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Lux et veritas in Istanbul

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2019 - Autumn


Each term, Ilkay Alp Yıldırım, PhD, affects the lives of 800 students at Istanbul University. Turkey’s oldest university, founded in 1453, the school has a thriving medical program. There, Yıldırım is an associate professor of pharmacology, where she completed her BSc (summa cum laude), MSc and PhD in the Faculty of Pharmacy. The work she accomplished during her postgraduate fellowship, at Yale School of Medicine’s Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine, is among her proudest academic achievements.

“Yale's Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine was an enlightening experience for me,” Alp Yıldırım says. “Yale is the place where I learned how one should carry out scientific research, especially at the empirical level. Now, I try to bring that light to my lectures by teaching students the pillars of science. Who knows, the next drug molecule may be found by one of my students,” she says.

She acknowledges the difficulties of conducting research in a country where resources — budgets and grants — are more limited than at an institution like Yale. Nevertheless, Alp Yıldırım is relentless in her endeavor to inspire Turkey’s next generation to have faith in science, and to think big.

Her enthusiasm is infectious, as are her ideas about how to organize research—the latter, Alp Yıldırım attributes to her time at Yale. She talked about how impressed she was by the accreditation and standard operating procedures at the Boyer Center upon her arrival. “Establishing similar procedures in Istanbul University’s pharmacology laboratory was my top priority after I returned to Turkey,” Alp Yıldırım says.

There are other “procedures” from Yale she has continued in Turkey. One is asking whether she believes in her data each time she analyzes experimental results. “This is the question that William Sessa, PhD, Alfred Gilman Professor of Pharmacology and Professor of Medicine asked us in the weekly research meetings at Yale,” she says. “This additional level of scrutiny is now one of the guiding principles of my practice.”

Alp Yıldırım’s research focuses on vascular pharmacology. “Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are the number one cause of death globally,” she explained, adding “more research and an increased public awareness is needed to fight CVD.”

“According to The World Health Organization’s (WHO) obesity research, Turkey leads Europe with an obesity rate of about 32 percent. Increasing obesity rates translate into increasing type 2 diabetes cases and heart diseases,” Alp Yıldırım says. She is involved in several projects to promote treatment in the area of vascular pharmacology.

One project on early diabetes detection in which she participated won an award at the Congress of the European Society of Clinical Pharmacy (ESCP). “You cannot show your love to your nation with stones and rifles,” Alp Yıldırım said, “There is no fight to be won through brute force. We need to develop scientific projects that will advance our knowledge and understanding.”

Beyond the skills and organizational confidence she developed at Yale, Alp Yıldırım feels that her fellowship at YSM opened doors for her in subsequent international engagements. In 2016, Alp Yıldırım spent a year as a visiting scholar at the Cardiology Division of the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. “My fellowship at Yale is an internationally recognizable badge of success,” she says.

Alp Yıldırım has since enlarged her global network, which she uses to benefit of her students and young researchers in Turkey. She is the international affairs coordinator of her Faculty at Istanbul University, and in this capacity, is responsible for establishing academic and vocational partnerships with institutions abroad. She works hard to ensure that her students and younger colleagues participate in international academic exchange and internship programs, including the European Commission funded Erasmus program. She has recently been selected to be a member of iPLACENTA, a European training network supported by the European Union, as the sole partner from Turkey. The network aims to promote international and interdisciplinary training of early-stage researchers in maternal and fetal health.

Finally, Alp Yıldırım sits on the board of the Effective Pharmacy Society in Turkey. In line with her interest in public health, she is involved in training programs for pharmacies on good pharmacy practice across the country. Thanks to her global network, she also aims to manage relations with international institutions, such as the Federation of International Pharmacists.

Alp Yıldırım is full of energy. She talks about life in terms of projects and she has many of them. Most recently, she decided to add “art” to her long list of activities. She plans to take music lessons. Alp Yıldırım believes that inspiring her students can happen beyond the realm of science, and hopes that the next generation of Turkish scientists and health professionals will be prepared to carry on the long local tradition of seeking “light and truth.”