Isinsu Baylam Toker
In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Isinsu Baylam Toker, a lecturer at California Polytechnic State University, Materials Engineering Department in San Luis Obispo CA, USA. Toker received her B.S. in physics from Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey, in 2010 and her M.S. and Ph.D. in physics from Koc University, Istanbul, Turkey, in 2012 and 2017. She worked as a doctoral researcher at Koc University Surface Science and Technology Center, Ultrafast Laser Spectroscopy Laboratory. During her studies, she focused on the design and development of ultrafast, near-infrared and mid-infrared solid-state lasers, ultrafast pump-probe spectroscopy, fluorescence spectroscopy and optical characterization techniques.
Toker received the Newport Research Excellence Award (2013 SPIE Photonics West, San Francisco CA, USA) and outstanding oral presentation awards at Optica’s Advanced Solid-State Lasers Conferences (2015 Berlin, Germany and 2016 Boston, MA, USA). She is one of the 2019 Optica Ambassadors, and she is a member of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings Alumni. Her research interests include the design and development of ultrafast solid-state lasers and materials characterization techniques.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
I don’t have any engineer or scientist family members, but I have always been fascinated by how nature works since I was a child. I enjoyed observing the natural phenomena around me and learning more and more about how they operate. Hence, I realized that becoming a scientist is an excellent way of pursuing my passion for observation and learning new things in my everyday life. I have also been excited about sharing knowledge with others and creating a change in our society. When I saw role models as a child, I also understood that becoming a scientist is a great opportunity to be able to improve society through knowledge.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would he/she be most surprised by?
My ten-years-younger self would be just starting her Ph.D. in physics. I was an enthusiastic young student, but with a shy and introverted personality. I also had imposter syndrome like many students in academia. When I first started my physics education as an undergraduate student, I was excited but I also had doubts about my career path. In the university I attended, the teaching was 100% in English, and I had doubts about my English skills. It was a competitive department, and I also had doubts about my learning pace. However, I was lucky that I had great mentors who motivated me throughout my journey. Hence, I would be surprised to see that now I became a laser scientist with a Ph.D. in physics who teaches classes in English in the United States!
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
“ Even if you are just a student, you can have unique and brilliant ideas. Don’t be afraid of sharing them with other people in your field. ”
—Isinsu Baylam Toker
Don’t be shy and do not underestimate your talents! It took many years for me to break my shell and talk with other researchers and industry leaders at conferences and networking events. Now, when I look back, I realize that I could have created these connections much earlier if I had been more confident. High-profile professors and industry leaders are just humans like you. They will not judge you if you make a mistake while talking with them. Even if you are just a student, you can have unique and brilliant ideas. Don’t be afraid of sharing them with other people in your field.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
There were many big and small career decisions that I made throughout my academic life. However, I can say that the biggest impact on my career was applying to the Optica Ambassador program. As a researcher who conducted most of my academic life in my home country, being elected as one of the Optica Ambassadors expanded my horizons at an international level. I have always been interested in raising awareness for students and early-career professionals with social or economic challenges. I was able to pursue my goal of increasing diversity in STEM with the help of this program.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
I think that having a structured weekly schedule helps a lot in terms of time management. Additionally, I strongly believe that following the scientific literature not only in your area of study but also in other research fields widens your research perspective and enables novel collaborations. As a researcher, I dedicate a weekly literature-reading time slot in my schedule, during which I cover a wide range of disciplines. This habit also improves my question-asking and critical-thinking skills, which are important for an academic career.
Apart from time management and literature reading, working on your presentation and writing skills is also important to have a successful career. In order to improve these skills, I perform scientific reviews, read various scholarly works and attend in-person or online talks as much as I can. Although actively writing and presenting are key practices to develop excellent written or verbal skills, reading, reviewing and listening to the works of other people can also refine your skills.
Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?
“ The Optica Ambassador program and my mentors made me realize that I could break out of my shell and that I have the power to accomplish my goals at an international level. ”
—Isinsu Baylam Toker
The major turning point in my career was the result of my biggest decision in my career path, which was becoming an Optica Ambassador. As I mentioned previously, I was always interested in social problems and challenges in science. However, I had doubts about my own ideas. The Optica Ambassador program and my mentors made me realize that I could break out of my shell and that I have the power to accomplish my goals at an international level. Since I had these doubts, I was hesitant about applying, and the action that got me there was believing in myself.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
I think my honest answers clearly show that I was struggling with a lack of confidence during my student years. I wish I had known at an early stage of my career that the only barrier in front of me was my negative thoughts about myself. Right now, I strongly recommend my students to believe in themselves and apply for grants, fellowships and scholarships, and I tell them not to miss any networking opportunity. The worst possible answer you will receive is no. What if you receive a yes?
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
As a recent mentor, I learned that the learning style and pace of each student are different because every person has a different background. You need to be patient to be able to reach them and guide them. Personally, I was lucky to have a couple of good mentors who listened to my thoughts and questions patiently and guided me in the right direction. I also learned invaluable time-management and organizational skills from my mentors, which still help me today in my professional career.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
I recently changed my career path from full-time research to full-time teaching. I enjoy working with students and teaching them science. One of my personal goals is to design new teaching methods for science and engineering students who need special assistance. I am also looking forward to going back to intensive research. Hence, I am excited about both running my own research lab and creating teaching methods in the upcoming years.
Outside of work, what is your favorite thing to do in your free time, and why?
I enjoy experimenting with different culinary spices and herbs while trying new recipes. I have tens of different spices and herbs. I love reading about their origins and mixing them to create unique dishes for my family and friends. It is a very relaxing activity for me. Sometimes I can create great combinations by using unexpected matches, but sometimes the resulting dish may not be so tasty. It is very exciting for me to see the results.
I am also interested in contemporary and modern art—to be more specific, paintings, sculptures, photography and installations. I am not a professional or amateur artist, but whenever I have a chance, I try to visit museums and exhibitions. I really admire how the creators express and transfer their ideas and feelings without using words.