Growing up in Academia with Onur Güntürkün
What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Academia is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.
Each event features an open conversation (interview) with a different faculty member, representing the broad spectrum of academic life. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that universally inform the profession, but that too often remain unspoken. These events will be hosted and presented by Lucia Melloni (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics).
On Monday, February 28, 2022, Growing Up in Academia features Onur Güntürkün, Professor in Biopsychology, Psychology Department, Ruhr-Universität Bochum.
The online application for this event is Zoom. You can register for the event here.
In 1975 I enrolled as a student of psychology at the Ruhr-University Bochum and soon was drawn to the lab of Juan Delius, who studied brain and behavior in pigeons. Until 1984 I conducted my PhD in his lab using behavioral and electrophysiological methods but soon was convinced that we have to dig deeper into the structure of the brain to properly explain behavior. So, I worked for a while at Homburg university and the Université Pierre et Marie Curie to learn Golgi stainings, tract tracing and electron microscopy. In 1987 I moved to UC San Diego to further my neuroanatomy knowledge and later on came back to Konstanz university as a senior research assistant in Psychology.
In 1993 I accepted a call for the Biopsychology professorship at the Ruhr-University Bochum. I have nomadic genes, while those of my wife are quite sedentary. Our compromise is that every couple of years we move during my sabbatical for a period between 3 – 8 months with the kids to an excellent academic place where I learn to conduct novel approaches for my research. So, we spent all together several years in Brisbane (Australia), Izmir (Turkey), Antwerp (Belgium), Berlin and Stellenbosch (South Africa). I would call myself a Cognitive and Comparative Neuroscientist who works with research approaches that reach from field work via single cell recordings up to brain imaging at ultrahigh magnetic fields. I’m kept awake with questions like: “Can different kinds of brains produce the same cognition?” or “Why are brains asymmetrically organized?”.
I’m a member of the German National Academy of Sciences as well as some further academies, received two honorary doctorates as well as numerous national and international scientific awards, among them the Leibniz and the Communicator award, the Tübitak special award of Turkey, and the ERC Advanced Grant.
I was born in Izmir, a Turkish city at the Aegean Sea, but grew up in Zonguldak, a coal mining town at the Black Sea coast. When I was four, the polio epidemic of those years hit me hard. My parents took care that I received all necessary medical treatment. When I was six, they read of a clinic in Germany that was specialized to treat children with polio. So, we visited this clinic and they were ready to accept me as a patient, estimated a treatment time of 8 months and calculated a bill of 10,000 Deutsche Mark. Obviously, my parents could not pay that. But then something strange happened. Back then, my uncle was an intern in the firm of an architect in Hamburg. He told his boss about my case, his boss mentioned this in passing to his wife during dinner and his wife immediately stood up and called the BILD, a tabloid newspaper. She insisted on them starting a campaign to collect the money. And so they did. A photographer took a picture of me (really cute) and the journalist wrote a story that touched the hearts of all readers. Within a few hours the money was collected, I was a patient in the clinic, my parents had no further money to stay with me in Germany and travelled back to Turkey to work.
Eight months later, they came back to realize that I couldn’t communicate with them since I forgot Turkish, but was fluent in German. Doctors made a medical plan that required us to stay for at least six further years to have a series of surgeries and treatments. So, my dad got a job, the whole family (including my sister) learned German, while I relearned Turkish. I visited primary school and high school, but also spent quite some time in hospitals. I spent these years mostly reading about dinosaurs and observing animals. I confined little bugs into labyrinths that I crafted into music cassette cases, and rewarded them with a drop of sugar-water for finding the exit, while recording their learning progress. I increased my allowance with doing the dishes and bought a little microscope. I still have a few of the hundreds of drawings of insects and flowers that I made with it.
Then, treatment was finished, I could move around with a wheelchair and there was no reason to stay any longer in Germany. We moved back to Izmir and I enrolled in high school. From the first day on, I realized that this school was great, but the academic expectations were incredibly tall. In addition, my Turkish was in no way polished enough (not to speak of my orthography…) to write decent term papers on, for example, the interpretation of lyrics of Sufi authors in the early Ottoman period. For the first time of my life I feared to utterly fail in school. I guess that I never again did work so hard as during my high school time in Izmir. In hindsight, I’m grateful to this school and its teachers. There I learned about academic quality and the work that comes with it. We had compulsory psychology classes with an excellent text book on experimental and physiological psychology. I realized that this is what I have been burning from my beginning on. I participated in the Turkish youth science contest with a conditioning study on my aquarium fish to reveal, if they could discern equiluminant colors (I made it to the finals but then lost). All of that was so much fun that my decision was quickly taken: I was going to study psychology. Since Germans invented psychology as an academic discipline, I wanted to study in Germany.
So, I left Turkey after high school with 17 and enrolled in psychology at the Ruhr-University Bochum. Quickly, I realized that the curriculum was in no way what I had expected. Psychology was seen as completely detached from brain. It was experimental, but brainless. I was about to quit, but my academic life was saved by Juan Delius who run the “Animal Psychology” lab and was interested in brains, cognition, all kinds of animals, and evolution. This lab became my home country and I conducted my Diploma thesis and my PhD there, both on the functional organization of the visual system in pigeons. In those years I was convinced that I should uncover the cogwheel-like mechanisms of cognition. The smaller the particle of analysis, the more relevant it seemed to me. Already during my PhD, I worked in different labs and moved from behavior to local field potentials, then to light-, and finally to electron-microscopy. So began my down-ward voyage from behavior to synapses until I realized years later that I was wrong: it is a mistake to think that we can deduce cognition and behavior purely bottom-up from genes or synapses. Behavior is obviously based on neural function, but brain and behavior are reciprocally intertwined such that we have to study both brain and behavior with the same care to draw inferences about mechanisms. So, only a combination of neurobiology and experimental psychology makes sense to me.
After my time in Germany, my wife, our children and I moved to San Diego where I became a postdoc in Harvey Karten’s lab. Later, I got a senior research assistant position at the University of Konstanz and finished my habilitation there. During all these years I focused on the neuronal foundations of perceptual and cognitive functions at the system level in birds. Then, a professorship for Biopsychology was announced – it was the previous position of Juan Delius at the Ruhr-University Bochum. I applied, got it in 1993 and never regretted it. The faculty is meanwhile a place of outstanding academic quality, Bochum university strongly supports science and the academic atmosphere is very friendly and interactive. I’m now running a big lab with fantastic young people from all over the world and we conduct experiments using behavioral, neuroanatomical, electrophysiological, and imaging-based methods like fMRI. We study pigeons, humans, dolphins, Nile crocodiles, and some further beasts. This broad approach allows to identify neural and behavioral components of cognition that are very similar across the animal kingdom and so possibly represent “hard to replace” mechanisms. Looking back, I’m still the nine-year-old boy that conducts experiments to study bug learning in labyrinths. Now I’m obviously much more professional, but in the very end, I’m doing the same as I did as a child.