Ayse Ulgen’s work knows no borders.
Born in Cyprus, Ulgen’s career in higher education and academic research has taken her all over the globe. And it all started with her pursuit of an MS and PhD in Applied Mathematics and Statistics at Stony Brook.
Since graduating from Stony Brook, Ulgen, MS ’96, PhD ’01 has worked and studied in six different countries on topics including genetic epidemiology, artificial intelligence (AI), biostatistics and public health — and her work has not gone unnoticed. A four-time Fulbright Scholar, she has held positions at many prestigious institutions across the United States, Europe and the Middle East and is conversant in five languages.
Today, as the director of life sciences research for Botanisol Analytics, a US-based biotechnology company, Ulgen’s career continues to align with her passion for driving innovation and advancing education.
Tell us more about your journey from Stony Brook University to your current role at Botanisol Analytics.
My Stony Brook experience has been pivotal to my international educational and professional journey. I am very grateful for the Fulbright Scholarship that I received from the U.S. government, as well as the teaching and research assistantships from Stony Brook that helped me study for a graduate degree in the United States. In addition, I have always been fascinated with New York and having the chance to study in an established research university helped open many doors.
After Stony Brook, I was inspired to continue my career with postdoctoral fellowships at The Rockefeller University and Columbia University. While at Columbia, I was promoted to associate research scientist, followed by an international competitive postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris and an assistant professorship in Denmark.
During my time in France and Denmark, I had the chance to immerse myself in these cultures, learn new languages and form new professional connections. Then, one of my mentors in Paris recommended me for the SHARE fellowship to study for a degree in global management at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. That’s where I met my current colleagues, Dave Talenfeld and James Foley, who eventually offered me the director role at Botanisol Analytics to start on a wonderful journey of discovery. I am currently responsible for collaborations with leading biomedical researchers globally.
How did your experience with Stony Brook’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics prepare you for the life you’re living now?
My studies at Stony Brook created many opportunities to advance my professional career. After leaving Stony Brook, I collaborated with pharmaceutical companies and world-leading researchers at the McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School. I also had the opportunity to work on National Institute of Mental Health grants related to schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, which led to publication in several peer-reviewed journals.
In addition to the excellent education that I received, I benefited from many cultural and leadership experiences. As part of the Fulbright International Educational Administrators Program, I attended concerts, theaters and art galleries in New York City and participated in youth leadership camps and exchange programs.
I also had the opportunity to study with excellent mentors, such as Professors Nancy R. Mendell, Stephen J. Finch, Hongshik Ahn, Alan Tucker, Wei Zhu, Brent Lindquist and Ram Srivastav from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics. I am especially thankful to my PhD supervisor, Professor Mendell, who helped me with my international career in biostatistics and genetic epidemiology. Because of her sincere interest in genetics and statistics and her continued support, I was inspired to continue my career with postdoctoral fellowships at The Rockefeller University and Columbia University.
I am happy to say that the strong professional relationships that I developed with my mentors at Stony Brook still continue today.
Your career and studies have taken you all over the world. Why was it important for you to incorporate travel into your work?
Travel has been and still is an integral part of my work and lifestyle. As part of my work, I have been fortunate to lecture and give presentations and seminars at different universities and conferences around the world in biostatistics and genetic epidemiology. These varied international experiences helped me not only understand science but also become immersed in other fields and meet different people.
Traveling has helped me develop a deep understanding of other cultures and see things from different perspectives with a world-encompassing vision. As the Baha’i quote goes, “The world is but one country and mankind its citizens.”
What does it mean to you to be a Fulbright Scholar?
One of my favorite quotes is from the late J. William Fulbright, former U.S. senator and founder of the Fulbright Scholarship program: “We must dare to think ‘unthinkable’ thoughts. We must learn to explore all the options and possibilities that confront us in a complex and rapidly changing world.” I think this is especially true in the complex and challenging times in which we live today.
I was granted a Fulbright Scholarship for my undergraduate studies at Hamilton College and graduate studies at Stony Brook. When I returned to Cyprus, I obtained a Fulbright Alumni Small Grant to work on a project related to seawater quality in Cyprus, which brought together groups from Cyprus and Norway. I also received a Fulbright Visiting Scholar Grant to work on the Northern Cyprus ‘Cancer Epidemiology, Screening and Prevention’ study ” at the Columbia University Department of Epidemiology in New York as an exchange scholar for four months.
Being a Fulbright Scholar is a very inspiring experience that has many opportunities and responsibilities associated with it. Fulbright Scholars tend to be leaders in their home countries and are responsible for sharing their multicultural experiences obtained in the U.S. with their fellow citizens. As a four-time Fulbright Scholar, I was blessed to have had this experience.
And what is it that inspires you in your work?
I am inspired by complex, challenging questions and finding simple, understandable solutions. I enjoy working as part of a team, developing creative ideas, traveling, coaching and mentoring others. It means a lot to me to be recognized and to see my work have an impact on the betterment of society and the world at large.
From being a Fulbright Scholar to having your research published internationally, your work has received a lot of recognition. What is it that you’re most proud of in your career?
I am happy to be working in the fields of medicine and biotechnology with a cross between machine learning because of their potential to transform healthcare and the lives of millions of people around the world. Even though I have conducted research and been published in different fields of medicine, I believe that the preclinical study for the autonomous disease screening technology that we are working on at Botanisol Analytics and now validating with the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at the Harvard Medical School has the potential to make an especially significant impact. This technology uses machine learning and AI to revolutionize public health systems and how we approach COVID-19 and potential pandemics in the future. I am excited to collaborate with leading scientists and entrepreneurs around the world to bring this project to a conclusion. I have just obtained a National Interest Waiver from the U.S. government as part of this process, which makes me incredibly proud.
I am looking forward to my visit to Boston with my husband and daughter. I am especially excited that my daughter will have a chance to experience the internationalism and multiculturalism that I was able to experience when I was in the U.S., which helped me form my vision for the future.
What advice would you give to a student looking to follow in your footsteps?
I would advise students to follow their passion and use their skills in fields that benefit both themselves and humanity. Be courageous, work hard and develop professional networks. I would also advise them to study other subjects such as philosophy, humanities, the arts and business in addition to science to be able to connect the dots between different fields and see the big picture.