Koç University News & Announcements Bulletin

January 2021


When I start to reflect on the month that passed and collect my thoughts on what I would like to share with you in my Newsletters, I always do look back at the previous years. To my delight, certain things naturally do stay the same, and as a person who is a conservative at heart, I make an effort to preserve them. But it is also true that most other things do change, often considerably from year to year. One thing that never changes is that the beginning of the year always brings with it a sentiment of renewal, new energy, an eagerness and anticipation of many more new things to come.

A year ago, we were looking forward to the start of a new decade, forecasting the pace of technology likely to continue to further advance all things in our lives and in fact to change the way we live at work and at home. We were all looking at an ever-increasing presence on social media channels, on which information is to be fervently shared at an unprecedented pace from which we can constantly learn new things and hear/read comments on a slew of topics from an ever-increasing number of sources. While we were all excited about the coming rapid ascent of the information age, some of us, myself included, worried that the unleashing of such an explosive pace of change may cause us to prematurely lose many important traditions and customary ways of living before we can replace them with well thought out and tested new ways and traditions.  

None of us, however, had any inclination of what 2020 would really be like, even though news of a new virus was emerging from China. Like other times, all experts thought that it would be contained, and that only certain countries might be affected in limited ways. Little did we know back then that our lives were soon to be interrupted and disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which would completely overtake our planet for the rest of the year and beyond. To me, 2021 surely did feel like it was never going to come. Even though, we all spent a good portion of our time at home and were busier with online modality of learning, teaching, working and living, it often felt like that time has stopped.

Personally for me, for many years, the January Semester breaks were times which I spent at Stanford University for a week or two, working with one or two of my remaining colleagues on the remnants of my once-huge research program therein and also visiting with my son and two granddaughters. I was there last year this time, and frankly regarded some people that I saw wearing masks at San Francisco Airport as being overly cautious. In retrospect, with an enormous volume of air traffic from the far east and China, the San Francisco Bay Area turned out to be one of the most devastated regions in the entire planet, both in terms of COVID cases and losses of life from COVID.       

Even though I am pleased to observe that we have successfully navigated through this new model of education and completed the Fall 2020 Semester, having reached this point does not take away from the stress and exhaustion of our current circumstances for all of us or lessen the remaining challenges of teaching & learning that lie ahead of us. We were surely much more prepared and equipped for Fall 2020 than Spring 2020, nevertheless, this past semester was in a lot of ways harder on all of us. Back in Spring 2020 when COVID-19 first hit us, we were all anxious with lots of unknowns and long weekends in lock-down, studying, working and literally operating from our homes in a way that none could have anticipated. However, as summer neared, with restrictions easing down, we had a breather and we had much to look forward to, a summer break where many of us was out and about. Fall, on the other hand, came with more preparations but definitely tougher news, with the pandemic soaring around the world. In the midst of warnings that the worst was yet to come and that we had to be extra careful in winter months, we lived through the many challenges and difficulties that this entire modality of living, working and studying imposes on all of us.

We now have a much needed and well-deserved semester break ahead of us and I want to encourage all of our students, faculty and staff to approach this break to rest, recharge and reinvigorate yourselves. I myself am spending the break to work partly on my latest scientific project, involving a major US spacecraft that is carrying unique Very Low Frequency (VLF) instruments, designed and built by my then-research group at Stanford and our colleagues at other institutions around the US during 2003-2008. The built & tested instruments and the spacecraft waited for nearly ten years for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch capability for its launch to near-Earth orbit, which occurred in June 2019.  During the past year and a half, we have been having a great time operating this complicated spacecraft with twice-weekly meetings per week, participated by colleagues from all across the US, acquiring great new scientific data of truly unprecedented quality. Nursing this mission from a time difference of 8-11 hours has been challenging, but it is all worth it as there is nothing that replaces the joy of scientific inquiry/discovery and the exploration of the unknown.   

Just this past week, we had our first Science Team Meeting, necessarily conducted ‘online’ for three hours each on Wednesday and Thursday nights. It was my first time attending a completely online conference, where myself and my two Stanford colleagues presented five different reports. In my presentation, I had the truly unique and ecstatic joy of reporting a serendipitous discovery of an entirely new type of VLF triggered emission, which is likely to dramatically modify our understanding of the physics and the impact of interactions between electromagnetic waves and energetic radiation-belt electrons in near-Earth space. We have been spending months designing active and passive experiments with the spacecraft looking for specific things, but about a couple of weeks ago, swarming over pages and pages of data, I ran into a feature that did not fit with any of our understanding or expectations. After hours and hours of staring at the data and writing notes to myself eliminating possibilities one by one, I had a true ‘Eureka’ moment and it dawned on me what it really was!  A bit more consideration and double check of numbers involved convinced me that this absolutely new phenomena was real and that I can report it. I now cannot help but think about this new VLF emission day and night even in my administrative meetings, as it represents the culmination of decades of work by myself and so many of my 60 PhD graduates. We are now going to work on several new papers reporting this important finding. 

At Koç University, the pandemic did not and will not stop us from moving forward. . . Our mission thus bestowed upon us by our founders more than 27 years ago, to cultivate well-rounded individuals, who can think creatively, independently and objectively, and to explore and advance the boundaries of scientific knowledge remains the same as we continue to relentlessly strive to advance knowledge and to serve our people and humanity at large.

We still have many precious times sprinkled in the year where we are to be filled with pride and joy because of the successes of our faculty and students. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Koç University faculty, students and staff had been doing amazing work on multiple research efforts and our faculty continued to be recognized nationally and internationally for their research in 2020 -- continuing on from where we left off in 2019. Thus, my belief that our faculty members shall continue to break new records this year in publishing outstanding papers, securing new sponsored research grants and receiving new awards and recognitions, cementing our position even further as one of the top research universities in Turkey and the region is as strong as ever.

These thoughts also bring me to our Vehbi Koç Foundation (VKV), which is celebrating its 52nd year as a unique foundation that is second-to-none in Turkey and our region. Their unwavering support, in a year like no other full of financial challenges, shows us how lucky we are to be a part of such a strong entity. Myself and my colleagues at the university administration as the current custodians of the generous resources provided to us are thankful and are motivated and driven by the charge our Founder has given to us to continue to use the resources of the Foundation as effectively, frugally, meaningfully and impactfully as possible.

On a much sadder note, January 21st was the fifth anniversary of the untimely passing away of the late Mustafa V. Koç, Chairman of the Board of Koç Holding. Mustafa Bey was always an unrelenting, unconditional and generous supporter of our university. . . The development and growth of Koç Holding under his leadership provided the financial resources that drove the rapid development of our university in the last decade. We shall always remember him with respect and deep affection. If you have not done so, please watch a documentary that was produced after his untimely death. . . May he rest forever in peace and in heaven.

I would like to conclude with a final thought on the pandemic. We are at a critical point in the health crisis, with cases stabilizing thanks to weekend and night lockdowns and vaccines being rolled out across our country; we sure have much to look forward to. However, it is still quite unlikely that our country and the rest of the world may be able to move out of this crisis soon and it does appear that restrictions are likely to still continue during February along with the early Spring months. Therefore, I would like to repeat my plea to all of you to please continue to be cautious, stay healthy, and to please do take care of yourselves and your families.  I cannot wait to see things go back to normal when I hope to see you all on our beautiful campus. . .

My best wishes and regards to you all,

Umran Inan