Professor of Neurobiology & Behavior
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Keep on going, and try to enjoy it––this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon…try to enjoy the hurdles, the process, not only the end product. That’s the best way to enjoy this job.“
Along her path to becoming a principal investigator (PI) in Cornell University’s Neurobiology and Behavior department, Dr. Nilay Yapici journeyed from Turkey, to Austria, to New York City, and finally to Ithaca, NY. She has been guided by her intense curiosity about how genes can influence complex behaviors, which has been honed by excellent mentorship she received throughout her PhD and her postdoctoral work.
Born in Samsun, Turkey, Nilay was always encouraged to learn and grow intellectually by her family. Although her father initially saw her gift for numbers as an excellent opportunity for her to to study economics, or another potentially lucrative subject, Nilay has always been fascinated by the natural world around her. As a curious and hyperactive child, she was drawn to many subjects in school–taking particular joy in playing with numbers in her quantitative classes. Intrigued by ancient history, she briefly considered becoming an archaeologist, but ultimately settled on biology. As she learned about the Human Genome Project in high school, she was “fascinated by how DNA was controlling well…everything.” This realization led her to study molecular biology at Bogazici University in Istanbul, where she also began to take a strong interest in neurobiology. Although there was no dedicated major in neurobiology, she was able to pick and choose courses that fit her newfound interest in how genes are able to control brain function and behavior.
As a student researcher at home in Turkey and later as a visiting student at Rutgers University and Zurich University Hospital, Nilay began to explore research projects at the intersection of neuroscience and genetics, conducting research on topics as diverse as prion disease, hippocampal function, and the development of the mammalian retina. During her undergraduate studies, Nilay at some point swore she would never use the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, in her research, which is the very organism her lab at Cornell now harnesses to conduct her work! “I said I would never work with flies, but now I have a fly lab,” she confessed ruefully, as she recalls her undergraduate lab experiences with Drosophila, and how she struggled to keep them alive during her experiments.
She began to see the beauty of Drosophila as a model organism for neuroscience research when she started her Ph.D. with Dr. Barry Dickson at the University of Vienna. During her interview for graduate school, Dr. Dickson showed her results of a new project in his lab demonstrating that by mutating a single gene in flies (the fruitless gene, or fru), male and female courtship behaviors can be altered entirely. This exquisite genetic simplicity and manipulability, paired with a complex behavioral repertoire and the genetic tools to play with the flies’ brain function, changed Nilay’s mind about her anti-fly plans. “Even though they were so little, they were doing all sorts of complex behaviors. You were also able to turn on and off the neurons that you want when you want to, which was not possible in rodent models at that time. I am talking about the times optogenetics or current fancy viral vectors did not exist. That’s why I switched to flies,” she says. While in the Dickson Lab, she identified the sex peptide receptor (SPR), which she found to be essential for post-mating behavioral changes in female flies compared to virgin females. Although she had changed her mind about using Drosophila as an animal model, she was guided not by an interest in the fly brain specifically, but by the cool genetic tools available in flies to understand how brains function
She followed this passion all the way to New York City to work in Dr. Leslie Voshall’s lab at the Rockefeller University to begin her postdoctoral work. In the Vosshall Lab, she transitioned to studying another basic function of an animal’s nervous system–food intake behaviors. She was interested in uncovering the specific neuron types that are responsible for encoding hunger state in flies and how their activity regulates food intake. By creating a temporally precise measurement system of food intake in flies (charmingly named “Expresso”), she was able to identify what she called “Ingestion Neurons,” or IN1, which mediate hunger state-dependent food intake behavior in flies.
Nilay describes her time working in the Voshall lab as not only scientifically stimulating, but it also provided her with her first female research mentor and scientific role model. “I really wanted to work with a female mentor for my post-doctoral research experience, to observe how successful women function in the scientific world. I think my postdoctoral mentor Leslie Vosshall is a fearless scientist, she tackles big questions, and doesn’t let anybody stop her from what she puts her mind on to. She’s an inspiring woman and an excellent mother–she does it all, basically.”
“I really wanted to work with a female mentor for my post-doctoral research experience, to observe how successful women function in the scientific world.”
“In New York, I didn’t feel like an immigrant, because everyone was an immigrant.”
As Nilay navigates her own career as a woman in science, she says that it has not been without its challenges. As a graduate student in Vienna, there were times she felt alienated… This was one of the factors that led her to come to the United States for her postdoctoral research in New York City– “In New York, I didn’t feel like an immigrant, because everyone was an immigrant.”
Up until she began her own lab, Nilay felt that the scientific playing field for men and women was more or less even–she had never noticed any particular difference in the way she was treated as a female scientist. As a principal investigator, however, she says she’s begun to notice more microaggressions. On multiple occasions, colleagues at conferences will ask her whose lab she belongs to, not realizing that she is the leader of her own lab. “Little comments like that accumulate and, you know, it takes a toll on you,” she says. She is actively working within her role at Cornell to encourage more women, underrepresented minorities, and people of color to attend graduate school and increase diversity in her field. Nilay believes that the diversity of voices within an academic discipline is just as important as diversity in a natural population–we suffer without it.
To address the lack of diversity in neuroscience graduate programs, Nilay is now involved in an initiative to encourage and support underrepresented minority undergraduates as they prepare to apply to graduate school. Especially for students who have no experience or reference point for graduate admissions, this can be a daunting task. This April, Cornell’s Neurobiology & Behavior graduate program will host a diversity and inclusion weekend, where URM undergraduate students from US-based institutions can receive support, advice, and networking opportunities while they prepare their graduate applications. Nilay hopes that this workshop will help to demystify the application process and reduce uncertainty and anxiety around reaching out to and interacting with faculty members they are interested in working with. “I’m a really outgoing person, so I didn’t mind writing dozens of emails to potential faculty mentors when I was applying for graduate school,” Nilay noted about her own application experience, “but not everyone is like that.”
Reflecting on her own experience with imposter syndrome, she realizes that anxiety generated by the pursuit of success never truly dissipates–even as a PI at Cornell University, “A lot of people doubt themselves, especially women, but I guess my advice is to try to put that in a box, and try to keep on doing what you’re doing. Not every experiment or project works, but the goal is just to stay in the game. One of the most important factors in my opinion for success is grit: how much failure you can keep working through.”
“A lot of people doubt themselves, especially women…One of the most important factors in my opinion for success is grit: how much failure you can keep working through.“
by Eliza Catharine Beach Jaeger