Speech for the Reception of the TUBITAK (Turkish NSF) Exclusive Award
Honorable President of Republic of Turkey Mr. Gul,
Honorable Secretaries of the State,
Dear President of TUBITAK Prof. Dr. Altunbasak,
Esteemed Colleagues and Honorable Guests,
I am extremely honored, humbled and proud to receive this prestigious EXCLUSIVE national level AWARD from Tubitak. First of all, I would like to thank my nominator, Prof. Murat Tekalp from Koc university, who initiated the entire process, and spent his precious time providing a vital supporting role leading up to this day. I also thank my references from all around the world for sending their very strong endorsement letters. Importantly, I am indebted to the Tubitak Exclusive Awards committee members for recognizing my significant and pioneering contributions in the Telecommunications world over the last 27 years, and granting me this highest and most prestigious award of Tubitak.
I have received several awards in my career, but this award has a special meaning for me personally. Apart from its prestige and national stature, I am especially touched as this award is bestowed by my home country, and through the will of my own countrymen and women.
In the early seventies, our country was having severe problems with deeply entrenched right and left wing political ideologies that often culminated in aggressive and violent acts. My father wanted to keep me out of this turmoil, and in 1973, he first sent me to Austria for the high school (chosen partly because I was already in the Austrian school in Istanbul) and later to Germany for higher university education. In a tragic occurrence, my father passed away in 1976, when I was in the second year at the university. Unfortunately, after the death of my father, I was left alone with no one to support me financially. These days, fraught with struggle and uncertainly, were truly dark days in my life. But this experience, and the resulting bitterness molded me to become stronger, and inspired a new beginning in the fight for survival in my life. Because I had consistently been a successful student, the German government took over the financial support and granted me a monthly stipendium of 740 Deutsche Marks. Each semester I had to demonstrate competitively high marks in order to continue my stipendium. For helping me tide these difficult times, I am very thankful to the German government, not only for the stipendium but also for an excellent education that I received in their country.
I finished the German university with the highest marks (1.2), which is equal to 9.8 in the Turkish system, and as in Turkey, it was extremely difficult to score very high marks there. In 1981, I obtained a research assistant position at the same university to conduct research and obtain the Ph.D. degree. I completed my Ph.D. in a relatively short time of three years, which was a difficult feat given the high German standards.
It was always my dream to move to the US because I wished to be counted as the worldwide leader in my field, and the opportunities that could enable this dream were in the US at that time. Hence, I believed the US was the place I needed to start from, and decided to proactively work towards this aim.
I had applied to several US universities for Assistant Professor positions before I went to the military service in Burdur in September 1984. When I came back to Germany early December, I already had couple of offers. Within a month, I had uprooted my entire established career path and family life in Germany, and moved to the US in January 1985. I had just taken the first step of my academic career as a tenure track Assistant Professor.
I moved to the US with my wife, 2 year old daughter and a total of six suitcases. I did not know anybody in this new country. I did not have any relatives, friends, or any other acquaintance for support. I did not know the US education system at all. Now, when I look back, I feel it was a risky move, which I would consider twice before undertaking today. When you are young, you are willing to dare, and have all the courage to realize your vision despite many seemingly impossible objectives.
At the time of stepping in the US, all I had was my knowledge, incredible ambition, infinite energy, significant research ideas, and my surrealistic dreams of becoming a leader in the Telecommunications world. One of the researchers from IBM Yorktown Heights, whom I had met in March 1985, told me many years later the following: He had thought I was a crazy man because the enthusiastic way I was telling him how successful I will be, and how I will dominate the telecom research world and conquer the world some day.
The underlining message is that if you have a vision to be a game changer and bring about radical change, then you have to be extremely determined and focused to succeed. 26 years later I look back and can say that I achieved all my set objectives in my life. Of course, I worked extremely hard all these years, and am still working as actively today. Personally for me, this journey could not have been accomplished alone - I am very thankful to my wife, Maria, who had supported me throughout all those years, and sacrificed a lot to hold the family together as it grew.
In the beginning of my career, I worked on queuing models of computer communication networks, and did some very good work, which led to the IEEE Fellow award in 1995. I have always sought new areas and new research challenges, with the hope that others would be inspired to follow this lead and contribute in emerging technologies. In the late 80ies, I started to work on ATM Networks. My contributions here were considered significant and worthy of the ACM Fellow award.
In the early 90ies I began to collaborate with NASA and Department of Defense on satellite networks and Space Internet. My papers contained several results that became classical directions in these research areas, and I received several awards on their strengths. Importantly, many of my approaches and methods were prototyped by NASA and also by US Department of Defense, and I feel content that I have contributed to the increasing worldwide connectivity, and strengthened our capability to combat malicious entities today.
While interacting with US government agencies, I was also closely following the new trends in wireless communication in the industry. I initiated the work on mobility management (roaming problems) in 3G systems around 1998. You can imagine the 3G systems are used worldwide now, but we began work on it back in late 90ies to pave way for the technology today. I also initiated the 4G and nG terminologies for future cellular systems, way back in early 2001. We (with Prof. Altunbasak) had received 1.5 Million dollars 4 yrs project from NSF to pursue that project, results from which are still being used as the building blocks for the initial design of current and future wireless systems to this day.
Around this period, I also started research on wireless sensor networks. The roadmap/visionary paper I wrote in 2002 received 14,000 citations according to the Google Scholar as of date, which is a remarkable achievement. Everybody who starts to work on this topic uses my vision paper to understand the potentials and challenges of this technology, and bases it as a point of departure to pursue their own independent research. My research group produced excellent, pioneering results on wireless sensor networks including pertaining to operation of sensors in challenged environments like underwater, underground and tunnels, and border patrol applications. Based on these achievements I also received several more highly prestigious awards from IEEE and ACM between 2000-2010.
In the late 2000s, I started to extend my research activities outside of USA. Among these, I founded a research center called Advanced Sensor Networks Lab, which is operated jointly by the University of Pretoria and Meraka National Research Institute in South Africa. I also received an honorary professor position from University of Pretoria. Our primary objective for this research center is to address societal and environmental needs of networking and monitoring in South Africa based on sensor network applications, and produce excellent engineers, create new high tech companies and advance/elevate the overall research activities in South Africa to the level of the US and Europe.
Approximately five years ago, I became interested in nano-scale machines, as I had been hearing about the progress of nanotechnologies all around the world. I had often wondered that when these nano-scale machines are finally designed and are on the market, how would they manage to communicate? My curiosity brought me to question whether known classical communication paradigms were sufficient for nano-machine interactions, or if we needed a totally new communication paradigm. I started to vigorously pursue research on this topic at my home university Georgia Tech in an effort to understand and answer some of these questions.
Realizing the future needs of networked nano-scale machines, I proposed to the administration of Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya in Barcelona (UPC one of the top universities in Spain) to start a research center on Nanonetworks in 2007. If you wonder why did I choose Barcelona, the answer is fairly simple. I had fallen in love with Barcelona during my Inter-rail ticket Europe tour in 1973, and since then, I had continued to visit Barcelona several times. Sometimes to move ahead, we need to find the inspiration in the past!
One year later, in 2008, I was officially appointed as the Honorary Professor at the UPC, which permitted me to launch the NaNoNetworking (N3Cat) Center. This center is the first and unique center in the entire world focusing on communication aspects of the nanoscale machines. We have three active projects and we are still expanding. Our objective is to become the epicenter of the nano-scale communications research in the world.
Nanoscale communication is my latest and the strongest research interest. This field will dominate the world the next 50 years, and when history looks back at these formative years, I want to be counted as one of the pioneers in this field. I consider it my mission to spread the word about this topic by giving keynote speeches, worldwide lectures, among others, to get more researchers attracted into this field. This will undoubtedly advance the state of the art in nano-technology at an accelerated pace. For example, when this technology matures, human lifetimes will be prolonged to few hundred years. Extremely small nano devices will be injected into human body and will act as additional blood cells, capable of communicating and working in coordination, and potent enough to fight diseases, viruses, tumors, bacteria, thereby boosting up the immune system. Many life threatening diseases today, like Alzheimers, Diabetes, various forms of Cancers, clinical depression, among a myriad of others, will all become past history. My interest lies in the communication aspects of these nanodevices and we are creating the foundations and fundamentals for this research field. I just received 3 Million Dollars 4-years project from NSF for this very objective.
Over the years that span my career, my research family has grown and spread in different parts of the world. I graduated 32 PhD students (5 of them are from Turkey) and worked with 15 post-doctoral researchers (6 of them are from Turkey). These people are all very successful researchers in their own right, and they are pursuing outstanding and fulfilling careers. 22 of them are Professors in the US, Europe and Asia, including Turkey. I am very proud of them and feel very lucky that I could work with these outstanding intellectuals, who have made my life extremely enjoyable and enriched my life on professional and personal fronts. This family of researchers, both PhDs and post doctoral researchers, remains united and continues to interact, work together with the same camaraderie and enthusiasm even after they cross the threshold of my lab. All the people I professionally advised and those that I have mentored are in top positions in the entire world today.
When I stood outside that cold snowy January 1985 morning, my first day in the US many years ago, with my family and six suitcases, this was exactly my dream. Several decades later, I stand before you, as one of the leaders in the Telecom research world, because that I had the courage to believe in that dream and the hard work to execute it. I am also extremely thankful to Georgia Institute of Technology to providing the space and opportunities for me to grow and realize my dreams.
This is my research life history in a nutshell.
I am often asked by people I meet: What is the key to my success?
My key to success lies in my own protocol called HIP-T, which I applied throughout my entire professional life and this has greatly benefited my career:
H stands for Hard Work (I used to and still continue to do countless hours of work; my entire time is devoted to work)
I stands for INTEGRITY (I am an honest, straightforward person; I am either a 1 or 0 person; I do not take commitments lightly; I keep my promises, I have integrity and I am very proud of it)
P stands for PERSISTENCY (never give up, I was knocked down so many times in my career, in my professional life, but I stood up and continued to fight; believe in yourselves and keep trying; the good people win at the end).
And Finally, T - None of these will help if you do not have the TALENT (identify and locate your core strength and interests, and then believe in this ability). I was blessed with this research talent, and when integrated with HIP, it helped be to come this far in life.
I will continue on this path of research because I enjoy this life immensely. I travel worldwide and teach people about the newest technologies. I stimulate young people with new research ideas, and reach out with my vision. I open new doors for new technologies and lead other researchers into emerging directions. Finally, I train young people who will take over the baton over from me and advance the future. I witness their progress and transformation from fresh, enthusiastic learners to leaders with successful careers. I will continue to make impact in the entire Telecom research world by leading three research labs in three different continents.
Before I conclude my speech, I would like to congratulate the other colleagues for their awards. I hope some of my life lessons will give some insight, in particular to the younger colleagues, for their future careers.
I am thankful to my dear wife Maria with whom I spent almost 35 years of my life, and my daughters for believing in me and supporting me all these years.
I have been blessed in my life to have all my doctoral students with whom I worked and achieved incredible, significant and pioneering results. They have grown under my watchful eye, and are my own children as well.
Last but not the least, I am grateful to my parents who passed away in 1976 (62 yrs) and 1983 (59 yrs), They are definitely in heaven looking down and extremely proud of their son, who is standing here in his own country, and receiving this recognition.
They always believed in me and they always predicted my successes several decades ago. They were right. Thanks a lot, Mom and Dadů
Prof. Dr. I. F. Akyildiz
Ankara, December 5, 2011