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Viruses, films and octopi, oh my! – Semih Tareen

Aug 2010 | Lauren 1,318 Comments

When asked what they would bring to a desert island if they could only bring one thing, most people have a funny response. Semih Tareen, a recent graduate of the MCB program, has a most intriguing response; he would bring his “snorkel, so that [he] can continue hunting octopus.” Semih learned how to hunt octopus where he grew up, in Turkey. He hunts by diving, scanning for nests (identifiable because octopi drag rocks and shells into the opening to close it off), looking inside the nest to determine whether the octopus is big enough to hunt (he never hunts infants or during mating season), and then grabbing the octopus and killing it. He then prepares the octopus for cooking, and always saves the ink sack because “that ink is one of nature’s most beautiful creations.” While octopus hunting is enough to set Semih apart from other MCB students, he is also an award-winning film composer as well as an MCB success story.

Semih chose his field of study quite early in life, as the Turkish education system places students in a track of natural sciences, math, or social sciences in the sixth grade. Natural sciences appealed the most to him because of his curiosity about biology. He first moved to Seattle when his parents decided to immigrate here in 1995. He says that “over the years Seattle has become my home away from home … I do not see myself living in another city in the USA.”

For his thesis project in the Emerman lab, Semih studied the protein Trim 5 alpha. Trim 5 alpha is a protein found in mammals that blocks retroviral function. Semih found that in addition to this function, Trim 5 alpha also regulates innate immunity. This is exciting because it introduces a previously unknown major regulator of innate immunity and suggests that innate immunity could be an important aspect of the antiretroviral response.

Now that he has graduated, Semih plans to stay in Seattle and work at a biotech called Immune Design Corporation, which uses dendritic cells as antigen presenting cells to produce immunity. The antigens will be incorporated into dendritic cells using lentiviral vectors, and Semih will use his expertise from the Emerman lab to design these vectors.

In addition to his studies, Semih has another career as a film composer. He originally became interested in film music during his childhood when he found that many musical scores to cartoons, in particular those of Carl Stalling, “became an unconscious part of [his] childhood.” Over time he began paying more attention to scores. He also has spent a great deal of time studying both film and music (he plays piano, guitar, and Turkish oud), making film composing a logical thing for him to explore. His favorite film that he composed for is Gomeda, a “Turkish horror/surrealist feature film,” for which he won two best original score awards. A clip from Gomeda can be found on Semih’s film website, www.SemihTareen.com, along with information on all his other films. His favorite film that he made is Yellow, “which is an homage to a genre of Italian horror films from the 50’s and 60’s known as Giallo.” Like Gomeda, this film was also honored, specifically with nominations for best short film and three other awards. Yellow can be viewed online through Semih’s website. In addition to making his own films, Semih also takes the time to enjoy other films. His favorite? Conan the Barbarian, directed by John Milius.

While successful careers in science and film should be enough to qualify a person as well-rounded, Semih also has several other hobbies. He enjoys reading horror, fantasy, and non-fiction, and attending concerts from musical genres as diverse as heavy metal, classical music, and opera. He also enjoys soccer to such an extent that in the negotiations for his present biotech job, he stipulated that he be able to begin after World Cup is over. He balances between these disparate aspects of his life by a very simple method: “making sure I devote time to all the things that I love to do and that make me who I am.”

Looking back at his time in the MCB program, Semih says that he enjoyed being in such a large and diverse program because “the large number of students and faculty in MCB gave me the opportunity to meet lots of brilliant people and to be exposed to all kinds of research. Even though I was focused on virology and evolution, I could learn about other topics from fellow students and faculty.”

Semih’s success in both film and science prompts the question, why science? He acknowledged that part of the attraction of science is the stable employment, but he said that while he “would not mind only making films for a living … I would not cancel my subscription to the journals Science and Nature.” Even if he could achieve equivalent levels of salary, job security, and creative freedom in both careers, he would not leave science. He says that “one day I hope to start making science documentaries; hopefully that way I can bring my love for science and film together.”

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