Harvard's Ice Man

By Maureen Erturk
In the futuristic realm where engineering meets human biology stands a man from Moda in Istanbul.  Considered one of the world's leading experts in cryobiology, nanotechnology and tissue engineering, Mehmet Toner, Ph.D., came to America 25 years ago from the neighborhood of plane trees and tea gardens and the rigorous training of Istanbul Technical University's mechanical engineering department.

Mehmet Toner, Ph.D.

Today he is Professor of Surgery (Biomedical Engineering) at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and is the founding director of the National Institutes of Health BioMEMS Resource Center. BioMEMS stands for Biological Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems.
And though that all sounds very complex, each specialty has very practical and necessary applications. Freezing tissue, for example, is central to being able to store and transport organs, stem cells, skin, even embryos, he explains.
"The only reason Lance Armstrong was able to have children after his cancer is because he'd frozen his sperm," explains Dr. Toner.
And through nanotechnology, he and his team created chips to put in humans to detect and monitor both cancer and HIV/AIDS. In fact, Popular Mechanics magazine named his cancer invention one of the top 10 inventions of the year and gave it the 2008 Breakthrough Award.
Further, Dr. Toner has done some of the most important work around the globe in creating bioartificial livers and skin which may replace failing organs using integrated engineering and biological approaches.
How did a man who began in mechanical engineering end up in medicine?
 "Towards the end of my studies in Istanbul I'd shown more interest in academic work, so I applied to a few different programs and came to do my graduate studies." Those included Harvard, Yale and MIT, which all accepted him. He chose MIT after a Turkish professor at Yale unselfishly championed the work going on at MIT instead of poaching him for Yale, thinking he'd be a good fit and believing in its future. He took his advice.
And these new disciplines have a basis in traditional engineering, he explains.
"I was a standard pure mechanical engineer, but was interested in plasma physics and hydrodynamics, thermal science - low temperature biology was a very natural extension.
"Living cells and tissues are almost becoming like drugs now. Cells will be therapeutic."
Particularly if science is given the funding and the environment to help people, he says.
And as he once stood on a precipice between continents before journeying to America, he sees another path opening before him and all who care about the promise of his area of research: He thinks the new American President Barack Obama will be good for science.
"It's been so bad under the last administration, it can only go up," he points out.
He says there is evidence that President Obama will be a progressive leader in this area given his choice for Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and director of the Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory at the University of California.
"He's an outstanding scientist, a remarkable man," says Dr. Toner. "Energy will probably create a lot of possibilities for this country."
He feels that the current recession is cyclical and that science can lift the country out of economic doldrums long-term.
"We have a lot bigger issues on our plate with the economy and war and all of that but in the end what I feel is happening is the U.S. is going through various phases."
That the US retains any dominance in the world high tech sector is due to another MIT professor, Dr. Toner explains.
"After World War II, MIT professor Dr. Vennavar Bush wrote 'Endless Frontiers.' And the point of the report was that in 1945 the government had to put money into research and development and the universities." Places like the NIH and America's graduate schools blossomed when the paper successfully inspired a commitment to the future, he explains.
"Many economists will say that 50 percent of the economy is fueled by this policy even today," says Toner.
Dr. Toner is very proud of the undergraduate education he received in Turkey. Its superiority is evidenced in how easy he found a top university like MIT.
"We'd learned a lot of it in our undergraduate work," he says.
However, he notes that the United States is still the world leader in graduate education and high tech innovation and he's happy to be here to add to his knowledge and apply what he learned as a young man in Turkey.
"What this country still does extremely well is the high tech stuff that is multi-disciplinary and complex. There is integration across disciplines. Other countries don't have the flexibility and the dynamism that we have here. It's very important that we keep this."
Unlike when Dr. Toner arrived, he notes that more than half of today's foreign doctoral students are returning to their homelands.
"It's good but we are in effect creating our own competition," he observes.
For this reason as well as the long term recovery of America, we need to revive the clarion call of "Endless Frontiers," he says.
"Science creates jobs, improves life, grows our economy. Some of the effects are long-term benefits and when people are afraid how they're going to pay for dinner, they don't have the luxury of thinking about this," he notes. But it is his prescription for America, nonetheless.
Dr. Toner is humble about his place in the Turkish-American Diaspora. Though he has opened his home to many other Turks coming to the Massachusetts area to work and study and taught curious Americans about his still-misunderstood homeland, he says "I wish I could do more.
"Our numbers are somewhat growing. It's still very small to have enough impact and visibility, especially politically. But that is beginning to change."

Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07