Postdoctoral research Fellow: Sera Aylin Cakiroglu
Dr Sera Aylin Cakiroglu
Postdoctoral research Fellow at the Francis Crick Institute
Length of career
I made the move from pure maths to bioinformatics and my advice is: reflect on whether what you are doing is what you really want to do and, if not, be ready to change your goals.
Career in brief
I did my undergraduate degree in mathematics (with a minor in computer science) at the Technical University Braunschweig in Germany and began a PhD there.
I worked part-time at the National Metrology Institute of Germany as a mathematician during the first few months of my PhD. However, my supervisor and I decided I should first get experience with Professor Peter J Cameron at Queen Mary University of London who is a leading expert in combinatorics. Combinatorics is a branch of mathematics studying discrete structures such as graphs – here, a ‘graph’ means a network of connected nodes, such as a network of computers, a transportation network, or a more abstract structure. I ended up staying with Peter at QMUL and finished my PhD in his lab, applying graph theory to the problem of the design and analysis of experiments.
While I was an undergraduate, and at the beginning of my PhD, I really wanted to become a researcher in pure mathematics. But later on I started to miss real-world applications and found myself not quite knowing what to do after my PhD. At a job fair, I chatted to recruiters for Cancer Research UK who pointed me to Professor Nicholas Luscombe’s lab (now at the Francis Crick Institute). Luckily, Nick was open to the idea of employing a mathematician; we talked a lot, I made several visits to the lab and we decided to take the plunge. Now, I am halfway through my postdoc in bioinformatics where I am applying advanced machine learning methods to study how certain signals are encoded in the same region of the genome while others are avoided. I am particularly interested in those recurring patterns in DNA that indicate protein binding sites and the effects of any disruption of these (for example through mutations) on gene regulation.
I am so happy to have had the opportunity to switch to bioinformatics and be part of a great lab.
I spend my days
My job is mainly programming, so I spend most of the day sitting in front of a computer. Sometimes I still go back to pen and paper as I did in the old days when I was still a pure mathematician.
Getting a postdoc position at the Francis Crick Institute of course! And in 2015, a year after I started my postdoc, I was an invited speaker to present research from my PhD at an international conference in the US: Design and Analysis of Experiments Conference.
My biggest challenge was changing fields. During the first few months I struggled in seminars or reading papers and although I now know the biological background on the project I am directly working on, there is still a lot left for me to learn.
Skills I consider most valuable: I think apart from my mathematical background, the most important skills for my current job are programming and that I enjoy research on very noisy data. However, especially since I am a newbie in biology it is important that I can communicate easily with people and sometimes ask very silly questions without being too embarrassed.
I am inspired by
My second PhD supervisor, Professor Rosemary A Bailey was a pure mathematician who got into statistics by coincidence and there are similarities in her early career and mine. She succeeded as a great researcher and became well known in a male-dominated field by being resolute about good research.
I am learning from my current PI Professor Nick Luscombe how you can succeed and hold your ground as a younger researcher and that you can convince your older peers to do things differently with strong scientific arguments.
Words of wisdom
For any fellow pure mathematicians that would like to change into a more applied field my advice is:
Brush up on your stats and programming skills. Maybe come up with a little fun project you use to learn these skills and stick it on a website so you can show people you can do data analysis.
Take your time to make sure this is the direction that you want to take – it is difficult to judge when you are not in the field whether you will enjoy the work. Try to talk to as many people in the field as possible to get a good overview of what it is about – I found asking people in the field to get some advice over a cup of coffee was very helpful.
There won’t be any jobs advertised that are directly aimed at you. You may have to apply to ads where you only meet a small portion of the requirements; email the head of the lab beforehand to see if they would be interested in you as a candidate.
I would like to have my own group that merges mathematical and biological research. Before that, I still need to learn more biology and create a better network of collaborators to make sure that my research keeps having biological meaning. I have some time left on my current contract to do that but I am considering another short post-doc in bioinformatics afterwards before going for group leader positions.
MRC skills development fellowships provide funding for researchers from quantitative and qualitative backgrounds to develop new skills.