There’s a Lot to Learn, and from Many Different Avenues

Dr. Volkan is originally from Ankara, Turkey and grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. While living in Turkey she received her Bachelor’s and Masters degrees in Molecular Biology and Genetics, and then came to the United States to complete her Ph.D. in Biology at the University of Chapel Hill. Dr. Volkan then went to Los Angeles for 6 years where she did her postdoctoral research at the University of California Los Angeles, and some time afterward found her way to Duke where she is the Principle Investigator of her own lab.

At UCLA, Dr. Volkan wanted to find genes that regulated circuit assembly and gave structural properties to circuits. For example, where is a certain cell body for a cell going to be and where is it going to connect to in the brain? She ended up finding one mutation that shifted her focus from not only the development of the nervous system but also the evolution of the nervous system.

This observation led Dr. Volkan to the question, how is a complex nervous system built? She knew that as well as genes laying one replicable foundation, experience played a key role in how the nervous system is assembled and experience changes the brain, or makes the brain plastic. Therefore, she wanted to explore how experience and the brain are connected and this idea is the basis of what her lab explores today through the unique and powerful system of the Drosophila melanogaster.

Besides working in her lab, Dr. Volkan loves to teach and has been teaching since about 2010. She was a teacher’s assistant at UNC and teaches mostly undergraduate and graduate classes at Duke. She prefers to do a lot of team-based learning and active learning. Currently, she teaches a lab course in the fall and teaches the course Neuroscience 223, “Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology” in the Spring with another professor at Duke.

What I found really interesting about Dr. Volkan was that she was very interested in film, and took a lot of movie critique classes during her academic career. She liked to work with documentaries and independent movies. Dr. Volkan even had a job offer in the film industry, but instead, she decided to continue on with her graduate education! However, throughout all of this she was always been pro-science and knew that she always wanted to be a researcher, despite the fact that she never knew she would be managing a mini-business as she took control of her own lab.

As much as Dr. Volkan loves science, she feels like there are things that can change. She expressed that scientists need to be more open minded and more willing to take a chance on things that can be important or interesting. She says, “Science these days has become like a recipe” and sometimes scientists are too critical to the point where they don’t allow new things to be discovered. Consequently, Dr. Volkan finds herself expanding her interests and learning new things as she goes along in her science journey. She says, “The more [I] learn, the more [science] becomes more interesting”.

Dr. Volkan wants future researchers to know that it is not only a research job, but also has a lot to do with business administration. She says, “You should be very open to learning new things … things are going to change and you have to keep up with that change.”

She ends our conversation with the advice to “Always look for analogies in other systems … there’s a lot of things each science can learn from one another.”

Pelin C. Volkan, Ph.D. (Picture courtesy of

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