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From cell biology to social work: Introducing MSW graduate Ayse Kumsal Tekirdag-Kosar


Ayse Kumsal Tekirdag-Kosar stands in front of FIFSW logo-covered "step and repeat"After graduating with a PhD in cell biology in 2015, Ayse Kumsal Tekirdag-Kosar was on the road to a thriving scientific career in Türkiye and had moved to the United States as a postdoctoral researcher. But spending time doing solo lab experiments left her feeling disconnected from her community, and she found herself yearning for a role in which she could work with and support people and communities directly.

As a new graduate of the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, Tekirdag-Kosar now supports women as a member of the outpatient team at The Jean Tweed Centre for Women & Their Families. She also assists Turkish refugees and immigrants as an interpreter with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

“Now that I am able to interact with people directly as a social worker and psychotherapist, I can see and feel the impacts of my work,” says Tekirdag-Kosar. “I feel very privileged to witness people grow and change with my support.”

While, for some, the jump from biologist to social worker may seem extreme, for Tekirdag-Kosar, the two fields aren’t so different. She says her background in biology helped her better understand the strong mind-body connection recognized in the social work field.

“I studied cell biology and disease mechanisms such as cancer or neurodegenerative diseases at the molecular level for the past decade and am aware of the very complex interactions that go on in our brain,” Tekirdag-Kosar says. “Knowing the importance of neurobiology, neuroplasticity and the ability to rewire our brains with psychotherapy and mindfulness empowers my clinical practice. It means we can heal and our brains can change, which is such an important message for everyone, especially trauma survivors and the populations that I work with.”

Tekirdag-Kosar’s decision to purse social work was also inspired by support she received while completing her postdoctoral research as a biologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. As a young researcher from Türkiye on a temporary US visa, adjusting to a new individualistic culture in a fast-paced city wasn’t easy. She struggled to negotiate how to function in the workplace, find community, establish relationships, and find her voice and soon acknowledged that she needed mental health support.

“When we have a broken arm, we go to the physician. It’s the same if you’re struggling with tough feelings or life transitions. It only makes sense to go to a specialist and ask for help and support. There is no shame in reaching out. It is a strength.” Tekirdag-Kosar says. This marked the start of a four-year therapeutic relationship with a social worker. And the experience inspired her to wonder “can I do this myself?”

With the support of her psychotherapist, Kosar gained the confidence to create a family of her own with her husband, become a mother, move to Canada on a Permanent Resident status and to pursue a degree in social work. She chose U of T because of FIFSW’s clinical, research-focused program. As soon as she was accepted — and before the program even officially started, she reached out to Dr. Toula Kourgiantakis, Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream — to ask if she could assist with her research on cannabis use among youth.

“I knew about Dr. Kourgiantakis’ research before entering the program. Her work on cannabis use and youth is very important and timely in Canada, especially after legalization,” Tekirdag-Kosar says.

She has since co-authored one research article led by Kourgiantakis, which was published recently in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention and Policy with several other manuscripts in preparation.

Tekirdag-Kosar completed her second and clinical practicum at The Jean Tweed Centre, a community agency that supports women working to overcome challenges with substance use, gambling, and mental health. “It never ceases to amaze me how Jean Tweed’s programs touch women’s lives. It’s why I do this meaningful work!” she says. Upon completing the MSW program, the agency offered her an advanced clinical position as a counsellor in their Outpatient program.

Tekirdag-Kosar also has a new role with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, providing Turkish-English interpretation for refugee claimants at their hearings. “Even though I am not in a social worker role in this position, hearing their stories helps me understand the complexities and hardships that refugees and new immigrants have to deal with, which directly informs my social work practice and the importance of upholding the values of social justice and anti-oppression at all times,” she says.

What advice would Tekirdag-Kosar share with new students starting the Master of Social Work program in the fall? The new graduate encourages FIFSW students to discuss challenges with their peers and seek support and mentorship from field instructors and professors. As a mature student and mother of an active four-year-old, she says it was important for her to advocate for her needs in the program and be confident and transparent about what she could offer in terms of her unique skill set. She believes that advocating for herself ultimately helped strengthen her ability to advocate for the needs of others.

She credits FIFSW’s supportive community for boosting her confidence during challenging times and wants new students to know that the Faculty values the diversity of experiences that students bring to the program. “You don’t have to leave your experiences at the door,” she says.

“It was absolutely not easy to pivot from a decade-long scientific career and make the decision to leave my role as a scientist,” says Tekirdag-Kosar. “In times of challenge, I remember my deep need to be there for others in the same way that I have been supported by many mental health professionals throughout my life. It is my turn to give back and support people now.”

By Anna-Liza Badaloo

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