Heart and Science: Dr. Neval Erturk’s Formula for Success
Neval Erturk stays busier than bubbles boiling in a beaker. An award-winning researcher, grant-winning engine and energetic collaborator, she chairs Converse’s Department of Biology, Chemistry and Physics, teaching genetics, science and gender, and cell biology, among other courses. She also harnesses multidisciplinary creativity, once helping design a mock crime-scene investigation on campus to teach forensics and a theater production using actual scientific materials.
Underscoring her burgeoning department’s heft and reach, the National Institutes of Health in 2015 awarded Converse a $626,000 grant to expand two initiatives: a K-12 Science, Technology and Research Scholars (STARS) program and a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiative at Legacy Charter Early College High School in Greenville.
“I like teaching,” she says, “but I LOVE mentoring. I meet students when they are freshmen, and I get to observe them as they grow into mature scientists and sophisticated thinkers.”
Catching up with the native of Turkey is like chasing molecular pollen. And in many ways, she does that, too. In summer 2015, she hosted Legacy students at Converse to study such topics as nutrients in food and pigmentation in leaves.
And she immerses herself in Converse students. “I like teaching,” she says, “but I LOVE mentoring. I meet students when they are freshmen, and I get to observe them as they grow into mature scientists and sophisticated thinkers.”
She inspires them in the lab, too. “In the last 10 years, we made it a priority to engage our students in undergraduate research. Research helps students clarify their career goals, as well as boosts their confidence as scientists.”
When her students voiced skepticism about Chinese supplements touted for their cancer curing properties, Erturk took on a two-year mentoring project. She guided them as they did their own experiment on supplements, feeding mice herbs and documenting the effects.
“You should see the students when we have these experiments and the results come out,” she later told the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. “Things that were all theory throughout the semester all of a sudden become reality, and it’s a life-changing experience for them.”
She brings that same excitement to increasing opportunities for women. In 2013, the American Association of University Women reported more than half of biological scientists in the US are women. While that’s a huge increase from 42% in 1990, Erturk says, “Women are still underrepresented in sciences. They are particularly outnumbered at leadership positions in the STEM workforce. Converse being a single-gender institution that promises to train leaders in all disciplines is very attractive to me.”
She appreciates Converse’s leadership, as well. Joining the faculty a year after Betsy Fleming’s arrival, Erturk, says she found the president’s vision impressive.
Add to that insatiable curiosity: Despite her workload, Erturk also takes history and political science courses at Converse. “I love staying busy, but my life is not centered around science,” she says. “I love being in the classroom with our students and learning from my colleagues. I realize how demanding the Converse faculty is. I see firsthand how hard our students study to meet those demands and how they give their best.”