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A Glamorous Role Model and Alumna

By Caitlin Jennings, Communications Coordinator, Society for Science & the Public

Melis Anahtar (Intel STS 2004), whose Intel STS mentor, Harvard professor Mehmet Toner, is still her mentor today, thinks that it is especially important to have role models and mentors, saying, “inevitably, you will have to make difficult decisions or face tough obstacles, and it’s very helpful to elicit advice from a mentor who has been in your shoes…And by identifying role models, you can take comfort in knowing that your dreams are possible and that there are many paths to success and happiness!”

A few years ago, Melis was honored for her college research in mechanical and biomedical engineering at MIT and given the opportunity to serve as a role model herself when Glamour Magazine named her one of the Top 10 College Women of 2007. “I thought it would be a lot of fun, and more importantly, that it would be an opportunity to represent women in science,” she says, adding that she was excited that, after being influenced by so many great role models herself, she could inspire girls reading the magazine to pursue graduate education.

“I had been studying for the MCAT around the time of the photo-shoot, so it was quite an amazing change to go from taking practice tests in the library to sitting in a New York loft while getting my hair and makeup done, choosing from hundreds of beautiful outfits, and being photographed by a prominent photographer,” she says. She also enjoyed meeting the other nine top college women. “We were lucky enough to have won during the 50th anniversary of the competition, so the June trip included a reunion luncheon with winners from the past fifty years, including Martha Stewart and leaders in fields ranging from medicine to journalism. It was a very enriching experience!”

After Melis graduated from MIT, she spent a year studying immunology at Oxford University in England on a Rhodes Scholarship. “It was an opportunity to learn a new scientific area (immunology), immerse myself in a new culture, enjoy the company of brilliant scholars who also happen to be wonderful people, and gain a new perspective on my life in the US,” she says.

She is now in the MD-PhD program at Harvard Medical School’s Health Sciences and Technology program where she hopes to focus her PhD research on bioengineering with immunology, the same research area as her Intel STS project. Coincidentally, Melis is conducting research this summer in the same Massachusetts General Hospital research complex where she did her Intel STS research project years ago. “While making the same commute and eating in the same cafeteria that I had eight years ago, I often think about how formative my STS experience was, both scientifically and socially,” she says.

Socially, Intel STS  connected her to fellow finalists, she says, “I’ll never forget our tour of the White House, the epic hide-and-go seek game in the Mayflower Hotel, learning to racewalk from my champion roommate, and the immense excitement of standing on the stage at the final awards ceremony.” Some of the other finalists went on to become her classmates and good friends at MIT and in medical school.

“Scientifically, it was my first exposure to real research,” Melis says. For two summers she worked on developing a microfluidic device to isolate a pure white blood cell population from whole blood; a version of the device is still being used. “Preparing for STS by writing the paper, designing the posters, explaining my research to audiences ranging from 5-year-olds to Nobel Prize winners, and speaking to members of the press was also a valuable practice in scientific communication.”

Melis continues to inspire and encourage future scientists with parting advice: “Follow your passion, but keep an open mind. If you find that you really love a certain area of research, then pursue that area but make sure to talk to other scientists who are working in different areas and attend unrelated but interesting talks. I think that the most interesting research comes from making creative connections and conducting interdisciplinary research.”

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