For Caglar Elbuken, the only way to answer his research questions is to cross scientific borders
Oulu is the perfect place for research
Caglar Elbuken freely utilizes the different approaches of different disciplines and boldly builds new technologies to best serve his problem-oriented research. Both his scientific background as well as the diverse research group he has established in Oulu embody this truly interdisciplinary way of conducting research.
In Oulu professor Elbuken conducts state of the art research in microfluidics aiming to understand fluid behaviour at micro and nanoscale. His current projects are focused on self-assembling cell-like structures leading to artificial organs, advanced nanovesicle separation technologies and understanding vascularization process. His visionary research has been granted prestigious research funding from Academy of Finland as well as European Research Council (ERC).
Originating from Türkiye, Elbuken has worked on many continents and in many institutions. What then made him apply for a position in Oulu? He hadn’t even thought of moving to Finland, but in year 2019 he was looking for opportunities to expand his research on applications in life sciences as he had been working in his alma mater Bilkent. By chance he came across a post on the internet from University of Oulu, Finland, that seemed like it was written especially for him. “I told my wife that there’s this post, but they have forgotten to write my name on it,” Elbuken recollects with a twinkle in his eye.
So, he applied for the position, and he soon found himself in Oulu for the interview for the position.
Having no prior experience in Nordic countries, Elbuken was not sure what to expect at University of Oulu, but during his interview he was impressed both by the high quality of the infrastructure and the friendly atmosphere at Oulu. This sealed his choice on where to go next.
In early 2020 Elbuken arrived in Oulu to establish his own research group, the Elbuken Lab, which now consists of biochemists, biologists, physicists as well as mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineers. This multidisciplinary group is able to solve research problems that would be beyond the scope of any one discipline.
One of the primary topics the group is working with is producing artificial cell-like structures and studying their interactions with each other and biological entities. When advanced far enough, this basic knowledge could enable even building artificial organs, so the applications are almost limitless. But organ-like structures need a way to transport energy, nutrients, and other materials, and therefore the group’s second spearhead is to research how vascularization is formed. They are looking at this from a very fundamental perspective using physics and distribution of fluids in branching networks.
I think we have the right people to talk to each other, and to get this research done. In that sense I’m very lucky with our current research group. It’s also a unique opportunity for them as well: I think it’s quite rewarding for people to have the ground to learn about other ways of doing research, for example a physicist learning handling cell cultures,” Elbuken describes his group’s chemistry.
For Elbuken, Oulu as a city is also favorable for research. There’s high quality infrastructure and facilities and an openness of culture that makes interaction easy. Everything is also close so commuting doesn’t take time away from research. “If you are really in the mindset of doing research, it’s the perfect place, as you can really focus while enjoying the amenities of a city and being very close to nature.”
An interdisciplinary journey
Instead of following a straight path during his career, Elbuken has gone where interesting opportunities have opened and built on his previous expertise to learn more. His career has taken him from academia to industry and back, and from continent to continent. Starting with electronics and mechanical engineering he then took a jump into life science, then to material science, and is now working with medicine and biochemistry.
From early on Caglar Elbuken was interested in understanding different lifeforms, and especially life under water fascinated him. He never dreamed of becoming a researcher, though, and his bachelor’s studies were practically oriented as he first studied electrical and electronics engineering in Bilkent University, Ankara, Türkiye, focusing on 3G telecommunication in early 2000s.
For his master’s studies Elbuken moved to Canada to study mechanical engineering in the University of Waterloo, but to better enable his research interests he started in a doctoral programme before finishing his master’s. As a postdoctoral researcher he joined a research group that was studying microfluidics. “Up until then I was mostly an electronics and mechanics guy, but I was very much interested in and looking for a path to life sciences. Microfluidics was the easiest route for me to achieve this goal,” he reflects on his new direction.
Working with microfluidics opened the door to industry, as Elbuken’s supervisor recommended him to a position as a research scientist at Abbott Point-of-Care. At Abbott he got to work with very practical applications of microfluidics in disease diagnostics. He also learned the dynamics of the healthcare industry and the regulatory processes required for translation of results from laboratory to the market. However, the revenue-centric view of the industry and sticking to pre-existing applications and technologies soon proved too limiting for Elbuken’s thirst for knowledge.
To be able to widen his scope and steam up his curiosity, Elbuken returned to academia, and he found himself back in his alma mater Bilkent University where he joined the relatively young National Nanotechnology Research Center (UNAM) as part of the Material Science and Nanotechnology. Material science was another addition to Elbuken’s proficiency, that enabled him to start his next career stage in Oulu a few years later. “I have worked with world-class researchers at UNAM, where nanotechnology provided a nice shelter for the truly interdisciplinary research. At one time, there was 6 on-going ERC projects at UNAM and I was continuously exposed to cutting-edge science.”
During his journey towards scientific excellence Elbuken has learned that working hard, focusing on the moment, and feeding the curiosity with continuous learning as well as enjoying what you do leads to success and that new success builds on the previous ones. During his years as a researcher, he has learned to trust and find joy in this process. He even considers his greatest accomplishment his ability to jump from one context to another, away from his comfort zone, and each time establish something new.
All the experiences on his journey have enriched how Elbuken approaches research: “I have worked with researchers from many different disciplines, and I carry that experience with me to new problems.” His journey has built a unique combination of skills and knowledge that have enabled him to become a leader of a truly interdisciplinary research group and project.
“The boundaries are artificial”
One theme that seems to have followed Elbuken throughout his career is shying away from boundaries. When working in industry, he felt limited by the need to stick to existing applications, so he found a way to work more freely. When working in academia, financial limitations sometimes made it difficult to realize his big ideas, so he looked for a more favorable environment.
In his work Elbuken prefers not to be limited by disciplinary boundaries, and quite on the contrary, he not only enjoys combining expertise from different areas but sees it as a prerequisite for answering complex problems.
“I do not have an agenda to keep my research multidisciplinary. It is just that due to the nature of the questions we ask, we have to resort to different sources, different types of journals and scientific domains. Hence at the end we cannot prevent having a multidisciplinary approach,” Elbuken describes his research.
In his view the division of science into disciplines, faculties, and branches is not a fundamental characteristic of research but it makes it easier to handle the vast amount of human knowledge created. “In reality, science is science. It is not possible to chop it off into separate pieces.” This ethos is clearly visible in Elbuken’s research as he with his group combines the understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, and several branches of engineering into one comprehensive approach.
“When you do science across many disciplines, you realize that these boundaries are artificial,” Elbuken muses. “It’s a bit like the world map: you see the boundaries of countries dividing regions and peoples, and you might notice some differences, but fundamentally there’s nothing different between the people. When you embrace this idea, you can decide not to care about the boundaries.”
Moving from country to country and continent to continent, Elbuken has become a true world citizen. In his research he has jumped from one discipline to another in a similar manner, embodying freedom from unnecessary boundaries and making him a truly interdisciplinary researcher. All his diverse experiences have led him to Oulu, the perfect place to conduct his present research – at least until the time comes to jump over the next boundary. His ambition now is to go one step forward and to answer transdisciplinary problems in a crystalized form that would go into textbooks and that would be transferred to the next generations.
Text: Heidi Peuraniemi