Dr. Bengul Gokbayrak is a postdoctoral fellow supervised by Dr. Yemin Wang. She earned her PhD in Molecular Biology from Koc University, Turkey, where she focused on identifying critical epigenetic modifiers in prostate cancer. During her PhD, Dr. Gokbayrak spent three years as a visiting research student at the Vancouver Prostate Centre. Currently, she is studying biomarkers and targetable proteins of rare gynecologic cancers at the BC Cancer Centre.

Dr. Gokbayrak was recently awarded with the Best Presentation on Diagnostics and Therapeutics during the 2023 GCI Trainee Research Day for her outstanding presentation on “Genomic Profiling of Dedifferentiated Endometrial Cancers.” More recently, Dr. Gokbayrak received the Carraressi Foundation OVCARE Research Grant to support her upcoming project that focuses on “Identifying surface proteins of SMARCA4/2-mutant gynecologic cancers.”

1. What kind of research are you working on?

Currently, my research focuses on rare gynecologic cancers that are SWI/SNF-deficient. SWI/SNF is the chromatin remodeling complex that regulates chromatin accessibility. Previous studies and our work suggest that SWI/SNF-deficient tumors are more aggressive than their SWI/SNF-proficient counterparts. I am particularly focusing on finding vulnerabilities in aggressive dedifferentiated endometrial cancer.

In my upcoming project, which recently received funding from the Carraressi Foundation, we will perform a surfaceome profiling of SWI/SNF-deficient gynecologic cancers. Our goal is to identify essential surfaceome proteins that can be targeted for therapeutic purposes for rare gynecologic cancers. 

2. What led you to study endometrial cancer in particular?

I worked on epigenetic dependencies in prostate cancer in my PhD, which led me to study SWI/SNF complex. When I was looking for a post-doc, I saw this position focusing on SWI/SNF-deficient gynecologic cancers. It was the SWI/SNF connection that led me to endometrial cancer. Since the fundamentals of cancer are fairly similar, it was easy to adapt to this new type of cancer. 

3. Earlier this summer, you also received the GCI Best Trainee Presentation Award on Diagnostics & Treatment! Could you please tell us a bit more about the research you presented there?

For Trainee Research Day, the presentation came from our work in genetic profiling of 49 samples from patients with rare endometrial cancer. Using this data, we aimed to understand the common trends and to identify potential therapeutical targets. Now, we are working on the validation step. Since we are working with rare cancers, we face a challenge of finding appropriate models to recapitulate the tumor. Our lab and others contribute to the development of alternative models that can be used in cell culture. 

4. What is the most exciting thing about your work?

Research is a very dynamic field. You are constantly looking for different ways to approach a question and exploring various techniques that can be used. I enjoy solving puzzles, and research provides a similar experience. With cancer research in particular, you often begin with small bits and pieces and gradually connect the dots to create a bigger picture. It can be challenging, but ultimately very rewarding.

5. What is a challenge you may face in your work and how do you navigate around that?

Although I enjoy the problem-solving nature of research, it can also be challenging when the pieces do not fit together easily. I believe it is very crucial to discuss your work with other people because everyone has different perspectives, experiences, and knowledge. Having conversations with many people about your work can shed light on a new approach or direction for your work that you might not have considered before. 

6. How does your team support you in your career journey?

I am grateful to have such a colourful team in that everyone in our lab has different areas of expertise and knowledge of various techniques. Not only that, but everyone has been very supportive and welcoming as this has been my first year with this lab, so I am very grateful to have such a strong connection with my team. 

Beyond the immediate circle of my lab, we are also an extension of a bigger group– the Huntsman lab. It has been amazing to talk with them and see which techniques and approaches they use for their work. On a similar note, although my lab focuses on gynecologic cancer, we are located in the Vancouver Prostate Centre, so we get to chat a lot with people from other fields of cancer research. Additionally, in terms of career, when you’re talking to all these people, you hear about different conferences, grants, and opportunities you might’ve missed. It is really amazing how simply talking to people may help open doors. 

7. What is your long-term career goal?

Right now, I haven’t decided on a certain path. I am exploring my options and open to new opportunities, even outside of academia. 

8. Name at least one person to send an appreciation message? and why? (Not including your supervisors 😊

I have many people I want to send my appreciation to. The first person who comes to mind is the Master’s student Chae Young Shin who recently graduated. In my first days, she took the time to walk me through her project even though she was busy writing her thesis. Eunice Li did tremendous work on analyzing mutational data and is still helping me with other data types. The presentation for which I received the GCI Trainee Award came from both Chae’s and Eunice’s work. I was the one putting the pieces together and making the story a bit more structured (not to mention Yemin’s help on this).

And of course, our team members! They have been very responsive and helpful in sharing their expertise with me. I would also like to thank the friends I made in my previous lab. We are still in contact and it is always a great joy to surround yourself with people that you connect with.