Cryo-Talk interviews Gökhan Tolun (University of Wollongong)

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Eva Amsen: Hi and welcome to cryo talk. I'm a for Amson and i'm here today with cocaine, Tolon Cocaine is associate professor in the School of Chemistry and Molecular bioscience at the University of Wolongong in Australia.

and Research group leader at the molecular Horizons Research Institute.

Eva Amsen: So how are you today?

Gokhan Tolun: Fine, and you

Eva Amsen: i'm Good. So I mean it's it's morning for me, and it's evening for you in Australia.

Eva Amsen: Now, the first question we tend to ask our guests is, Can you tell us a little bit about your career so far?

Gokhan Tolun: Yeah. So I'm originally from Turkey, so i'm Turkish.

Gokhan Tolun: So I started my career back in Turkey, so I I attended an undergrad there to

Gokhan Tolun: by the Department of.

Gokhan Tolun: and then I actually started my graduate studies there. So

Gokhan Tolun: at the time doing a master's where it was a Pre. Because it for a Phd. So I have a masters in biotechnology.

Gokhan Tolun: And then I actually started my Phd. Back in Turkey. and did a couple of years there. I'm done.

Gokhan Tolun: Meanwhile we were applying for Phd.

Gokhan Tolun: Positions in the Us.

Gokhan Tolun: And we we we got an offer. So when I say we, me and my wife, she's also a scientist.

Gokhan Tolun: So

Gokhan Tolun: what we did we just, you know. left our program.

Gokhan Tolun: and then went to the Us. And started from Scratch another Phd. So

Gokhan Tolun: I got my Phd. From University of Miami in Florida.

Gokhan Tolun: and then

Gokhan Tolun: moved to North Carolina to, you know. So North Carolina in Chapel Hill for my first postdoc.

Gokhan Tolun: where I started with electron microscopy.

Gokhan Tolun: So that was more classical. I am. We were doing what is called the shadow testing.

Gokhan Tolun: I am so you you mount your molecules. You start. You still work with purified molecules like we doing, cry as we are going to talk about. But in this method, although you are working with purified samples mounted on to the Em grades.

Gokhan Tolun: we are actually evaporating metal

Gokhan Tolun: on to the sample. So that's why it's it's called shadowing. So we shadow test

Gokhan Tolun: the molecules by covering them by.

Gokhan Tolun: and also negative standing, which is a pretty common technique in

electron microscopy.

Gokhan Tolun: So after that I moved on to learning, cry here. and for that I move to National Institute of Health in a

Gokhan Tolun: Maryland in Us. Film.

Gokhan Tolun: And then I was there for more than a couple of years.

Gokhan Tolun: and then I moved to another institute within the Nih to continue my post-doctoral framing

Gokhan Tolun: to project this time

Gokhan Tolun: N Ci National Cancer Institute on the


Gokhan Tolun: and then, after that I got my first independent position in Australia.

Gokhan Tolun: close to the beginning of 2,018,

Gokhan Tolun: and came here and established my and a research group. With the help of my first postdoc, Joe, the rooster. who is

Gokhan Tolun: moving to an industry position tomorrow. Actually

Eva Amsen: so

Gokhan Tolun: I think. in in a nutshell. That's that's been my career. So far.

Eva Amsen: so it's been very international before.

Eva Amsen: So so what are what have you found? The the differences to be in the the research environment between Australia, the Us. And even Turkey, where you did part of your first research.

Gokhan Tolun: Yeah. So

Gokhan Tolun: of course, there are some funding considerations and limitations. So you know, Turkey. The time funding into a key is a lot more limited than in us and Australia.

Gokhan Tolun: Of course they

Eva Amsen: most funding is available in the Us, I would say.

Gokhan Tolun: and then Australia.

Gokhan Tolun: But still you know, people, of course, do the best they can everywhere. So it's our scientists, you know they're enthusiastic about the questions they want to answer, and then

Gokhan Tolun: they do their best. So when when I was in Turkey

Gokhan Tolun: we would use a lot of homemade handmade equipment, for example, like you know, Lexi glass glued to to make

containers for running gels and things like that.

Gokhan Tolun: or, you know, homemade instruments for doing the electr operation to transform bacteria and things like that. So the even even though funding is limited, people find ways to do science, which is great.

Gokhan Tolun: But I wish there was more.

Gokhan Tolun: Us.

Gokhan Tolun: of course, is, you know. big country and

Gokhan Tolun: doing well financially.

Gokhan Tolun: So because of that there is, of course, more funding for science.

Gokhan Tolun: So Australia is also pretty good.

Gokhan Tolun: The issue with.

Gokhan Tolun: you know all of these is of the

Gokhan Tolun: percentage of funding compared to the number of available scientists who would like to do research. So

Gokhan Tolun: I wish there was more resources being put by the Federal governments everywhere

Gokhan Tolun: all over the world for doing more science. So

Gokhan Tolun: I was very lucky to be awarded an Hmrc ideas. Grant: yeah.

Gokhan Tolun: A year after coming to Australia.

Gokhan Tolun: So that was more than 600,000 Australian dollars.

Gokhan Tolun: It is sort of equal to the

Gokhan Tolun: Nih Ro. One grants the major grants

Gokhan Tolun: so, but the success rate was 11%.

Eva Amsen: So that means out of the 10 people applying for the Grants 9 researchers are not funded. Right?

Gokhan Tolun: Yes, it was the first one really lucky, great

Gokhan Tolun: So and then i'm also a part of another grantee. It's called a Rc. Australian Research Council. So that is equivalent to the National Science Foundation, Nsf. In the Us.

Gokhan Tolun: So I'm. Also part of that Grant, together with another lead academic.

Gokhan Tolun: So yeah, that that's the difference in funding

Gokhan Tolun: as the

Gokhan Tolun: scientific.

Gokhan Tolun: What is the word?

Gokhan Tolun: Hmm.

Gokhan Tolun: My people goes. Of course Australia is much smaller right, like one tenth of us. So of course, we attend the meeting in the Us.

Gokhan Tolun: And also people tend to go more to us, if not internationally, for meetings.

Gokhan Tolun: So I get to see, you know, a lot more people, and then connect with a lot of more people when you attend meetings in the Us. But again, Australia, although being removed, it's not too bad. So

Eva Amsen: yeah, I was gonna ask you about international meetings, actually, because your most most international conferences tend to be in the Us. Or in Europe, and you're quite far removed from it now. So is it? Do you really have to decide like. Oh, is this conference going to be worth it? It's it's it's a long journey.

Gokhan Tolun: It's not only long journey, As I said, the funding is the right. I I wouldn't mind the long journeys for attending good meetings. Usually it comes down to, you know, since as Australia so removed

Gokhan Tolun: yeah for going to any meeting outside of Australia. You need to fly long distances which turns out. you know, being expensive. So you you know I can fund funding

Gokhan Tolun: in addition to time

Eva Amsen: that becomes a limiting factor sometimes.

Gokhan Tolun: But yes, I I do. I do, miss, you know, going to those meetings in the Us. And meeting all those people.

Eva Amsen: Yeah. And and and what are you? What's your research focusing on at the moment?

Gokhan Tolun: So my research is studying

Gokhan Tolun: pathways in, I would say generally nuclear as it metabolism. So studying DNA Rna

Gokhan Tolun: in general. so more specifically.

Gokhan Tolun: my group is interested in studying a reaction. We call single strand and healing a homologous DNA recombination. So hello!

Gokhan Tolun: This reaction takes place pretty much in all life. So it's a very conserved mechanism of

Gokhan Tolun: stitching DNA together when it's broken.

Gokhan Tolun: So it's one of the DNA repair pathways.

Gokhan Tolun: So what happens is that when 2 DNA molecules are broken with some homology between them.

Gokhan Tolun: the system

Gokhan Tolun: to them up, and then stitch them back together to to make an intact piece of DNA.

Gokhan Tolun: And this is, as I said, found in organisms as simple as the bacteria of ages. So back to your phases are viruses that, in fact, bacteria.

Gokhan Tolun: So they are. You know that low.

Gokhan Tolun: and it will be

Gokhan Tolun: evolution. And then also as humans. So this reaction takes place, like I said, in all of the organisms. So

Gokhan Tolun: so that's what we are studying, and you may think that for a reaction that is so conserved and found in all life.

Gokhan Tolun: We we would know a lot about it right because we don't know a lot about it. So so my group is focusing on studying that. And to do that we are using to my model systems

Gokhan Tolun: Mainly so. One is the bacteria pages that I mentioned. So we are setting a few different bacteria pages, and then also Herpes viruses, so that, as if the human

Gokhan Tolun: so mostly viral DNA recombination, but.

Gokhan Tolun: as I said, it's not just limited to that. For example, one of the collaboration

Gokhan Tolun: projects that we published relatively recently, was studying Rna.

Gokhan Tolun: That's about zoom so transcription.

Gokhan Tolun: And that was also

Gokhan Tolun: an interesting project where we learned

Gokhan Tolun: how the machinery that synthesizes the Rna message from DNA Template

Gokhan Tolun: gets when it gets stuck. It's a problem, because then it becomes a road block on the DNA.

Eva Amsen: So something needs to remove that. Take it off.

Gokhan Tolun: So otherwise you know another transcription machinery that comes bumps into that, and it

cannot go through, or even worse, if the DNA replication machinery

Gokhan Tolun: it comes to that, and it's it's a disaster.

Gokhan Tolun: So the South developed ways of rescuing these stalled

transcription complexes.

Gokhan Tolun: So

Gokhan Tolun: we studied one from a bacterium and

Gokhan Tolun: short, how.

Gokhan Tolun: in fact, to call another protein, and

Gokhan Tolun: that interacts with the Rna Polymerase synthesizing the Rna

Gokhan Tolun: signs to this complex.

Gokhan Tolun: and it actually it looks like we we used to call it like a gorilla or hulk, which looks like it has 2 arms on the head and the body.

Gokhan Tolun: So what it does is it puts its right arm all the way into Rna polymerase into the active sites

Gokhan Tolun: to kick out the my DNA and and the Rna from there, and with its left arm or hand it grabs the Rna polymerase, and pushes it to open it up.

Gokhan Tolun: so that you know it can be removed from from the DNA template that it's stuck on, so we sure that by using cry, am.

Eva Amsen: Yeah, yeah, that was gonna be my next question. Actually. So what were you using? Cryo am for that? Yeah.

Gokhan Tolun: yes, we used to cry for that, and we are mainly using cry. I am also to to study these

Gokhan Tolun: viral DNA recombination complexes

Gokhan Tolun: by determining the three-dimensional structures of these

Gokhan Tolun: machinery, I call them by on the machines. So they are these

Gokhan Tolun: fascinating complexes that carry out these processes.

Gokhan Tolun: Yeah.

Eva Amsen: hmm. And and how many people are in your research group now, because your your group is about 5 years old, I think.

Gokhan Tolun: Yeah. So yeah, as I said, I, I came here beginning of 2,018, so

Gokhan Tolun: I was like to looking at the numbers recently, so I drove them down here so far. My group

Gokhan Tolun: train 2 post talks 6 IP. 6 Phd students and honor students and 7 undergraduate students.

Gokhan Tolun: So you know, some of them, of course, like the undergrads, and honest to that, they come and go to stay for a semester a year. But I still have the Phd students, and one of them is

Gokhan Tolun: just submitted his thesis. So he's finishing. And like, as I said, one of the posts just moved to a company.

Gokhan Tolun: Hmm. So yeah. yeah, do you have any lab traditions.

Eva Amsen: not traditions? We have.

Gokhan Tolun: We have lab launches.

Gokhan Tolun: and then

Gokhan Tolun: usually once or twice a year, we go somewhere outside the campus again. Usually it's, you know, lunch, or

Gokhan Tolun: if we can manage it.

Eva Amsen: Sometimes we meet up, hit our place, so it just like I just invite all of my lab to our house, and then just have a nice day.

Eva Amsen: And what can you tell me a little bit about molecular horizons? Because I read a bit about it, and it sounds like it's

Eva Amsen: going to do some great things.

Gokhan Tolun: Well, hopefully, we already have been doing something.

Gokhan Tolun: So molecular horizons is the largest investment by University of Wolongong.

Gokhan Tolun: So it was more than 80 million dollars to build that from from scratch

Gokhan Tolun: did.

Gokhan Tolun: Huh?

Gokhan Tolun: Interesting thing about is that it was designed from the ground up for cry, am

Eva Amsen: the main me for

Gokhan Tolun: but housing. Let's say the microscope select microscopes.

Gokhan Tolun: So

Gokhan Tolun: when they were looking for a place to build it, they had to find on campus, the area where

Gokhan Tolun: the electrical interference was lovest. We can only put the microscop here.

Gokhan Tolun: so they had to build it there and then. When they were building the building. They they didn't use various materials, for example, so that it's very

Gokhan Tolun: I tech. So they have these special polymers in the a concrete instead of the steel bars.

Gokhan Tolun: and instead of the

Gokhan Tolun: still eyes. they use plastic ziplocks.

Eva Amsen: Hmm.

Eva Amsen: So sometimes, you know, when I give it talk, I joke about oh, this is a building held up by zoom.

Gokhan Tolun: So it's a very high tech building and design, like, I said, from the ground up to provide the best environment for these very sensitive cry electron microscopes.

Gokhan Tolun: So therefore, our microscopes are performing quite well.

Eva Amsen: Yeah, and so was the were the microscopes that they have to be moved from one part of the campus to another, or are they mostly new?

Gokhan Tolun: So when I came

Gokhan Tolun: the medium

Gokhan Tolun: and let's say microscope of Arctica that was on campus, but it was in another building that was

Gokhan Tolun: in a room that was retrofit.

Gokhan Tolun: So it was performing. Okay, but it wasn't, you know, doing its best, so they had to install some active field cancellation systems, and

Gokhan Tolun: the room temperature wasn't as strictly controlled

Gokhan Tolun: there weren't any dampness in in in the room

Gokhan Tolun: walls.

Gokhan Tolun: So it had to be moved from that building to our building and the our high-end microscope, the big microscope height and creos

Gokhan Tolun: that was located in the electron microscopy facility of

Eva Amsen: Hmm. So

Gokhan Tolun: that's about I don't know, like 45 min drive from a long run. So that had to be.

Gokhan Tolun: you know, sort of taken apart.

Gokhan Tolun: We'll go on campus and put together again.

Gokhan Tolun: So that was a stressful time. But you know all this working, so

Gokhan Tolun: our facility is run by Dr. James Power. who is also from America. So he came here from, you know. So California, San Diego.

Gokhan Tolun: and

Gokhan Tolun: he's doing a great job, keeping our facility. Running tip, top shape.

Eva Amsen: Great: yeah, I think most places don't have such a like

Eva Amsen: special build place for cryoem, and everyone is this kind of making do with what, whatever space they have. That's the that's the special thing about molecular horizons. Absolutely. You are absolutely right.

Eva Amsen: And and what do you do when you're not working, do you have any hobbies, or

Gokhan Tolun: I have

Gokhan Tolun: some hobbies? The thing is when you're a teaching and research academic.

Gokhan Tolun: This is much so what I what I used to do. Let's say what I what I used to do. Let's say what I to do other things that science.

Gokhan Tolun: so i'm.

Gokhan Tolun: I'm a to a photographer. So i'm not only taking pictures of molecules. I actually love taking, you know, photos, mostly

Gokhan Tolun: nature animals, things like that.

Gokhan Tolun: So I do a photography. But I have time.

Gokhan Tolun: And I grew up in these

Gokhan Tolun: seventies eighties. So hi! I'm in computer generation.

Gokhan Tolun: So I actually love playing video games. But again, you know.

Gokhan Tolun: Oh.

Gokhan Tolun: unfortunately they they take up too much time.

Gokhan Tolun: and I it's nih in Maryland. I started doing archery.

Eva Amsen: I was doing, Archer, and then I still have my archer equipment here.

Gokhan Tolun: So there is an auxiliary group here that I have so often

Gokhan Tolun: go there, and you know, shoot with them on on on weekends, but but again it's usually a few times a year on the portrait.

Eva Amsen: and I love small, clean

Gokhan Tolun: swimming, like laps, wearing or or snarkling.

Gokhan Tolun: and by King, and things like that.

Eva Amsen: Yeah. Well, you are close to the coast. So you have a place to go snorkeling, I guess. Okay. And do you ever combine your hobbies? Have you taken photos of our 3? Or

Gokhan Tolun: I did a little bit of that? Yes.

Gokhan Tolun: you! You! You end up with some cool shot, sometimes like catching arrows in flight in the air. And yeah, I can imagine I was trying to. I was. I was trying to imagine our 3 in my head when you were talking about it. That's why I was asking if you ever photographed it. Because it does look interesting.


Eva Amsen: And do you like to read? Do you have any book recommendations for our listeners?

Gokhan Tolun: Yeah. And it's the same thing I I used to read when I was younger

Gokhan Tolun: me reading things like Jul Barn, so I think I I I read all books by Jul, by when I was a kid.

Gokhan Tolun: and then I started

Gokhan Tolun: breathing live customers.

Gokhan Tolun: More action.

Gokhan Tolun: like, you know, like novels, and from classy. I like Tom. I see books.

Gokhan Tolun: and

Gokhan Tolun: when you ask me I was thinking, well, what else? What else did I like when I was reading more? And I remember this book called Shibuni

Gokhan Tolun: from the

Gokhan Tolun: That was an interesting book. For example.

Gokhan Tolun: Come on

Eva Amsen: cool.

Eva Amsen: We have to check that out.

Eva Amsen: And and what about things on screen? Fill more TV. Do you have any

anything that you've seen recently that you enjoyed.

Gokhan Tolun: Yeah, we usually yeah.

Gokhan Tolun: we used to go to movies. But although we still do at this often, most of the time, you know, we are just streaming movies at home now on the weekends. Usually we pick something

Gokhan Tolun: instead of going to block master and

Eva Amsen: picking up a Vhs.

Gokhan Tolun: So it depends on our mode. But

Gokhan Tolun: you know, being a highly doing a highly stressful job, we usually go for lighter things when we have time to relax a little bit. So usually we we call for comedies like things

Gokhan Tolun: like action movies.

Gokhan Tolun: And

Gokhan Tolun: again, when when you asked, I was thinking about what other movies like, you know

Gokhan Tolun: which are not

Gokhan Tolun: so light that I liked. And one thing that came into my mind was minority record. So

Gokhan Tolun: it's still sort of an action-ish movie. But I think

Gokhan Tolun: that's an interesting message. And it was I. I thought it was well done. Well done, features to moving. So yeah.

Eva Amsen: do you do you like to cook, do you? Are you ever in the kitchen, or no time for that, either?

Gokhan Tolun: Not Not really so. Usually My wife is the one who cooks when we go. I i'm not much of a cook.

Eva Amsen: I mean.

Gokhan Tolun: I do like my best. Meal is breakfast.

Gokhan Tolun: so like all we can when we are paying breakfast. I'm the usual one who cooks to eggs and things like that. But other than that i'm. I'm not. Really. I I don't think I can call myself a cook, though, and I was single back in Turkey

Gokhan Tolun: attending the University. I I used to cook.

Eva Amsen: so I can actually cook

Gokhan Tolun: a a good number of Turkish dishes

Eva Amsen: and and breakfast, they say, is the most important meal of the day. So you've got that covered. and and do you have any any favorite music. Do you listen to music?

Gokhan Tolun: I do. I have an hour commute on the way. So you know.

Gokhan Tolun: 2 h every day I have an opportunity to listen to some music

Gokhan Tolun: again. Like with the movies.

Gokhan Tolun: It depends on on our on my mood what I listen to. I listen to all sorts of music. So it's not like I like this. I don't like that. I I love pretty much all channels.

Gokhan Tolun: But

Gokhan Tolun: yeah, it depends on my mode. So

Gokhan Tolun: I also, you know, every so often feel like listening to

Gokhan Tolun: music from my time, like, you know, eighties, nineties

Gokhan Tolun: I but everyone loves the eighties and nineties using.

Gokhan Tolun: but I also listen to much newer ones like I don't know, like to me, trumpet.

Eva Amsen: and and this is a question I love asking people If if you were not a scientist, what would you be? What would your your other alternative life career be

Gokhan Tolun: so interesting? Question: because I did think of this when I was looking for an independent position.

Gokhan Tolun: So these independent positions are not easy to find or easy to get.

Gokhan Tolun: So you you think about what would be plan B, if if this doesn't work out.

Gokhan Tolun: So since I, as I said, I do photography.

Gokhan Tolun: that was, of course, one of the things I thought of, you know, because these especially like wedding photographers, they they do earn quite nice money. I heard. So if I was gonna do something just for money

Gokhan Tolun: that, you know, being a photographer probably would be an alternative. And i'm also

Gokhan Tolun: fairly good with computers.

Gokhan Tolun: So I can actually do a lot of the it jobs probably.

Gokhan Tolun: So again, you know. that's a probably

Eva Amsen: Yeah, if you haven't gotten your it hadn't gotten your grants you had some backup.

Eva Amsen: and but my last question is, do you have any advice that you tend to give to your students, or maybe advice that you've gotten that you'd like to share with our listeners anything career-wise.

Eva Amsen: anything. Career, wise

Gokhan Tolun: science. If you decide to do something, it has to be something you love. So you know you can't do science. If you don't absolutely love it, it's it's not easy. And, as I said, like funding is getting lower and lower. Unfortunately

Gokhan Tolun: so, and

Gokhan Tolun: you know it's it's

Gokhan Tolun: As I said, the positions are not that

Gokhan Tolun: available? Not many positions are available.

Gokhan Tolun: So

Gokhan Tolun: you really need to

Gokhan Tolun: love what you do. For example, when I was in the back in the Us.

Gokhan Tolun: First of all, as I said, we sacrificed a lot right like I. I left my family and friends and went to the Us. To do a Phd.

Gokhan Tolun: And then, you know, moved on again. We left everything there, our our home, you know

Gokhan Tolun: all of pretty much our positions and our friends. Unfortunately they most of Australia now.

Gokhan Tolun: So it takes some sacrifice to to do to to do that.

Gokhan Tolun: And

Gokhan Tolun: in addition to

Gokhan Tolun: these, when I was

Gokhan Tolun: at the Nih for about 5 years.

Gokhan Tolun: My wife was in North Carolina still, because she she had a pretty good job there. So, and initially, I was planning to do only

Eva Amsen: the post that for a couple of years. So we said, okay, so we can manage for a couple of years. And it ended up being 3 years on the 4 years and then 5 years. So we actually lived in 2 different states.

Gokhan Tolun: each other like once a month or so for a weekend.

Gokhan Tolun: Yeah, and it's it's not too far. But I guess yeah, if you have to do it often, then for just a few days it becomes a big. It was like 5 4 6 h drive. So we we usually the flu.

Gokhan Tolun: But yeah, that was a sacrifice, for example, right? So

Gokhan Tolun: since she is also a scientist.

Gokhan Tolun: we we have what people call the 2 body problem, so they both be science jobs that are not easy to find. So sometimes it requires some sacrifice.

Eva Amsen: Yeah. So you really you have to. You have to love science to make the sacrifice. That's that's kind of the lesson.

Eva Amsen: Well, thank you so much you can. That brings us to the end of our episode today, and thank you. Everyone for listening or watching prior talk.

Creators and Guests

Gökhan Tolun
Gökhan Tolun
Associate Professor of Chemistry and Molecular Bioscience, University of Wollongong, Australia
Cryo-Talk interviews Gökhan Tolun (University of Wollongong)