MSE alum reflects on his experience in UConn’s doctorate program and discusses his current position as the Department Head of MSE at Sabanci University, Turkey
By Kyra Arena, Written Communications Assistant
Alum Burc Misirlioglu joined UConn’s doctorate program for materials science in 2001 after obtaining his MSc and BSc in metallurgy and materials engineering from Istanbul Technical University. He was Professor S. Pamir Alpay’s (MSE professor, Interim Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship) first Ph.D. student. After receiving his Ph.D. in 2006, Misirlioglu completed post-doctoral work at the Max Planck Institute of Microstructure Physics in Germany and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2008 he became an assistant professor at Sabanci University in Turkey. Currently, at Sabanci University, he is the Department Head of MSE, Professor of MSE and Co-director of Center of Excellence for Functional Surfaces and Interfaces (EFSUN).
Misirlioglu’s current research involves ferroelectric oxides and how their interfaces with other types of materials either enable or limit functionality in devices. Alongside this work, he has on-going collaborations that focus on the response of oxide/semiconductor interfaces in the optical and THz spectrum for tunable optics. Misirlioglu is also working on the response of nanoscale magnets to external electric fields, which can pave the way for future designs and development of more efficient devices in the semiconductor industry.
We sat down with Burc Misirlioglu to discuss his experiences as a UConn alumnus, and how that affects his career in MSE.
What inspired you to enter the field of materials science and engineering?
While I was preparing to take the university entrance examination in Turkey in early 1990s, my father had a vision that metallurgy (which later on transformed into materials science and engineering) would become a very important field in technology. I was more interested in chemical engineering at that time (also due to my exam score) but it was my father who encouraged me to study metallurgy and materials at Istanbul Technical University. After I got my B.Sc. in metallurgy, I went for M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees thinking that I would become a materials engineer or some sort of a materials specialist working in aerospace, a field that I enthusiastically have followed since my childhood years. So, I can say that it is my father and my passion for aerospace that inspired me to obtain degrees in materials science and engineering.
Why did you choose UConn for your graduate studies?
In the year 2000, I met Professor Nejat Olgac from the Mechanical Engineering Department at UConn who gave a lecture about his research during a visit to Istanbul Technical University. I was doing my M.Sc. at the time. He suggested that I apply to the MSE program at UConn. He told me that there were highly dynamic faculty members at the department, carrying out research with aerospace companies nearby, as well as cutting edge facilities at the Institute of Materials Science. I got very excited, reviewed the program on the internet and decided to apply. At UConn, I never got to work on aerospace materials for my Ph.D. research but stepped into a field that was just as interesting. I had some of my most challenging and at the same time most rewarding times at UConn MSE between 2001 and 2006. The MSE department at UConn has grown further since and become one of the best programs in materials science and engineering in the USA.
Describe your experience working with Professor Alpay during your doctorate program.
When I first met Professor Alpay in 2001 at UConn, I was struck by his scientific brilliance and his patience with the students. He had just started to work at UConn as an assistant professor and I was his first Ph.D. student. I often had the impression that he was carrying out research as a hobby, a quality every enthusiastic scientist possesses. I could easily say he was a role model for me during my Ph.D. and I believe I inherited some of his admirable qualities during that time. I try to implement these qualities when interacting with my own students here at Sabanci University. Professor Alpay’s creative approach to research problems and his perspective and guidance on a number of scientific challenges I was facing in my Ph.D. are two other points I must mention. His sense of humor and positive, approachable personality were also among his qualities I enjoyed, and we are still in contact to this day.
How did your experience at UConn prepare you for your career?
The working style of Professor Alpay definitely influenced the way I approach science and academics. Next to Professor Alpay, Professor Mark Aindow was another inspirational faculty. His command over the field of microscopy, how organized and smoothly he delivered his lectures were invaluable scientific and learning experiences for me. I must admit Professor Aindow was famous among the grad students for his demanding assignments and lab reports, but at the end attending his lectures proved highly rewarding especially when I was asked to teach fundamentals of electron microscopy at Sabanci. I also greatly benefited from interacting with him as he was co-supervising my research on dislocation studies in thin films using transmission electron microscopy. I must not forget to mention Professor Nitin Padture (now at Brown University) from whom I took the mechanical properties course in the Fall of 2002. He always tried to provide a clear view of the subject and demonstrated how one can benefit from intuition when approaching engineering problems. All these experiences have contributed to the way I carry out research and prepare for lectures in my own academic career.
Why did you decide to accept the demanding role of Department Head of MSE at Sabanci University?
When my name was mentioned as the next program head (equivalent of the department head title) in late 2020 for the materials program at Sabanci, I was somewhat hesitant as I thought it would interfere destructively with my research. I then tried to convince myself that this was an opportunity to update or implement some policies that I always had thought would benefit our program. Apart from research, implementing new agendas and methods to enhance the effectiveness of materials research and education has been a “thought exercise” I sometimes found myself in. The encouraging, cooperative atmosphere among the faculty members we have here at Sabanci eventually resulted in my acceptance of the offer in January of 2021.
What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in MSE?
I advise students to keep a broad vision on the numerous possibilities in science and technology, as opposed to being focused entirely on a single direction of study. Academic courses are certainly the starting point for achieving critical and advanced levels of thinking. But at the same time, a productive career starts when one is determined to go beyond her/his existing experience. I highly recommend students to follow other areas, such as mechanics, physics, electronics, biosystems and alike, and to interact with the people in these areas to identify the material related issues or opportunities that may lead them to highly interesting and rewarding paths in their careers. And just as important, I advise them to remain curious learners throughout their careers as scientific knowledge and methods are constantly evolving.
For more information on Dr. Misirlioglu, please visit his research group website.