Shaken, but Not Deterred: Resilience After a Devastating Earthquake Burcu Karadal-Ferrena, MD, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

By the end of 2022, Dr. Burcu Karadal-Ferrena’s long and ambitious journey to becoming a pathologist and cancer researcher was going as planned. A PhD candidate at Hacettepe University in Turkey, where she had earned her medical degree a few years earlier, she was working as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Condeelis, Oktay, and Entenberg lab at Einstein, focusing on how the tumor microenvironment impacts cancer cell dissemination, disease progression, and patient survival. After winning an AACR-travel award, she presented her team’s research at the 2022 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. Meanwhile, as co-first author on the multi-institutional study, led by Maja Oktay, MD, PhD, on racial disparities in tumor microenvironment among women with specific breast cancer types, Dr. Karadal-Ferrena was finalizing the manuscript to submit for publication. Her academic journey seemed set, with plans to defend her doctoral dissertation in Turkey, and begin applying for pathology residency programs.

But on February 6, 2023, her life was suddenly derailed when a catastrophic 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, killing more than 50,000 people and injuring countless others. It was Sunday night in New York when Dr. Karadal-Ferrena received the heart-wrenching news that her parents were trapped in the rubble of their collapsed apartment building in Antakya. The ancient capital city in southern Turkey where she grew up was among the hardest hit regions. The rescue efforts there were stretched thin, there were no ambulances, no electricity and hospitals were severely understaffed, or no longer standing.  She was frantic.

Arriving in Turkey three days after the earthquake with her husband, Alexander Ferrena, a bioinformatician and Einstein doctoral student studying RNA sequencing focusing on osteosarcoma research, Dr. Karadal-Ferrena was relieved to reunite with her parents, grandmother, brother, and extended family.  Her mother had been transferred to a hospital in an unaffected area, where she was being treated for multiple injuries.  Her family lost their home, their beloved city, and everything they owned, but they were alive.

Despite this traumatic life-changing event, Dr. Karadal-Ferrena has persevered. Eight months later, she has emerged resilient, proving that determination can triumph over life's most formidable challenges.

How is your family in Turkey doing now, and how did this experience change you?

BKF: My family is doing well. Both my mom and dad recovered from their injuries. My mom started working. They relocated to a new city but still haven't settled in a place to live; they keep changing places. But, if they are healthy, everything else will get better soon.  Several of my friends did not survive the earthquake, including my best girlfriend from high school and her husband. And still nothing in Antakya is normal. The city was destroyed and is still being cleaned. It was a traumatic experience and the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. It changed me. When something like this happens, it makes you question your priorities in life. I realize I want to spend more time with my family.

You returned to Einstein in March.  How was that experience and how are things going?

BKF: I’ve had to take one day at a time. At first, I had a hard time reacclimating. My lab mates have been incredibly helpful. When I was feeling low, my mentors, Drs. Maja Oktay and David Entenberg, helped me prepare to defend my dissertation. I’m doing better now. Our paper on racial disparities in the breast cancer tumor microenvironment was published in June in NpjBreast Cancer.  On June 7, I returned to Turkey to present my thesis to the committee at Hacettepe University. My parents came to celebrate with me and were so happy. I finally get to add ‘PhD’ to my title, and that feels incredible. In July, I passed the USMLE exam and applied to pathology residency programs. Now I am waiting for the interviews.

What sparked your interest in becoming a physician-scientist and pursuing cancer research?

BKF: Since my childhood, my aspiration was to become a doctor. While I was growing up, I grew interested in discovering the unknown. I changed my goals to become a scientist during high school. When the moment arrived to apply for universities, I discovered the perfect combination for my dreams: the MD, PhD program at Hacettepe University Medical School. With luck and lots of hard work, I was able to get accepted to the only university with an MD, PhD program in Turkey. My first two experiences in US were summer internships at Lillehei Heart Institute at the University of Minnesota in the Dr. Michael Kyba Lab, and Harvard Medical School in the lab of Dr. Albert Edge, in the Stem Cell Institute at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. As part of my MD, PhD program, I was a predoctoral research fellow for two years at NYU Langone in the lab of Dr. Thales Papagiannakopoulos in the department of pathology, working on CRISPR/Cas9-based in vivo and in vitro approaches to study KRAS-driven lung cancer. That’s when I knew that I wanted to be a pathologist. Pathology is the perfect field where you can have a balance of both patient care and research. Under the microscope, there is another world that you can’t see by eye. From a small sample, you can diagnose a patient’s disease and guide their treatment. Once you have a taste of it, you can’t look back.

Why did you choose Einstein for your doctoral research fellowship?

After graduating from medical school, I wanted to keep working on cancer. I had heard about Dr. Oktay. Her career path is very similar to what I’m doing and what I want to do. I knew she was the one! I emailed her and told her that I wanted to do translational research and that I also wanted to become a pathologist. Having a good mentor is invaluable, and I feel so lucky because I think I found the best one! Dr. Oktay is a physician-scientist, so we aren’t only talking about our research; she is guiding me towards my future career and taught me how to look at patient samples and tell if there is cancer or a precursor to cancer. 

What has been the highlight of your time at Einstein?

BKF: I love the team that I work with. I get to see great scientists from different fields working together. Everyone in the lab has a different expertise and they have helped me to learn the techniques and understand the research. My mentors at Einstein are all so approachable. I work mostly with Dr. Oktay on basic science and translational research projects. When I have questions about an analysis, I talk to Dr. Entenberg. He’s brilliant with microscopy and imaging techniques. And Dr. Condeelis is very supportive and an expert in the field.

What comes next?

BKF: I’ll keep working in the lab until May while I interview with residency programs. Residency starts July 1, 2024. Before that, I will take some time for myself and my family. After finishing pathology residency, I’d like to do a fellowship in breast pathology. A dream job for me would be doing what Dr. Oktay is doing: working as an academic pathologist, and leading translational research. I would love that.