Betül Kaçar joined The University of Arizona Molecular and Cell Biology department as an astrobiology professor. This is a first time a molecular biology professorship position specifically targeted for origins of life and astrobiology. After earning her PhD in Bio Molecular Chemistry at Emory University’s School of Medicine and Chemistry, she developed an interest in evolution and deep questions that impacted the way life is today. She applied for a NASA postdoctoral fellowship. They awarded her with this fellowship and she also received a NASA Early Career Fellowship, as well as a grant from the Exobiology Branch of NASA. Kaçar responded TURKOFAMERICA’s questions.
Would you tell us little bit about your background? When were you born, study?
I was born in Istanbul, Turkey. I attended Cavusoglu High School. I owe a lot to this high school, it taught me foundational science and math, but also the importance of social activities and sports in academia and provided me with sufficient language skills to be effective in a diverse environment. Regardless of our major, we had to spend three hours a week attending a social/hobby class. We had teachers from all over the world and they taught us to question things. We were in classrooms with students of different ethnic backgrounds: Muslims, Armenians, Assyrian… I wasn’t aware of this at the time but looking back, this environment made diversity a norm for me and prepared me for the world, as I later found myself a member of an ethnic minority in the USA. Not many people can experience being on both sides of this dynamic. I feel fortunate to have had this as a formative experience.
How did you come to the U.S.? How did you develop an interest in molecular biology?
I attended Marmara University in Istanbul, where I studied Chemistry. I wasn’t satisfied with my education. We had a lot of free time too! I started to volunteer in order to stay active and discover my interest areas. I volunteered for non-profits where I read and recorded books for the visually blind, and for industrial companies as an intern. I was fluent in English and hungry for life. I also volunteered for an international meeting that focused on Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases, in Istanbul during the Summer of 2002. This changed my life. I was the undergraduate in the room, and I was responsible for passing the microphone. It was a simple task, but I got to listen to many technical talks this way. One of them in particular stayed with me. This talk was on the molecular properties of an enzyme whose activity changes with age. I’ll never forget the first time I learned about how when the site of a protein changes, entire cellular and bodily activities can collapse. I was hooked.
I wrote a 1-page proposal and contacted the professor whose seminar impressed me the most. He encouraged me to apply to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute summer undergraduate research scholarship. I won this scholarship and visited his laboratory in 2003 to study a particular protein in the laboratory. This was my first time in the USA and in a scientific research laboratory at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. I loved it. In 2004, I came back to the same laboratory as a graduate student.
I was 20 years old, and had just immigrated to the USA. I didn’t have any family members here. Looking back, perhaps I should have been afraid but I wasn’t. The possibility of success was heavier than the thought of failure, which to be honest didn’t even cross my mind. Science gave me a sense of purpose and it was a personal thing for me. I came here to succeed and understand how proteins work, and that was it. I am a woman from the Black Sea region, and we are known to be “gozu kara” (fearless). I am not afraid of failure and I am certainly gozu kara!
Do you have any family members who studied molecular biology?
I was the first person to graduate from high school in my family. My family members were immigrants to Istanbul from the Black Sea region and I was the first generation to born there. My father was a dropout from elementary school and in fact, no women in my family had received education, and most of them didn’t know how to write or read. When I was in third grade in elementary school, my father sat in front of me and told me that this is all the help they can give me with my school- after this, he can’t answer any questions related to my homework. He told me that I will be alone but he will support me. He said “You can lose anything, but your education is yours. Don’t be like the women in your family. Be independent and be someone.” I never forgot this. I was fired up and I still have this fire in me. I don’t take any opportunity for granted. I do it for women who were banned from school, either within my family or outside of it. I am proud of my background.
How did you develop an interest in Astrobiology?
After earning my PhD in Bio Molecular Chemistry at Emory University’s School of Medicine and Chemistry, I developed an interest in evolution and deep questions that impacted the way life is today. I was reading a lot of materials on these subjects, and I realized I read more about evolution than I read on Parkinson’s Disease! I also was attracted to these topics, since there seemed to be a lot of heated debate on evolution (both in Turkey and in the south of the US) and I was drawn to it. I attended a lot of diverse talks ranging from the evolution of finches to the formation of black holes. Through these I discovered that NASA aims to invest in scientists who study biology. I would have never guessed that a space agency would want that! I was immediately hooked.
I had a research project idea in my head, and it was a risky one. Nevertheless, I formulated it and applied for a NASA postdoctoral fellowship. They awarded me with this fellowship and I also received a NASA Early Career Fellowship, as well as a grant from the Exobiology Branch of NASA. These awards provided me with an independent funding and a generous amount of travel money to visit laboratories both in the USA and in Europe, which allowed me to create my research theme. It was remarkable. Admins at NASA told me that this is an institutional investment, and they believed that I could use this sort of independence, based on my background and interests. NASA changed my life with this investment and I’ve been working with them since then.
You are the founder of Kacar Lab and would you describe what exactly you are doing in the lab? Is life exceedingly rare, or would it emerge on a number of other planets? If so, under what conditions could life emerge? How can we detect life on worlds beyond our solar system?
These basic questions have been of great interest to humanity for centuries. Yet we don’t know many fundamental aspects of this process: how did life emerge, and where did it emerge? Did life originate once, or was it repeated? Chemistry, astronomy and geology provide a lot of information about the past. Biology can be seen as irrelevant, since understanding the origins of biology is not necessarily addressing the origins of life itself but the beginnings of it.
Yet today we deal with genetic information that is as old as life itself. I think there is room for biologists in origins of life studies, since biologists understand the systems and physiology as we study the complexity of modern organisms in biology today.
How many students do you have at the lab?
My position at Harvard University allowed me to hire undergraduates, master students and postdocs to work with me. I currently have two stellar undergraduates, two master students and two visiting fellows from the UK. My students have backgrounds in geology, synthetic biology, systems biology and biochemistry. We are very interdisciplinary! This is the only way to tackle fundamental questions that impact our life. It is challenging as we need to develop a common language in order to best communicate our science with one another, but I truly believe this is the norm for the future. Biologists need to understand geology, geologists need to know the basics of genetics and physiological mechanisms and everyone needs to understand evolution to make sense of the world around us. This is the theme of the Kacar Lab.
Your projects are funded by major institutions, would you tell your latest projects and how difficult it is to find fund for it?
I am grateful to have received funding by major institutions, representing both private and government sources. NASA, NASA Astrobiology Institute and Exobiology Programs, John Templeton Foundation, and most recently the National Science Foundation have invested in my work. VWR, a scientific supplies company has awarded me with a postdoctoral research award as well and has provided resources. Harvard Origins initiative has been a tremendous source of support as well. In addition, I received various research awards from the Japanese Earth-Life Science Institute of Tokyo, ELSI is a new institute initiated by the Japanese Government in order to solve the problem life’s origin.
My overall aim is to provide insights into the biology of the past and then tie this knowledge to our search for life in the universe. Just because a planet doesn’t host life today, doesn’t mean it never did and for that we need to have more than one instance of life to serve as a basis of comparison. Earth’s past provides us alternative scenarios. Travel to 3 billion years ago, what will greet you is a hot, acidic planet with giant lava volcanos and lots of meteorite impacts. Not too pleasant! But we think life, not too similar to ours today, existed back then too. Molecules of these life forms, however, were pretty close to the fundamental molecules of life today.
I use an interdisciplinary approach by building on modern biology, and travel back in the molecular tree of life to reconstruct the past states of currently existing proteins. About 2.5 billion years ago there was a drastic increase in oxygen on Earth’s atmosphere and we attribute these changes to changes in protein behavior. I focus on these proteins and study how they may have changed themselves and how in turn this could have changed our environment.
You will be teaching as a professor at the University of Arizona after Harvard experiences, what is your expectation from your new career and what would like to do at the University of Arizona about your work?
What attracted me to the University of Arizona is their strong Astronomy program. University of Arizona builds telescopes in the United States and also leads various NASA missions, such as the recent asteroid landing mission OSIRIS-REX. The University of Arizona Molecular and Cell Biology department invited me to apply to their nascent astrobiology professorship position. This is a first time I’ve seen a molecular biology professorship position specifically targeted for origins of life and astrobiology. Of course I applied! It’s such an exciting time to study astronomy and molecular biology, and I look forward to discoveries that combines both of these exciting fields of our times. I am currently hiring graduate students and postdocs to work with me in these projects. Interested young scientists should apply!
Would you like to add anything?
For young readers, my advice would be to not be afraid of failure and being the only person in the room who looks, acts or thinks differently from others. Own it. Being in environments that are not right for you could allow you to discover what you actually enjoy. If a project or idea scares me, I push myself to learn to carry it out even more effectively. No task that is meaningful will ever be easy or straightforward, so challenge yourself. The key is to take action. Listen to yourself and trust your gut. I am not sure how it works, but somehow you already know. So listen to your gut and follow it.