Interview with Aylin Ulku, MD, PhD

A Conversation with Aylin Ulku, Assistant Clinical Professor

What was your first thought after waking this morning?

AUI am not a morning person. This morning I had two quick successive thoughts. One was happiness that I wasn’t nauseated after being sick for a couple of days. The other was gladness that my partner, who had been away traveling, is returning home tonight.

Where were you born? Tell me about your family, please.

I was born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, and am from a very large family. My father is Turkish, my mother is American, and they met at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where they were doing graduate work. After being married, they returned to Turkey. I have one older sister who is married, has a family, and lives in Switzerland. I have lots of cousins both in Turkey, where my father’s family still lives, and in the US, where most of my mother’s family lives in South Carolina. I was very fortunate to have all but one of my grandparents into my twenties.

Are you most like your mom or dad?

Definitely my father. His friends joke that, even if they saw me in Shanghai, they would know my father had been there because I look very much like him. I am like him in nature, too, because he is a physicist and I’m drawn more to the natural world, factual things, always asking why. I tend to be more concrete in how I approach the world and in the profession that I chose. My parents are both teachers and professors, but my mother is more artistic and involved in the humanities.

You worked in Rwanda for some time, I believe. What indelible image of your time there will always be with you?

The most profound thing, that affected me personally as well as professionally, was how little so many people have, as the majority of the population is poor. They have little but they help each other. It is a very different culture in that there is no shame in asking for help; if you have it, you give it, and if you need it, you ask. It was profound and emotional. In the hospital, there was an old man who had no one at his bedside and then one day a young man appeared. We asked if he was family and he said, no, his brother was in another bed and he noticed that no one was with the old man so he took care of his brother and this total stranger, making sure that he had food and company. Incredible images of human kindness in a society that is interdependent in a way we are not always in Western society.

Who always has your back?

Definitely my family. Also, my two closest friends, my college roommates, who live here in San Mateo and in Seattle. They are incredibly important in my life and we have grown together since we were eighteen and our closeness has never wavered. They know things about me that I never told anyone else, not family or partners. I can go to them and be my emotional rawest or ugliest, and it would be okay.

Would you please elaborate about your background or culture that has shaped who you are today?

I double lots of things: I am bicoastal, bicultural, and bilingual. I did both graduate and medical school and am med-peds … I always seem to do things in twos but I think that each part enriches the other. Middle Eastern cultures can be centered more on families and connection, but Western cultures foster more complexity as a woman and as an individual.

Are you an animal lover? A dog person or a cat person?

Absolutely. I am a dog person but I very much love my shorthaired cat, Zoe. She is fourteen, playful, talkative, and very dog-like. She follows me around and is quite vocal and sassy.

Can you recall a particularly unique part of your faith or culture?

I remember as a little girl, maybe around ten, in an international school and being upset that I had more hair than the girls from some other cultures. It was a kind of embarrassing pre-teen angst about my appearance, being around different standards of beauty and surrounded by a more European type—tall, blond, and hairless.

Describe a moment of quiet joy. How do you such moments happen?

Being outside and sharing it with most important people in my life, being near a body of water, climbing a mountain, seeing the sky. In the past 3 or 4 years, practicing yoga and, separate from that, using the lessons of mindfulness to find calm in moments when emotions take over; quieting noise and finding the stillness within myself so I am not quite so jangly. Especially in the hospital when there are alarms and all kinds of noise, I have to sit down for a moment and not let the noise take over. It may be going out to seek quiet or just incorporate tools to quiet myself down, realizing that I love my job and it’s hard right now, or acknowledging that a stressful personal situation will pass.

What is your favorite holiday? Why and how do you celebrate?

Ooh, Thanksgiving! I love the turkey! I’m a savory kind of person and I have two or three plates. Food is highly motivating. I love family getting together even if it is the makeshift family of orphans breaking bread together. I am not great at peering into a refrigerator and putting something together that is tasty, but I do love to cook. When I cook with friends, it isn’t about people just bringing a dish that you bring and leave, we each bring the ingredients and we all cook together. With my two closest friends, we’ll teach each other our favorite dishes and cook together. If we can’t actually be together, we record them and send recipes to the others. It is a big part of what I share with people close to me.

What is your Zodiac sign?

I am a Gemini, the twins. I guess that explains the duality thing.

If you were to design your ideal home, what design feature would be most important?

It would have to be open, a lot with space for a vegetable garden that I could grow and pick my salad for dinner, or flower garden. Light, very important! Very Frank Lloyd Wright, open and spacious, with lots of light, and very welcoming.

If you hit the lottery, what might be your first “just gotta have it” purchase?

The first thing that I would do would be to arrange a completely luxurious trip to China for my parents. My mother has always wanted to go to China, my father visited only briefly for work, and it is something that they just won’t splurge and do for themselves. The second would be a long period of travel for me: 3–4 months to a region, maybe Southern China or South America, and spend a long period of time, learn the language and culture. Not luxurious, just backpacking and completely experiential … just buying the time.

Aylin, this was rich. Thank you.

- by Oralia Schatzman

View Aylin's professional bio | See previous faculty interviews