Ozgenur Celik

Biomedical Engineering, Class of ’22

From a young age, Ozgenur Celik BS’22 saw firsthand how modern technology makes a difference in people’s lives. She witnessed how medical devices, and deep caring, can not only save lives but also keep entire families whole.

Years ago, Celik’s grandfather suffered from numerous health issues, including heart problems and a near-fatal stroke. A pacemaker and constant tending from family members greatly extended her relative’s life. Now, as Celik works toward her undergraduate degree at Columbia, she has cemented her desire to develop new means to aid the sick and injured through drug delivery and stem cells.

“Studying to be an engineer can sound really technical, but really the motivation is simple,” Celik said. “Studying in the field has made me realize that I want to work toward doing something for humanity that is going to help people—and that will leave me intellectually satisfied.”

Celik signed on as a research assistant for the Nanotherapeutics & Stem Cell Engineering Lab, led by professor Kam Leong. As an undergrad, she has not only co-authored a review paper published in the academic journal Advanced Functional Materials, but she’s also had the opportunity to display her expanding interests in biomedical engineering on the national stage. Late last year, Celik stood in front of some of the field’s most prestigious minds and presented her lab mentor’s team’s research about engineering hepatocyte-like cells, which are the primary cell type in the liver, for disease modeling and drug screening.

We caught up with Celik as she finishes up her undergraduate studies to hear more about how her personal experiences have molded her belief in engineering for humanity and what are her future goals.

Can you talk a little more more about your very personal connection to biomedical engineering (BME)?

I am from Izmir, Turkey, and I was raised in a very tight knit household with my parents and also my grandparents from my mom’s side. Family values and morals are just a part of our culture. Both my parents are physicians and worked full time, so since my early years I had a very close relationship with my grandfather. We talked a lot, and he inspired me. He was the one who taught me how to play chess and other strategic card games.

When I was in middle school, my grandfather had a cerebral hemorrhage and he had to be hospitalized. All the physicians were telling us that he was probably not going to make it, but my parents took really good care of him. Somehow, he made it after being hospitalized for 60 days. He came back to our house, but he wasn’t able to walk or talk much, and he was bedridden. My mom and grandmother dedicated themselves to his care and helped him full time.

He also had cardiovascular problems for a long time, and due to his health conditions, he fainted from time to time. He got a pacemaker, and I was fascinated by a device like that that really reinvigorates people’s lives and only needs maintenance every few months.

Witnessing all that care he received really molded my personality growing up as a teen, because I saw the importance of compassion. My grandfather got better and better with good care and therapy, so this close proximity to this care and machines like his pacemaker really drove me into biomedical engineering.

What’s your personal philosophy about engineering?

My grandfather passed away last year from heart failure. That’s why my work is all so sentimental and why I love talking about it, because in that way I still keep him alive. He was 96 when he passed away. All that technology and care kept him alive for 11 years after the stroke. He believed in the power of education, and he would always tell me he’s so proud of me. He always said that you need to keep moving forward and you should only compete with yourself and not others. Long-term, I want to prove myself and keep going, especially intellectually, and that includes learning by myself but also spreading knowledge with the people around me.

I had both academic and extracurricular mentors to help me get to where I am, and I believe in passing the torch and lifting each other up. There are students from Turkey who message me and ask me about getting into Columbia, and I love responding to them because knowledge is for us to share. I also love mentoring incoming international students and BME students. I was so honored to receive a King’s Crown Leadership Excellence Award in Community Building last year for my mentoring work.

In terms of biomedical engineering, I think aiding patients in healthcare and designing things like new drug delivery techniques is so important, more than some realize. In this field, I can be affecting one person’s life, but by changing that one person’s health I’m going to be affecting everyone around them who are impacted by that person’s sickness or disease. Those who suffer can be friends or family, or anybody who would have to grieve for that person, and we need to think of healthcare not as an individual’s problem, but a collective issue for everyone.

How has your lab work further cemented your engineering focus?

I have worked in Dr. Kam Leong’s lab for almost three years, since the beginning of January 2019. The lab’s research focuses on nanotherapeutics and stem cell engineering.

My fellow students have gone from lab to lab, and I’m not knocking that, but I’m really a big believer in consistency. BME is a very vast field, and I think it’s good to specialize if you want to stay in the field. By the time I graduate, I’ll know more about tissue engineering and drug delivery than things like instrumentation or imaging.

Although I’ve worked on two projects in the lab under two mentors, Dr. Danielle Huang and Dr. Tolu Akinade, I’ve really had the opportunity for the team to really get to know me, as well as many avenues to prove myself. During my first month I came in not knowing much as a freshman, but working there, augmented with classwork, fellowships, and experience as a teaching assistant in the BME lab class, really helped me grow up and improve.

You also need to have great and supportive people around you to learn from, especially in BME where work and research is very collaborative. I’m so grateful for the mentors, professors and peers at the BME department who gave me opportunities for growth. Although I am just starting, I feel like I have improved myself intellectually and scientifically since freshman year.

You’ve had some impressive research experiences as an undergrad. Can you tell us more about your experience presenting at conferences?

Something that excited me this fall semester was the opportunity to attend the 2021 annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society in Orlando, Florida and give an oral presentation as an undergraduate. I presented as a second author on behalf of my lab mentor, Dr. Huang.

There were a few of us undergrads doing presentations, but I got to talk about our research to graduate students and professors and answer any of their lingering questions. It just made me feel very empowered. It’s just so gratifying to see that other people are interested in your work that you’ve been doing for over a year.

Thanks to this experience in the lab, I think after getting my bachelor’s I would like to start becoming more of an expert in the field of tissue engineering. I would like to get a more specialized education from top notch professors or pioneers in the field. I don’t know where I’m going to be exactly, but I envision myself as a strong woman who produces meaningful work and is a source of inspiration to little girls, just like the many who inspired me. In the future, I’d like to help make healthcare more accessible for everyone because the right to health is a fundamental human right.

Student Spotlight

Studying to be an engineer can sound really technical, but really the motivation is simple. I want to work toward doing something for humanity that is going to help people—and that will leave me intellectually satisfied.

Ozgenur Celik
Biomedical Engineering, Class of ’22