Michigan Engineering News

Aspiring selves

In the final year of her biomedical engineering PhD, Sumeyra Emre is a dedicated researcher, growing mother, wife and partner, proud Muslim woman, and aspiring role model.

Image of Sumeyra Emre working at her lab
With the lab time at the Center for Materials Characterization all to herself, Sumeyra uses an electron microscope to view the nanoparticles she makes as a member of Chemical Engineering Professor Nicholas Kotov’s research group. Her research focuses on creating inorganic nanoparticles that act as conduits for gene therapy and drug delivery, which are two of the largest research areas in the cancer treatment field. Much like elsewhere in the world, women are underrepresented in STEM fields in Turkey, and so Sumeyra hopes to return to Turkey as a professor and role model for other Muslim women interested in pursuing a research career.
Image of Sumeyra Emre rushing from one lab to another
Sumeyra rushes from one lab to another, trying to finish her day’s work before getting three-and-a-half year old Talha from the North Campus Children’s Center, a daycare that many staff and faculty at the university use. A grant from the University of Michigan helps with care costs. But the family must pay fees when they are late picking him up, and both Sumeyra and Ahmet, her husband, feel guilt when their son is among the last children there.
Image of Sumeyra Emre and her son at a grocery store
Sumeyra and her family wanted to have the balance of both family and research, which is why they had Talha at the beginning of graduate school. “I didn’t want to postpone my research to have a family or postpone having a family for my research,” Sumeyra said.
Image of Sumeyra and her son's hand together holding dandelion seeds
Sumeyra plays with her son in their backyard at Northwood V housing community on North Campus, where many other graduate student families live. While she and her husband are both engineers in graduate school, they feel no desire to push Talha in a similar direction. Their goal is for him to be happy and explore the passions that come to him naturally.
Image of Sumeyra's son Talha changing shirt
Despite getting dirty while playing at daycare, Talha is less than enthusiastic as Sumeyra changes him into a clean shirt. “You’re so sassy,” Sumeyra often says to him. She loves Talha’s playful personality, which has emerged in the last year.

I think I’m kind of a role model, because of my family saying it’s not easy to go abroad and study and you’re doing your PhD, which is not so common for the girls in Turkey. And also you have a kid, so it’s not an easy thing to do.

Image of Sumeyra and Ahmet talking to each other at a lounge
“Do you want to eat lunch?” Sumeyra asks. “Not today, too much to do,” Ahmet answers. Both are graduate students under Professor Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering. Yet they see little of each other during the day as they work on separate projects. Like any married couple, they have to make an effort to find time for each other, especially when they’re immersed in their research, working with samples of nano-materials they refer to as their “babies.”
Image of Ahmet with his son Talha in his arms at home
After Ahmet returns home from the lab, he gathers Talha in his arms. Sumeyra and Ahmet split parenting duties around each’s responsibilities as graduate students. When one needs to stay late or return to the lab in the evening, the other will take care of Talha. In the fall, Ahmet added teaching to his workload, leaving Sumeyra to pick up and watch Talha after daycare, in addition to her regular share of household chores and duties. This spring, Sumeyra is doing the teaching, with Ahmet taking on additional tasks.
Image of Talha pulling his mom's dress
“It’s time to go in, Talha,” Sumeyra says as her son pulls on her dress. “We didn’t know what was going to happen or how hard it it would be (when we had Talha),” she laughs. “But I think it is the best decision that we have had.”
Image of Sumeyra working at her lab computer
Sumeyra and Ahmet thought it would be impossible for both of them to be accepted into the same graduate program, but were delighted to be proven wrong. And they have found Kotov to be everything they hoped for in a mentor. “Two days after we came here, (Kotov) had a summer party,” Sumeyra recalled. “He said ‘I know you are Muslim, you don’t eat pork and you don’t drink alcohol, so I bought halal and non-alcoholic beverages for you.’ I just said, ‘Who are you? Are you an angel or something?’ His work, personality, and the environment he provides is why I came here.” “Even though it’s sometimes hard, sometimes crazy, it was my dream to do a PhD here.”
Image of Sumeyra and Talha playing together
“There is no balance,” Sumeyra said. “When you are living in it, you’re not really thinking of your passion for research, how you want to be a role model or other stuff. You’re just trying to do what you’re doing in the best way.”
Dark portrait image of Sumeyra Emre

I’m going to live how I want to live,” Sumeyra said. “So how do you say it in English? I want to touch their lives with my living style.

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