Süheyla Çetin-Karayumak, PhD, has been on a scientific journey that’s taken her from Istanbul to Boston and from computer engineering to neuroscience. Spanning continents and disciplines, her career has been propelled by her curiosity and her drive to develop solutions for medical imaging challenges.

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in computer engineering from Yeditepe University in Turkey, Çetin-Karayumak continued on to earn her master’s in electronics engineering, then doctorate in computer science and engineering, from Sabanci University. Çetin-Karayumak first dove into neuroimaging during the senior years of her PhD, when she focused on diffusion MRI modeling — a type of medical imaging that captures in vivo images of biological tissue. As she deepened her interests in diffusion MRI, white matter, and psychiatry, she attended the prestigious international Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention (MICCAI) conference, where she met now-advisor and supporter Yogesh Rathi, PhD.

“I was always interested in computer vision, even as an undergraduate student. When I interned with Microsoft, I modeled organ motion as a master’s student amongst senior PhD students. Their expertise inspired me to focus on neuroimaging,” said Çetin-Karayumak. “I am extremely lucky to have worked with two mentors: Dr. Rathi, who has an engineering background like me, and Marek Kubicki, MD, who has a medical background. Their diverse backgrounds have given me an unparalleled opportunity to develop my skillset in a multidisciplinary environment.”

In 2016, Çetin-Karayumak joined the Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory (PNL) at the Brigham, where her desire to expand her interdisciplinary skillset has been both welcomed and encouraged by PNL director, Martha Shenton, PhD and her mentors. Since starting at the PNL, Çetin-Karayumak has been recognized internationally for her impressive achievements in her field. In 2017, she won the IEEE Turkey PhD Dissertation Award for her groundbreaking imaging research establishing a method that enables modeling and asymmetry between white matter fibers, which may be used in diagnosing neurological disorders. In 2020, she was awarded the pilot grant from the BWH Program for Interdisciplinary Neuroscience. Most recently, she was awarded with a BBRF NARSAD Young Investigator Grant to support her work on the effect of prenatal cannabis exposure on adolescent white matter. In addition to these awards, Çetin-Karayumak is an author on an impressive list of publications. Still, she remains humble and focused on her work and tackling new challenges.

Inspiration Strikes

Çetin-Karayumak first acquired an interest in neuroimaging and white matter analysis during her PhD studies and internship experience at Microsoft. She began developing a modeling system for white matter tracts: a component of the central nervous system responsible for facilitating brain function, communication, and learning. White matter, historically thought to be passive tissue, is now prominent in neurology research and investigated for its role modulating action potentials and coordinating interactions between brain regions. Unlike traditional modeling, Çetin-Karayumak’s modeling system could help visualize the full white matter structure and offer more comprehensive images. As she developed her interest in neuroimaging and white matter, her father’s undeniable influence as a psychiatrist pushed her work toward psychiatric solutions.

“My father was always talking about his work. In particular, he would speak about schizophrenic patients, and the lack of consensus about the origins of the disease,” said Çetin-Karayumak. “I wanted to develop a new method of analysis to have the best possible way to characterize subtle changes in the white matter of patients. Which regions of the brain are more affected than others? How is schizophrenia developing in the brain of patients along the different stages of illness?”

Finding Harmony

When Çetin-Karayumak came to Boston four years ago, she was impressed by the community she found at the Brigham and beyond.

“Boston is a great place for scientists — especially in the medical field. As a computer scientist, it’s really exciting to be a part of the Boston area, which houses MIT, Harvard University, all these major hospitals,” said Çetin-Karayumak. “It’s truly the best city to develop my platform and career.”

Çetin-Karayumak’s background in computer science made her an asset for the PNL, where she continues to focus on neuroimaging and psychiatry. With advisors Rathi and Kubicki assisting her growth in the lab, Çetin-Karayumak blossomed into her new field and excitedly looked into white matter through the lab’s psychiatric lens.

Çetin-Karayumak is currently working on harmonization of diffusion MRI images acquired from multiple sites and scanners. Her work emphasizes the importance of having a large sample size and enough power in studies to thoroughly investigate the neurodevelopmental and maturational alterations in the brain related to risk for psychosis.

“We developed a harmonization method with Dr. Rathi that aims to robustly remove the scanner effects from the multi-site neuroimaging datasets while preserving biology- or pathology-related effects in populations,” says Çetin-Karayumak. This harmonization method was selected as the best performing method in an international harmonization challenge.

Cannabis Research

Beyond her extensive research on the schizophrenic brain, Çetin-Karayumak has given recent attention to prenatal and adolescent exposure to cannabis as a potential root cause of psychosis. Çetin-Karayumak’s Young Investigators grant will be used toward this research, as she helps close current knowledge gaps. Prior studies have shown prenatal cannabis exposure to negatively affect white matter microstructure, related notably to working memory and attention networks, and Çetin-Karayumak aims to expand on these findings.

“In the last few years, prenatal cannabis usage has increased in many countries, including the United States. As a young female scientist, I’ve always found it significant to explore the long-term effects of cannabis exposure,” said Çetin-Karayumak. “This is going to be the first comprehensive diffusion MRI study that highlights the prenatal origins of psychosis, as well as the first to see prenatal cannabis exposure as a precursor to developing psychosis. I’m really, really excited about this study.”

The Experts Next Door

Çetin-Karayumak excelled in her undergraduate and graduate careers and has proven herself dedicated to interdisciplinary collaboration in her time at the Brigham. From computer engineering to neuroimaging and psychiatry, she remains invigorated and inspired to tackle more.

“I have a computer science background, which means I am still learning psychiatry and neuroscience. It is fascinating to have someone next door to brainstorm with,” said Çetin-Karayumak. “I want to meet new people and develop a network of collaborators, so that together we can understand further the environmental and biological factors that affect brain development in adolescence.”