting a project on their own. However, several students in Turkey are applying to grad school when they want to postpone their military service or cannot find a ‘proper’ job. The number of motivated students is very low, and it is definitely exciting to mentor them! But if only one out of twenty is interested in doing active research, you still need to make enormous efforts for all the twenty. Thus, most of our energy is already deprived.

– How many students do you have? What are your research projects about?

I have four students at the moment and our study focuses in general on speciation. Three of them have just started and one is about to graduate. Sexual selection is one of the factors effecting speciation patterns. A new hypothesis suggests that the species having colorful females can have higher chance of mating and finding new habitats. Sexual dimorphism in terms of coloration is well-observed for male individuals, for instance when you look at the species composed of colorful males and duller females you can see that they are able to spread to larger ranges. We may be able to assert the increase of coloration in females over time. We looked at the pattern analysis in some of the bird groups and observed interesting results that we plan to publish in the near future.

– Do you plan to work outside of Turkey for small or long term periods?

It would be nice to do some short-term work outside of METU. Sometimes the teaching tasks may be quite heavy. Academics have a right for sabbatical leave each 6-7 years and I would definitely make use of that opportunity. We can also collaborate with academics from abroad, but I have not really thought of leaving METU for longer time periods.

– You are also teaching Evolution. The Evrim Agaci (literally means Evolution Tree) founded by METU Biology and Genetics Society (in Turkish, abbr. Biyogen) promotes public awareness and understanding of evolution theory. By explaining the scientific facts in a popular jargon, they can talk directly to large audiences. Where do you think we are in teaching evolution theory in Turkey?

To tell the truth, I am not (yet) very experienced in teaching evolution, Prof. Aykut Kence has more to say. Of course we see the disproportionate amount of misunderstanding of evolution theory in media, but there is also Evrimi Anlamak (website translated from ‘Understanding Evolution’) website, and many other encouraging works to teach the topic of evolution to a wider audience. I am hopeful, after all

“Students should know that there are many open-ended questions in biology.”

– What would you like to say to the students applying to your laboratory?

Having 4 current students is my upper limit. My door is always open to students willing to do modeling in evolutionary biology. They need to have both mathematical and computational skills as we will either need to solve equations or write codes.

– The process of applying to graduate schools is a bit tough. Do you have any suggestions for students who are interested in pursuing an academic career?

If they really want to do it, it is not that hard if they can manage it. In order to ‘survive’ they need to push hard and be aggressive. When they face up to this and are willing to spare good proportion of their time to do research, there is no reason for getting rejected. What I can suggest is to find a subject first. It is important to specify what they want to study. The next step would be to do a literature search to see what has and has not been found in that area, say as of 2013, this way they can also contact current researchers. They need to excite the potential advisor by the things they write, like how motivated they are. Once they are interested, these things will happen in a row.

– As a final question, what do would you like to say to our readers about biology and doing science in general ?

There are many open-ended questions in biology. Nothing has completed, books are not closed yet. In the recent years, a lot of data has been collected. Biology is no longer limited by the lack of information as there is indeed too much data to handle. It is important to communicate with people, hear what they work on, ask how much of their work is related to yours and think about the ways to contribute and do collaborative work. Keep on talking to people and know that there are always open questions to delve into. Nothing is complete yet, there are so many things to do.

– Dr. Birand, it has been a great pleasure. Thank you for talking in this interview for Bilim.org.

Thank you.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Francesca McGrath for her proofreading, editing and invaluable comments. Many thanks to Umit Buyukyildirim for always encouraging me for writing at Bilim.org (Turkish science website), honoring me with the title of Editor at Bilim.org and helping me editing the photos for this interview. Many thanks to Atlas Magazine for digging into the archives and providing me these amazing photographs. Thanks also go to friends who encouraged me for publishing this interview, hence they could read it. And last but not least, thank you, readers! 

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About gezginbilge

Bir sürü şey severim aslında, müzik (şarkı söylemek), tiyatro (oynamak, hayattan beslenmeyi öğrenmek), fotoğraf (çekmek, üzerine düşünmek, makine), okçuluk (hedefi ondan vurmanın uğraş isteyen bir şey olduğunu öğrenmek), yüzmek, seyahat (dünyanın her yerine gitme isteği, insan tanımak), doğa sporları (dağcılık, bisiklet, kayaya tırmanmak, ağaca tırmanmak), ekoloji, yeryüzündeki biyoçeşitlilik, koruma biyolojisi, bakteriler, evrimsel biyoloji, genetik, yazmak (yazmak için seyahat etmek) gibi..

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