Flying career start for a swing-dancing academic
Born and raised in a multicultural area of London, he has been living in Maastricht since the end of 2017. “From a young age I realised I was sometimes seen and treated as ‘different.’ There’s no one single formula for inclusivity. It takes time, effort and is a never-ending dialogue.” In September Akbulut was made head of the laboratory of the new Stem Cell Research University Maastricht (SCRUM). Here he discusses multiculturalism, the origin of life and his love of swing dancing.
“When my father went off to work at night, he never knew if he’d make £5 or £50, so he often worked six or seven days a week. I was reminded of that when I was spending long days and nights in the lab during my PhD research. The thought of it gave me strength.” Cengiz Akbulut’s keen sense of political awareness developed at an early age. His mother is a Turkish Cypriot, and his family was directly affected by the attempted genocide of Turkish Cypriots—a minority community in Cyprus—in events that followed Christmas of 1963. “Some of my grandfather’s family and friends were murdered and ended up in mass graves. That’s a part of my history that you don’t find much about in history books. There were many casualties on both sides, but history is subjective. What became the official version is the sanitised version of actual events, it’s not our version.”
Shortly before decolonisation in 1960, his grandfather, who worked as a police officer for the British, left for England with his wife and children. He was given two days to make the decision and they left the country secretly under escort. His mother grew up in north London. “After studying economics and accountancy in London in the 1970s, she wanted to get in touch with her roots. Cyprus wasn’t an option at the time; it was too violent. Instead, she went to Istanbul, where she met my father. They married and initially lived together there, but before they had children they moved to England. They wanted their children to have a British education, and benefit with all that entailed.
At first, life in England wasn’t easy. His father’s diplomas were not recognised, and there was the language barrier to contend with. “Eventually he became a taxi driver, and my mother a post fixtures supervisor in a shipping company. She worked during the day, my father at night. I had a good childhood; my parents always bought books both second hand and new, they encouraged us to read. As a five-year-old, I loved atlases. I remember the town of Genk in Belgium catching my eye because it resembled my brother’s name, Cenk. I now have been there to watch football with a colleague.”
Cengiz Akbulut holds a bachelor’s in Biochemistry from the University of Aberdeen and a master’s in Regenerative Medicine from Queen Mary University of London. After his master’s, he spent a year working as a research assistant at the William Harvey Heart Centre in London. From 2017 to 2022 he conducted his PhD research at CARIM as part of the EU-funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme INTRICARE (International Network for Training on Risks of Vascular Intimal Calcification and Roads to Regression of Cardiovascular Disease). In September 2022 Akbulut was appointed head of the laboratory of the Stem Cell Research University Maastricht (SCRUM) at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences.
As a child, he mainly read nonfiction. “I loved encyclopaedias. And all four of us did karate. That was convenient for my parents; they only had to drop us off at one place. You learnt not only the movements, but also a philosophy. That combination of discipline and respect was good for me. Take off your shoes when you enter the room, bow when you arrive and leave. But I stopped when I was 14 and went through a rebellious period, going out a lot, occasionally being brought home by the police. I had to repeat a year at school. My parents had their hands full with me, I was the most difficult of the four. But pushing boundaries is part of growing up, right?”
"It wasn’t until I went to university in Aberdeen that I was in a place with a ‘white’ majority. And now, being away from home on mainland Europe, I notice that I feel more British, Turkish, Turkish Cypriot and Muslim than when I lived in London."
High school was an instructive period. Akbulut attended a multicultural all boys’ school in North London, with students from all walks of life. “There were boys from wealthy backgrounds who were handed everything on a silver platter, and boys who didn’t finish school. I liked it there, felt completely at home. It wasn’t until I went to university in Aberdeen that I was in a place with a ‘white’ majority. And now, being away from home on mainland Europe, I notice that I feel more British, Turkish, Turkish Cypriot and Muslim than when I lived in London.”
Empathy for the minority
During his studies, but also here in Maastricht, certain interactions and sideways remarks occasionally give him a sense of unease. Akbulut endorses UM’s commitment to inclusivity. “Some people just aren’t aware of the marginalising effect of their behaviour. For example, a speech was made at the department Christmas party, and a member of staff said the names of Dutch and Belgian colleagues correctly, before making a joke at mine. They perceived it as a friendly joke, and though it wasn’t meant to be negative or racist, it hurt. Fortunately, we’ve since resolved things. It may seem like a small example, but there are so many of them. There’s no one clear-cut formula for inclusivity. It’s about respect and accepting people as they are, which calls for constant and never-ending dialogue.”
And so, we arrive at his hobby: swing dancing, which he stumbled across by chance during his studies. “Swing dancing is an umbrella term for the various dances you can do to jazz music. It’s an African-American dance form that originated in the 1920s, one of the first true art forms that came from formerly enslaved peoples post-emancipation. Harlem became a real hub of Black culture, which was permitted for the first time and swing dance was born from this. I’m not African American, but I empathise with the fact that it was a minority dance and part of a minority culture, also I recognise that it has been white-washed and many people do not know that jazz was invented by African Americans. As a dance, the Lindy Hop, is a combination of older American folk dances including, tap and Charleston. The nice thing is that it’s a very social dance, you’re constantly changing partners. When you dance with one person, you learn to dance with that person; when you dance with the whole room it’s a party. Through it I got to know all kinds of different people from outside my studies and social environment—it was very enriching. Here in Maastricht, I dance every Wednesday. There is a good jazz-music culture here.”
The origin of life
Studying biochemistry was an obvious choice for Akbulut. “I’ve always been interested in the question: why is there life? Not only in a religious and philosophical sense, but also in a physical sense. Physics, the galaxy, the Big Bang, the universe. I knew early on that understanding some of these concepts would involve a lot of maths, but also looking through a telescope, it all still felt very distant. That’s why I chose biochemistry, which literally means the chemistry of life.” During his PhD at UM, he specialised in developing cardiovascular cells from stem cells—you can’t get much closer to the origin of human life than that. He literally worked day and night in the lab, which led to his current position as what may well be the youngest head of a stem-cell laboratory in the Netherlands. As such, he feels very privileged.
“It allows me to keep on doing what I did during my PhD research: developing protocols for the creation of stem cells. The protocols I developed then turned out to be successful, and I’m now building on that. For me, UM is the right place at the right time. The centre was established mainly because the university is young and still working on its profile. That means a flying career start for me, and I’m very grateful for that. Since working for Maastricht University, I don’t have to wonder if I’ll have enough money next month and this position means I don’t worry about where I’ll be next year. That’s worth a lot. As Einstein said: ‘I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.’”
Annelotte Huiskes (text), Sem Shayne (photography)