“If someone tells you an experiment will work, do it; if they say it won’t work, do it anyway.”

In our series on the talented researchers working at BioMed X Institute, we asked Dr. Özdemirhan Serçin, Group Leader in BioMed X’s research team ‘SDR Synthetic Lethality in DNA Repair’ a few questions on his professional career and his work at and with BioMed X Institute.

Dr. Özdemirhan Serçin

BioMed X: “First of all: Congrats on your new position! After working as a Postdoc in the recently successfully completed research project ‘DDC Damage in Cancer’, you were appointed as Group Leader of team SDR (Synthetic Lethality in DNA Repair), the follow up cancer research project in collaboration with Merck. How do you feel?

I am thrilled about the opportunity to follow-up on our projects and finalize them. We had a very fruitful 5-year-term as team DDC, and I had my best years as a researcher in my career so far. All the groundwork is laid out for the new team during this time. It is now the time to harvest all these fruits for the best possible outcomes of our research.”

BioMed X: „Let’s get back to your story: What did you study and why?“

Dr. Özdemirhan Serçin: “For my BS degree, I studied Molecular Biology and Genetics at Bilkent University, in Ankara, Turkey. After that I moved to Chapel Hill, NC, USA to study Biochemistry & Biophysics for my doctoral degree at the University of North Carolina. However, my interest in medical research started in my mom’s 45-year- old pharmacy, by reading the labels and leaflets from the boxes of tablets: antibiotics, this inhibitor that inhibitor… I remember that I always wanted to become a pharmacist or a doctor – even when I was a child. Later, I realized that I can only reach and help a limited number of people in my lifetime. Thus, I decided to become a scientist to reach millions of people and even to reach to those in need even through time, just like Alexander Fleming or Louis Pasteur.

BioMed X: “What was the biggest challenge in your professional career so far?”

ÖS: “That is a really difficult question! First, in Turkey you must be among the 0.01%, the very best, to be able to study in the best universities of the country. I achieved this by working hard since I was 8 years old. It requires quite a lot of support from the family and teachers, and most importantly, a lot of discipline and dedication.
My greatest scientific achievement was to have obtained my PhD against all odds. I had to race against the clock to graduate before my funding ends and I had to publish fast. It was tough. But it gave me all the necessary confidence and taught me how to be independent. I learnt that I could achieve anything if I want it so much. And then, I fought against time and many other difficulties in the academic world: Ninety-hour-work-weeks, skipped-cancelled holidays… But the biggest challenge in the past was going up against a major competitor in the field of skin cancer and cell division, when I did my first postdoc. That was a very close call. But me and my team, we published it first!

BioMed X: “What are in your opinion the key steps for a young PhD?”

ÖS: “In my opinion working in research is a lifetime and full-time commitment. If you are just up for a title, then, forget it! It requires a lot of dedication and commitment. As far as I know from my own story: You simple won’t be successful if you don’t give it your hundred percent. Aim to work with people you get along with, it makes a big difference in everyday life and the outcome!”

BioMed X: “Why did you apply for your first position at BioMed X?”

ÖS. “From a professional point of view, it was only a logical consequence. During my PhD, I studied life in a test tube to reconstitute DNA damage signaling. Then, during my first postdoc position, I worked on skin cancer in mice. Since I wanted to continue my training as a scientist in translational research, it seemed to be the right next step, when I learned about the position that I will be doing CRISPR-based screens in DNA Damage in Cancer in Dr. Balca Mardin’s team, I didn’t want to miss the chance to learn about large scale experiments and I wanted to work on protein networks, instead of individual proteins and their individual functions.”

BioMed X: “What are your personal benefits working at BioMed X?”

ÖS: “At BioMed X, we are able to use the latest technologies and develop our own methods, and applications, when necessary. This is exactly the way to get high impact not only in our field of research. With the help of Team DDC’s Group Leader Balca Mardin, I learned how to conduct screens and make use of the CRISPR-based technologies. We have a very friendly and collaborative atmosphere, that allows us to grow and do good research.Personally, I grew more as an independent scientist. Working at the interface of industry and academia empowers me to make decisions faster compared to academia, that makes research in total go faster. We also have collaborations with Merck, we can test compounds, or learn from them how to test compounds. Now, in team SDR, we would like to dig deeper into the mechanism of function as well as finding targets using Synthetic Lethality screens. Understanding how only a specific DNA Repair protein becomes a target may enable us to tell more which patients could benefit from this target. Knowing that my research will become a starting ground for drug discovery makes the hard work worthwhile.

BioMed X: Do you think that research at novel innovation hubs like BioMed X can compare to ‘old school’ research at academia and pharma industry?”

ÖS: “Yes, definitely. BioMed X’s way of doing preclinical research is going to be the new norm. Research in this field in academia can be slow and less focused. We accelerate the pace of innovation in preclinical research by combining the best of both worlds – academia and industry and work on material that industry will take over and develop drug on, from bench to bedside…So you know that your work won’t end up as just a “pubmed search” but will lay the groundwork for a new generation of targeted therapies. I always wanted my research to have direct impact in how patients are treated.”

BioMed X: “What tips would you give a younger yourself?”

ÖS: “Again, a difficult question: I would tell myself to stop and think at times. I tended to get very easily distracted since I am excited about new findings. It will eat me alive if I didn’t know the answer to some mysterious result over a weekend. I would feel that have to learn it or do the experiment on the same day. At times, I would have multiple things that will run in parallel, and progress very slowly, which puts further stress on me later. Over time, I taught myself to stop and concentrate back what is the most prominent one that can be accomplished to the fullest as soon as possible.

And finally, I always remind this to myself: Something that my PhD supervisor Nobel laurate Prof. Aziz Sancar taught me: Start any experiment small, just 3 tubes: One negative, one positive control, and your test, go larger scale from there on, but never start something new with a whole set of 20 tubes at once!”