Monday, December 9, 2019

Researcher by day, Ironman by night

By Daniel Li

Beril Polat
Not many people have the willpower to complete a 12-hour race consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run. Not many have the smarts and stamina to earn a doctorate degree in nanoengineering. But the number of people capable of doing both simultaneously is miniscule. 

For fourth-year UC San Diego nanoengineering Ph.D. student Beril Polat, training for Ironman competitions and her graduate school work go hand-in-hand.

“The main reason why the Ironman is so challenging is there’s also a mental aspect to it,” Polat said. “And that kind of challenge helps a lot in grad school because you get a lot of stress from work, deadlines, and publishing. After finishing an Ironman, I came back to lab two days later, and there were some small problems we were facing. I remember thinking that this was so small compared to what I just accomplished so I wasn’t going to let it bother me; I didn’t let it get into my head and tried to solve it.”

Polat completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins University before matriculating to UC San Diego to pursue a Ph.D. in nanoengineering. She’s currently a student in Professor Darren Lipomi’s nanoengineering lab, where she develops tattoo sensors to help patients with neck cancer monitor and regain their ability to swallow. 

Polat is a graduate student in Professor Darren
Lipomi's nanoengineering lab.
 “The reason why we are targeting neck cancer is because after patients get chemotherapy, their swallowing may be affected as a side effect,” Polat said. “We are trying to make a tattoo sensor that they can apply themselves at home instead of coming to the hospital very frequently. They can apply it and that data on their muscle strength will be sent through their phones to physicians so they can monitor it.”

Outside of lab, Polat is an avid member of UC San Diego’s triathlon club. She was introduced to triathlons during her first year at UC San Diego after meeting members from the triathlon club. She recalled being hesitant at first about joining because of her busy schedule, but then fell in love with the team and competitive nature of the sport.  

“In college, I swam varsity for two years at Hopkins, but the stress level was too high for that so I quit,” Polat said. “Because of that, I didn't compete in a sport for years, which kind of rubbed me the wrong way. After coming to triathlon practices at UCSD, the feeling of competing came back to me and it felt amazing.”

Polat recently competed in an Ironman Triathlon this past summer in Canada. The Ironman is considered the ultimate triathlon and test of endurance.

“This was my second time competing in an Ironman Triathlon,” Polat said. “I competed in it for the first time with my boyfriend the summer of 2018. I signed up eight months before the race day and trained every day. My goal is to do at least one every year.”

According to Polat, she starts her day at 6:30 am with training every day. Her morning workouts usually consist of cycling for an hour and running three miles. On the days where Polat trains twice a day, she has a swim workout in the evening at Canyon View pool on campus. 

“I try to train at least once a day, sometimes twice,” Polat said. “I usually go in the early morning because I want to keep a schedule where I am at work from 9 am to 5 pm. I'm not forced to go every day, but I know that if I want to get better and faster, I need to train that much.”
Polat during the 26.2-mile run, the last leg of an
Ironman Triathlon.
Polat appreciates how competing in triathlons has been a healthy escape from her hectic life in graduate school. Her most important takeaway from this experience: time management. 

“I recommend anyone to really commit to a non-school related activity, whether it be a sport, music, or art,” Polat said. “It really keeps you grounded and teaches you how to keep track of your goals. At times, it can definitely be a challenge because it’s hard to juggle both at once. However, if it wasn’t challenging I wouldn’t do it.”

In the future, Polat envisions herself shifting gears and working in industry. Although she enjoys the process of conducting research at her lab, Polat has learned that she prefers having a faster turnaround time for products that she works on.  

“When you conduct research in a lab, it can take a long time to get something out,” Polat said. “You can publish it but getting it into the market is very hard and requires a lot of steps. I like the industry aspect of being able to see people use something that I worked on and designed.”

Her next challenge? Ironman Maryland in September.