From Cupcakes to Custom-made Microscopes: The many talents of Kıvılcım Kılıç

In just over a year, Kıvılcım Kılıç has established herself as an indispensable member of the Neurophotonics Center at Boston University: filling such essential roles as providing expertise in both physiology and neuroscience, interfacing with establishing connections between other investigators throughout the Center and the university, and frequently pampering researchers with her homemade desserts. As if that weren’t enough, her passion for art in science has led to her creating medical illustrations to be published in prestigious academic journals. But how did she come to possess such wildly diverse talents, and how is she able to wield them so effectively? We checked in with Kılıç to learn more about her background and her integral role in the Center.

Developing a research mindset

Kıvılcım Kılıç at NPC, Boston University

Kılıç’s background is anything but ordinary. One of the first-ever joint MD-PhD candidates in Turkey, she began her medical training at 18 and her PhD at 19. She graduated from Hacettepe University Medical School five years later and immediately began her two years of obligatory medical service, overseeing an emergency department in Merzifon, Turkey. This proved a dramatic change from her student days, when she and others in her cohort were “constantly watched over by people who are more experienced in the area.” Now only 24 years old, she found herself making life-and-death decisions almost hourly while supervising everyone in the emergency room – even though all of the other staff members had at least 10 years more on-the-job experience than she did.

At first, she says, she often had doubts about herself and her work. With the experience and support of the other staff, though, her doubts slowly disappeared. The sense of comradery among the staff – the ‘we’re all in the same boat together’ ethos – imparted lessons she carries with her to this day. “This was the moment that I started appreciating being a part of the team,” she says, “training others, learning from others and leaning on others regardless of age, seniority or degree.”

Team work (and fun) at Boston University. From left to right: John ‘Jack’ Giblin, Kıvılcım Kılıç, Shen Ning, Nathan Perkins, Evren Erdener, Xiaojun Cheng, Sreekanth Kura, Chang Liu, Jiarui Yang

After her service ended, Kılıç returned to Hacettepe University Neurological Sciences and Psychiatry Institute to continue her doctoral training. Over the next several years she devoted herself to training in the neurobiological sciences but also to developing a mindset that would lead her to a successful career in research. “It is not the techniques you have already learned how to use,” she says, “but the willingness to try something different on a daily basis. It is sometimes being stubborn and arguing your point of view when you have enough data to prove it, and other times accepting that you simply do not know the answer to the question. Most people see a PhD as a way to get respect or a better salary, but I was always opposed to this point of view. It is about being open-minded and accepting change as it comes. It is more of a lifestyle than a bunch of nonsensical letters following your name.”

Her choices paid off. As she was wrapping up her doctoral training, she was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from the International Headache Society to work at the University of California, San Diego, working with Anna Devor, principal investigator of the Neurovascular Imaging Lab there.

With Devor, whom Kılıç describes as “an excellent mentor as well as a brilliant scientist,” she focused mainly on dissecting the neural circuitry to see the specific effects of neurons on neurovascular coupling. She also spent time developing various awake imaging techniques in chronic settings (> 6 months) in mouse models. It was through the latter project that she met and started collaborating with David Boas, director of the Neurophotonics Center at BU. As her postdoctoral fellowship was winding down, Boas offered her a job.

The “principal emotional stabilizer” and baker of the Center

Kılıç’s position in the BU Neurophotonics Center encompasses two important roles. As a research scientist working in the Biomedical Engineering Department, she engages in a range of studies aiming to develop novel or improved imaging tools especially for neuroscience and apply these tools to better understand physiological or pathologic processes. She also serves as the manager for the Center. In this position, she interacts with faculty, students and staff about a range of internal projects and collaborations, teaching, writing grants and other, related work.

Currently, she is working on or collaborating with more than 30 projects. These run the gamut from developing novel imaging technologies – including custom-made two- and three-photon microscopes and a variety of wearable microscopes – to applying techniques such as optical coherence tomography and laser speckle contrast imaging to better understand the brain mechanisms of stroke, traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, among other diseases.

Kılıç takes a moment to walk us through a couple of the projects currently under way. One is a collaboration with graduate student Smrithi Sunil and research technician Blaire Lee in which they are seeking to understand the vascular and cellular changes in the acute and chronic phases following a stroke in a mouse model and to find new treatments that might ultimately yield better outcomes. She adds: “Another project that I am really excited about – with another of our graduate students, John ‘Jack’ Giblin – is measuring the oxygen pressure in vasculature using phosphorescent two-photon imaging. This tool will allow us to track the changes in the levels of oxygen pressure due to vascular pathologies and provide a mechanism for cellular death or compromise.”

Giblin notes just how integral Kılıç has been, both to this project and to the Center generally. With respect to the latter, he describes her as a “major resource” in the Center for both physiology and neuroscience – in no small part because of her formal training as both an MD and a neuroscience PhD – and as an important conduit connecting people and ideas across labs. “There are very few people in the community she does not seem to know or have at least interacted with or advised,” he says.

Indeed, Kılıç’s contributions to the Center extend well beyond her responsibilities as a research scientist and NPC manager. Postdoctoral fellow Evren Erdener describes her as both “the principal emotional stabilizer and the baker of the team,” adding that the two roles are surely related.

Some of Kıvılcım Kılıç’s sweet creations

And then, of course, there are her contributions as a teacher and mentor, laced with the lessons about community and helping one another she learned during her medical service in Turkey. Shen Ning, a GPN MD-PhD candidate and professional development co-chair of New England Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (NE GWISE), of which Kılıç is a member, sums up these contributions nicely: “Kıvılcım is a dedicated mentor for students and postdocs in the lab,” Shen says. “She sets an example for what research ought to be: fun but rigorous. As a teacher, her patience and attention to detail is unparalleled. As a mentor, she brings out the passion and excellence that make the Neurophotonics Center so productive. She inspires her students to not only contribute to science, but to change science to be a more inclusive and invigorating environment.”

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