Canan Dagdeviren wants more women in STEM to “not give up”
“That’s one thing I always tell my female students.”
Canan Dagdeviren knew from age 6 she was going to be a scientist when she grew up.
She even knew what she wanted to research: piezoelectric materials, materials that produce an electric current when they are placed under mechanical stress. But the road to her now-rousing success was in no way smooth.
“Being an independent woman in this century, in this country, is really difficult. At the start of my career, I was really affected by comments from my male colleagues,” Dagdeviren tells Inverse. “But then I realized, I don’t have time to respond. It's time for me to do my research and to answer those comments with my work. And so that’s what I did.”
Dagdeviren, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was born in 1985 in Istanbul, Turkey. As an undergraduate, she studied physics at Hacettepe University in Ankara, Turkey. After her earning master's degree, she won a Fulbright scholarship and moved to the U.S., where she received her Ph.D. in Material Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014.
In 2015, she was selected as one of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” in the science category, and MIT Technology Review named her one of their “35 Innovators Under 35” in the same year. She was the first scientist from Turkey to be named a junior fellow by the Society of Fellows (SoF) at Harvard University.
Dagdeviren joined the MIT Media Lab in 2017 as director of the Conformable Decoders research group. Her one-of-a-kind laboratory is working to develop what they call conformable decoders, biomedical technology that can “decode” a human body’s various physical patterns. In essence, devices that listen to the body. These could be pacemakers, pH sensors, cochlear implants, sensors that can be placed in the brain to monitor seizures, and bone graft materials that can accelerate tissue repair.
Her group’s most recent invention? A device that enables patients with ALS to communicate. Her lab designed a stretchable, skin-like device that can be inconspicuously attached to a patient’s face to measure small facial movements, like a smile or a twitch, to allow them to communicate with others — a quotidian ability that we take for granted, and that these patients lose for good.
“Everyone told me that it was an impossible task, but I kept trying.”
The following interview, edited for clarity and brevity, is part of Inverse’s FUTURE 50 series, a group of 50 people who will be forces of good in the 2020s.
What were you like as a child? Did you always want to be a scientist?
I was definitely a little different from the other kids.
My parents told me that when I was a little kid, I was smashing up rocks because I was trying to find the atoms inside; I must’ve heard it from somewhere. Everyone told me that it was an impossible task, but I kept trying. My father’s friend introduced me to a microscope and showed me that we can’t see such tiny things as atoms. So, even though I realized it was impossible, it at least confirmed my passion for science.
When I was 6, my father gifted me a book on Madame Curie; he thought I might be inspired by her. But instead, I fell in love with her husband, Pierre. Pierre Curie discovered something really magical, called piezoelectricity. These materials had been used in different areas, such as hand bombs during wars, but, until recently, they hadn’t been used in biomedical devices.
Around the same time, I learned that my grandfather, who I had never met, had passed away due to a heart condition at the age of 28. When I learned that, I promised myself that by the time I reached the same age — 28 — I would be doing something that helped heart patients.
From then, I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what type of science would be the best path to it.
Then, I met a very prominent physicist in Turkey, called Erdal İnönü, who had studied in Caltech, at one of his book signings. I told him I didn't know if I should study physics, chemistry, or biology. As he signed his book for me, he told me to read it and that, after reading, maybe I would understand what I really wanted to do. And I read the book, and thought, “Ok, I'm going to study physics”.
My father thought it wasn’t a good idea; there are no jobs. He wanted me to be an architect.
Apart from my mom, nobody supported me; nobody believed in me. But I said, “No, I want to study physics.” And so, I started studying physics in Ankara, the capital city of Turkey.
And, by the time I was 28, I actually developed and finalized a project that could help heart patients based on the piezoelectric material.
So, it was a combination of many things: my childhood dream, the book that İnönü gifted to me, the physics that I studied, my grandfather’s death, and my mom’s support.
You mentioned your grandfather’s death of coronary failure at an early age. Does that event act as a source of motivation for you in your daily work?
Many scientists are inspired by nature. But my research is inspired by the diseases of my family members and friends. When I hear of a medical problem, I take action and try to capitalize on my skills to try to develop something for it.
For example, right now we are developing something so dear to me. My family has a history of breast cancer, so I am very high-risk and need to check my breasts twice a year. But that’s only two data points, which makes it hard for doctors to understand what's happening in my breast tissue.
So I thought, why not create a smart bra? Because women wear a bra everyday. So, the idea is that the bra would create a single-shot image of your breast tissue, and it would have an intimate integration with your skin to collect all the data effectively. You wear it everyday; it's just a part of your personal garments. And it collects data all year, and you can create this huge data set.
Today’s medicine is not personalized; you cannot give the same medication to me and to you, because we have different lifestyles, diets, stress levels. So, what we want to do is to create medicine that is like a shoe type — personalized to you.
You moved to the U.S. from Turkey for your Ph.D. Was the transition difficult?
I had been doing the same research in Turkey, but all the materials and devices I was developing were bulky like a box — unbendable. So, if I wanted to target the heart, such a delicate organ, I had to make something malleable.
I looked around the entire world to find who could help me. And then I found my future advisor, John Rogers, who was a rising star and the father of flexible electronics at the University of Illinois.
Next, I thought about how I could get to America. And that’s when I learned about the Fulbright Fellowship. And I was the first in the line in my field to be selected.
With such a prestigious fellowship, you can go to any university: Harvard, MIT, Cornell. But my first choice was University of Illinois. Everyone asked, why the University of Illinois? But the person I really wanted to work with was there, and I said I'd go to Harvard and MIT in the future (which I did, by the way).
On the first day, John told me he wanted me to work on carbon nanotubes. I told him, “No, I want to work on flexible piezoelectric materials.” And he stopped and smiled, because nobody said no to him. He said, “Do you really think that you could do it?” I asked him to please allow me, and he said ok.
And then, for two years, nothing worked.
“It's time for me to do my research and to answer those comments with my work.”
I was one of the few female scientists in the group, and whenever I asked a question, I was rarely answered. It was so hard for me; I didn’t have any friends, my parents were far away, the food was different, the culture was different — everything was different. And on top of that, nothing was working.
But instead of being sad and going back to my country, I just took a chair, went to the lab, and sat on it from morning to night for months; I just watched everyone work. Because they wouldn’t answer my questions, instead I just observed them.
I did have great support from my parents; we Skyped twice a day, 30 minutes in the morning, 30 at night. I kept them updated on what wasn’t working in my experiments. One day, I was so frustrated — I almost gave up. I thought, “Ok, today, if it doesn't work, I will pack and fly to Turkey. I'm done.” But my father reminded me that I had already tried the experiment that particular way I was planning the week before, and I thought, “Holy shit. They’re checking everything.” I couldn’t give up, and it made me remember what I was doing.
And, after years, it finally worked. I gained recognition, international fellowships, many different prizes. Even though I had troubles in the beginning, I did not give up — and that’s one thing I always tell my female students.
Even after that, my male colleagues still asked, “Did you really do it? Did someone else help you?” My university gave me a prize of $20K, and I was so happy — I was able to buy my first ever car. But my male colleagues still said, “They just gave it to you because you’re female.” And I was like, “God, I have $20K. I can give it to you, and you can go and change your gender, so then you will be female, and from now on, you can get all the prizes.”
Do you still face difficulties today being a woman in STEM?
Being an independent woman in this century, in this country, is really difficult. At the beginning of my career, I was really affected by comments from my male colleagues. But then I realized, I don’t have time to respond. It's time for me to do my research and to answer those comments with my work. And so, that’s what I did.
And now, I acknowledge that it happens, and that it's an issue. But I never allow such comments in my group.
How has Covid-19 affected your group’s work?
The pandemic has actually really helped my group, for improving our group culture and how we should treat each other. We had to rethink how we behave, how we do research, while allowing diversity and diverse voices in our research. And we wrote a diversity statement initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement
For instance, usually it's easier to recruit male subjects. But in my group, if there are 50 percent male subjects, I make sure we have 50 percent female subjects. I really don't care how long it takes to recruit them; I take the time. And this is how we can actually create the best treatments for everyone.
The pandemic has made some things more difficult. For the first few months, we couldn’t be in the lab, which did slow us down. But this bad thing has been turning into a good thing; it's created a new dimension in our research. Now, we are also working on the simulation and theoretical aspect of our work.
The pandemic made things harder, but because of the struggles that I have faced throughout my academic life and personal life, they've helped me prepare for such extreme conditions.
What is your group working on at the moment?
We study the human body in a systemic and collective manner. Instead of targeting one single organ or piece of the body, we try to target many locations to see how they correlate, how they talk to each other.
In my group, we develop implantable wearable, attachable devices, all for exploring the human body. And all the devices we create are malleable, flexible, stretchable, so that they can conform the human body very comfortably.
We want to decode physical patterns from the body — such as heart rate, respiration, neuronal activity — so that we can really understand how our body parts are talking to us.
My long-term goal is to have a population of devices in the human body. I am especially interested in studying the female body, because it's my body; I want to understand my own body. Given that we know so little about our bodies, it's hard to come up with novel treatment models.
So, trying to understand the human body better is what we are aiming to do to fix that.
We hear a lot about how personalized medicine is the future. Do you think the wearable technology that your group is developing will play a big role in that?
I think so. Wearable technology is certainly the future of biomedical technologies. Not only wearable on your skin, but the wearables on your personal garments — a piece of your t-shirt, your underwear, your bra — will be the future.
So now we are expanding towards textile electronics and how they can decode your physical patterns in a seamless manner. So, I believe electronics within personal garments, touching the surface of your body, will be the future.
How are you taking time to unwind these days?
The pandemic has actually made my life a little normal, because I had been traveling a lot for talks or experiments. So now that I’m mostly at home or in the lab, while the lack of human interaction or feelings of isolation can be stressful, at the same time, it gives me more time to myself.
One thing that has made me stressed is that I have a young group, who are mostly international. So, it’s been a little bit stressful for me to ease them down and to help them emotionally; it actually took up the majority of my time rather than doing research.
But other than that, this time has helped me to understand what I want from life. I was able to pause physically and mentally. And I actually have been more productive. The pandemic gave me more flexibility and allowed me to listen to my body and my mind more effectively.
Canan Dagdeviren is a member of the Inverse Future 50, a group of 50 people who will be forces of good in the 2020s.