The Denice Denton Emerging Leader ABIE Award recognizes a junior faculty member for high-quality research and significant positive impact on diversity. The award is named in memory of Dr. Denice Denton (1959–2006), the first female dean of a school of engineering at a major U.S. research university, who strongly promoted diversity in higher education. University of Florida professor Dr. Aysegül Gündüz is this year’s Emerging Leader ABIE Award winner, and will accept her award as part of the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), October 4–7 in Orlando, Florida.
In her research, Ayse develops tools and devices that identify and characterize neurological disorders. She’s an inspiring mentor and creative educator who has coached numerous students toward prestigious fellowships, and she actively works to improve the quality of life for her fellow female faculty members.
We spoke with Ayse recently to talk about the award and the path that brought her here.
What led you to a career in biomedical engineering?
Like so many kids, I dreamed of being an astronaut. Of course, now that I understand that the people who do become astronauts are engineers, and the scientists that help design the systems, I think it was predestined that I was going to be an engineer.
I was always interested in breaking things apart and putting them back together, but sci-fi movies really amplified my interest. Think of Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker puts on that mechanical hand: When he twisted its screw, it started moving! I always thought that type of science was more mechanical, but now we actually know that building prosthetics that can be controlled by human thought is more on the neuroscientific and neuroengineering side of things; the robotics are actually the easier part.
When I was in school, I knew I wanted to go into engineering. About the time when the human genome was decoded, my dad was pushing me toward genetics. But, at the time, I liked clinical things more, so I studied electrical engineering for my undergraduate degree in Turkey. Then I came to the states for my masters degree, and I followed that up with a Ph.D., both in electrical engineering. It wasn’t until my Ph.D that I actually was reintroduced to biology and ended up on the biomedical engineering track.
What do you love about your current research?
My research program focuses on trying to understand behavior and disorders in neurosurgical patients. These patients need surgery for disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, essential tremors, Tourette’s syndrome, epilepsy, or stroke.
We’re working towards adaptive neurotechnology. With my background in electrical engineering, I basically run processing on brain signals. We work closely with clinicians, so it’s very exciting for people in my lab to see the fruits of our labor being applied to patients in real time.
What does it mean to you to be recognized for this ABIE award?
It really came as a surprise; my involvement in diversity took a very different path than many past winners of this award. I’ve received other awards for my research, but it’s very, very humbling to have your name mentioned in the same breath with Denice Denton, Anita Borg, and Grace Hopper!
What are you looking forward to experiencing at Grace Hopper Celebration this year?
Sometimes when we’re in academia, we forget about the real world and the real companies. I very much look forward to listening to the experiences of women in industry, because I think that’s a really different beast. Now that I’m graduating more and more students—some of whom do want to go to industry—I’d like to interact with these women so that I can guide my students and have a better view of what the experience is like on the other side.
What inspires your work for diversity and inclusion?
My first year as a faculty member, I was invited to a Society of Women Engineers event. The first two female faculty speakers were talking about how their female friends quit their undergrad programs, how their male classmates didn’t show them respect, how they felt there weren’t people they could turn to. My plan was to tell these students that I never expected anyone to treat me differently because I was female. And in that moment, I really thought that was because I didn’t behave differently. If there were boxes to be carried in the lab, I joined in as much my male counterparts; I was a tomboy; all of that. I thought I had cruised through school and fellowships and never got discriminated against because of my attitude and actions.
And then, as I sat there, waiting for turn, it just hit me. Sure, I did have great male schoolmates. I did have have a few good female friends for support. But my undergraduate advisor, Dr. Aydan Erkmen, was female! I never talked to her about discrimination, but the fact that she was there, she was present in my life, seemed to shield me from feeling like I didn’t belong, or that I couldn’t be a successful engineer, or become a successful faculty member.
The fact that she was just there—present—the whole time really made a difference. And even though I didn’t have those experiences of overt bias, like my colleagues were recounting, I know she would have been there for me if I had. Realizing that even the subliminal difference female faculty had in my life crystalized for me that we need more female faculty, especially if we’re going to prevent female students from seeing this glass ceiling.
As a result, I got involved with the Association for Academic Women, which was founded 43 years ago to basically fight for salary equality at the University of Florida. We do great networking events for female students; we advise the president on women’s issues for both staff and faculty. My contribution to diversity is to model strong female faculty; I think it can have as big of an impact as if I were, say, leading a women’s student organization. Although it’s an indirect approach, it’s an effective approach, and I think that’s what the ABIE Award committee recognized.
Who do you consider a leadership role model?
At the University of Florida, I’m actually quite lucky because both my chair and my dean are female faculty.
Another source of inspiration for me was when past winners of this award organized a Denice Denton leadership workshop for our faculty, to inspire women to take on administrative roles. I love the research I do, and I have a very well established portfolio, and I publish at the best at the best venues that I can. But after listening to all of the inspiring speakers, I started thinking maybe leadership shouldn’t be something I should shy away from. Denice Denton, who this award is named for, was the first-ever female dean at an American institution. It’s hard to believe that milestone didn’t happen until the early 2000s!
What would you like to see change for women in your field in the next 10 years?
We still have a lot of social pressures on young women, and we need to talk about our experiences. It always looks like things come easier to other people, but when you become a group of friends and confidantes, you realize that’s not always true. One of my colleagues once told me: “Oh, you wouldn’t want to visit my house, four years ago. It was a mess. And then I realized I need to hire someone to clean. That was the best money I spent.” And it’s true: Everyone needs help at some point, and if more women share their lives with one other, it makes it easier.
But, aside from what we can do to help ourselves, there’s still a lot to be done. Things like the Google “manifesto” show us that there’s still a lot of misinformation and bias in the workplace. I think as more and more men also get involved in women’s issues, that will be very valuable.
Meet Ayse during GHC at her featured session, Adaptive Neurotechnologies for the Improved Treatment of Neurological Disorders, on Friday, October 6, 2017 from 9 a.m to 10 a.m. in OCCC W300.
Thank you to Microsoft, sponsor of the 2017 Denice Denton Emerging Leader ABIE Award.