Physician has blazed career path in ophthalmology, breaking glass ceiling.
I am an ophthalmologist, specializing in glaucoma. Originally from Turkey, I moved to the United States when I was very young to pursue a glaucoma fellowship at Mount Sinai’s New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, and during that time, I worked on a variety of sponsored clinical trials—with companies in both the pharmaceutical and device industries—particularly investigations involving then-growing ophthalmic imaging platforms.
This experience as an investigator not only introduced me to and made me comfortable with industry collaboration, but it also led to my understanding of the vital importance and value of clinical trial research. After relocating to the San Francisco area with my husband, who is also a physician, Carl Zeiss Meditec, Inc, reached out to me regarding a clinical scientist position to help with the development of the company’s spectral domain optical coherence tomography (OCT) and visual field technology.
I decided to take the leap from being a practicing glaucoma specialist to becoming an industry-based clinical scientist, believing it would be only a temporary career change. I found the work extremely interesting and realized how much I enjoyed working with engineers and others in trying to establish a new norm in the field of ophthalmic imaging. I ended up staying with Zeiss for 7 years, during which time the company introduced the first spectral domain OCT device to patients and health caregivers. The ability to use this imaging technology in the clinical investigation of new drug treatments was very exciting and rewarding. It was deeply gratifying to have the ability to impact visual outcomes for a multitude of individuals vs helping patients one at a time in clinical practice. This is when I knew the change of career direction was right for me.
At the time, 20 years ago, there were not many ophthalmologists working within industry. Now, of course, collaboration is much more common. Along the way, I have worked with a variety of pharmaceutical and biotech companies and have navigated male-dominated workplaces from employees to managers to executives. Yet in all this time, I never felt like an outsider nor did I ever feel that my ideas were dismissed because I am a woman. I was one of the fortunate women to be supported by my colleagues across these roles and companies.
However, my career path was a lonely journey, and every woman’s experience in the industry is not the same. I can only imagine how my career would have developed on an even playing field.
In my career, I have placed an emphasis on encouraging other women by providing an example. This means modeling achievement to the best of my ability within the company, within ophthalmology, and within industry. I am a woman from a tiny town in Anatolia, Turkey, educated all the way in public schools and here I am today, the chief medical officer of Ocular Therapeutix, Inc, a biopharmaceutical corporation, and a board member for the gene therapy–focused Adverum Biotechnologies, striving to advance cutting-edge science. I am always proud to talk about my background with the hope that it may encourage a young woman somewhere.
I believe in working hard, being data driven and open-minded, and evaluating science without prejudice. It is very important to me to take care in what I do, what I write, and how I present, as I am mindful of setting an example for others. In all of my roles I have sought to mentor young women scientists, encouraging them and having ongoing discussions about what they want to accomplish and how they wish to advance their careers.
My leadership style is focused on support. I seek to facilitate others’ potential to achieve their goals and empower them to direct their own development. While I prioritize supporting my team, I am careful to not get in the way of their work; I am not a micromanager. To me, one needs to recognize when it is appropriate to offer a hand and understand when to step back and let others do what needs to be done independently. Providing the right amount of guidance is key—too much and you aren’t letting people grow. I also believe in being a very open communicator.
When I first came to the United States, I became a member of the Turkish American Medical Association. Over the years, the group suffered from a lack of interest and was not functioning well. I wanted to do something to change that, and I helped to revive the group and subsequently was elected its president. The association provides a great networking opportunity within the Turkish American physician community with close to 300 members who represent academic and private practice. All physicians need a comfortable environment from which to draw support and through which to be able to give back.
The group’s focus today is providing assistance for those affected by the recent devastating earthquake in Turkey. In the coming months, we are going to see even more of a medical need in the area. We are ready to offer our assistance and are working on those projects now.
I think ophthalmology and medicine as a whole are becoming more patient-centric. How can we improve patients’ lives? This entails the concept of personalized care, as what is best for one is not always best for another. Patients’ perception of the care they receive also plays a role. That is why patient-reported outcomes and the importance of understanding treatment burden on patients within medicine and ophthalmology will continue to gain importance.
For example, patients with age-related macular degeneration require frequent injections, sometimes monthly or every other month, a regimen that is quite disruptive to their lives. Ocular Therapeutix’s lead candidate OTX-TKI is an investigational, bioresorbable hydrogel implant incorporating the small-molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitor axitinib. This preservative-free, sustained delivery approach is being developed to provide drug therapy for 6 months or longer with a single injection.
I am very excited to work on a treatment that has the potential to lessen the treatment burden on patients. I believe patients’ feelings about their therapy should be an essential part of the drug approval process, along with the designated therapeutic end points. This factor should be embedded in all of our future clinical trials. We shouldn’t lose sight of patient comfort and quality of life, and we should aspire to develop superior options for the patient.