Oral-History:Levent Onural

About Levent Onural

Dr. Levent Onural was born in Izmir, Turkey in 1957. He attended Izmir Koleji before transferring to Ankara Science High School where he developed a strong interest in electrical engineering and holography. He then received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, and his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from SUNY Buffalo as a Fulbright scholar.

Dr. Onural joined IEEE while in Buffalo and created the IEEE Turkey Section in 1989, shortly after returning to Turkey. He served as director of IEEE Region 8, which is comprised of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, from 2001 through 2002. In 2005, he was the first person from outside of North America to be nominated to run for IEEE President, although he did not win the election. Dr. Onural is currently Professor and Dean of Engineering at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, where he has taught since 1987.

In this interview, Dr. Onural discusses his continuing roll as an active member of IEEE. This is prefaced by an overview of his work in engineering, and includes an account of his joining IEEE, the many issues he faced as Region 8 Director, and a brief summary of his run for IEEE President.

About the Interview

LEVENT ONURAL: An Interview Conducted by John Vardalas, IEEE History Center, 15 October 2014

Interview # 660 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

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Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Samuel C. Williams Library, 3rd Floor, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken NJ 07030 USA or ieee-history@ieee.org. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Dr. Levent Onural, an oral history conducted in 2014 by John Vardalas, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEWEE: Dr. Levent Onural
INTERVIEWER: John Vardalas
DATE: 15 October 2014
PLACE: Ankara, Turkey, Onural's Office

Early Life and Education

Vardalas:

Today is the 15th of October of 2014. I'm in the office of Dr. Onural, who is the dean of engineering at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Thank you, Dr. Onural, for agreeing to take part on IEEE's oral history program. So let's start with the beginning and some basic facts. When and where were you born?

Onural:

Okay, welcome to Bilkent, by the way.

Vardalas:

Oh, thank you.

Onural:

It's my great pleasure to have this interview done and I appreciate your professional efforts. You did an excellent job so far. I was born in Izmir, Turkey in 1957, March 20.

Vardalas:

Did you grow up as a child in Izmir?

Onural:

Yes. In fact, my extended family lives in Izmir, they still do. And my ancestors, they were in Izmir at least for 200 years, I believe. Some of them, of course. [Laughter] So Izmir is still my hometown and I spent my first 14 years of life and have my early education also in Izmir.

Vardalas:

Can you recall, as a child, when you first became interested in science? Do you recall when that happened, how early in life it was?

Onural:

It must be very, very early. I don't even remember, but I can tell, share at least a few stories with you.

Vardalas:

[Interposing] Yes, please.

Onural:

I got my first education from my mother before I was in elementary school. So apparently I was a curious child at very early ages, three, four, five, asking tons of questions and stuff. So she actually taught me how to read and write before I went to elementary school - - So they were surprised that I was able to read and write at a very early age. Turkish is not difficult to write, by the way. It's a phonetic language. So it's not, very big of an accomplishment. But then when the time came for the elementary school time, typically at age six, my mom took me to the elementary school nearby in the neighborhood. My father also attended that elementary school. My father's aunt attended that school and other people from the family attended the same elementary school, as well (Necatibey İlkokulu 38° 24’ 12” N, 27° 06’ 24” E). The school is still there. It’s the original historical building, by the way. The school was built in 1924; this is an information in parentheses. [Laughter]

So when the time of the registration for the first official schooling, my mom was over there. The principal was there. I was next to my mom, who said to the principal, “he is able to read and write, by the way” And then the principal said “oh, yeah, let's see how well he can read and write”. They just gave me an exam on the spot [Laughter] - - extended a piece of paper to read and then gave me a pen and pencil to write a few things. And on the spot, the principal says I can start from second grade, directly.

Everybody was surprised. Nobody was expecting that in the family. So we went home. We had some discussion with some education experts of our access to see whether it was right or not. I remember this. We got some negative comments, some positive comments, but eventually I started in the second grade.

School evolved very nicely. I think I did well. I wasn't aware of it. It came so naturally. I was quite good in mathematics and science. Definitely I was interested in science from that time on. I know it very well. I was interested in instruments, I know it.

Vardalas:

Instruments?

Onural:

Instruments, yes, eh.

Vardalas:

And what kind? Do you remember what instruments?

Onural:

Yes. For example, a cinema projector. [I wanted to know] how it worked. The radio, how it worked. The things we can see around in those times. We didn't have a television at that time. Television came to Turkey in early seventies or late sixties, something like that. So I'm talking about '63. We didn't have a television. But we had radio, cinema projectors, photographic cameras, all of that stuff, optics, electricity, and also, you know, biological things. I had a microscope. Somebody gave me as a present a small toy microscope. So I watched paramecium from the pool. [Laughter] So school went well. I was happy. And everything came so naturally. I was, I believe, a successful student in elementary school.

Vardalas:

You mentioned that your mother taught you before you went to school. Was she a traditional housewife?

Onural:

Yes. She was a traditional, modern housewife. Both my father and my mother were vocational high school graduates. My mom was at the girl's vocational school. So she knew design, sewing and all of that stuff, modest kinds of things. And my father was a machinist, lathes … He had his own machine workshop. That's how he made a living. So my mom was at home, traditional housewife. And so it went naturally. Nobody made any special efforts. I asked questions and they answered. I know, that was it.

Vardalas:

Did you pick up any talents? I mean, did you like doing things, making things, breaking things, fixing things?

Onural:

Yes. [Laughter] I did. But I don't know where I got it from. [Laughter] Still I like it, by the way.

Vardalas:

Yeah.

Onural:

I don't like to throw away junk machinery. [Laughter] I keep hoping that sometime I will do something with them. Anyway, in elementary school, I think I got an excellent education throughout.

Onural:

There was a significant European population living in Izmir permanently for centuries, Italians, French and many others. So the daily life was probably different than many parts of Turkey. It still is like that today. It's a lively city with strong social activities; everybody likes to have good time. If you go out, day or night, it’s a lively city. And the education there was also strong. Hard to believe how they did it at that time. Turkey was in difficult economic times at the time. Among many elementary schools there were three special elementary schools in entire Izmir offering so-called “experimental education”; my school was one of them.

Vardalas:

Oh, elementary schools now.

Onural:

Elementary school, yes. But looking back, it's exactly what we call today the student-centric education. The teacher, an excellent lady, was devoted to her job. I learned a lot from my elementary school teacher, but the teacher never gave us any classical lecture in the school. We always formed groups in the class. There were four or five students in each. Whatever the topic was, we did our own research to find out everything. We prepared the report at the end and gave a presentation. That included history, geography, science, whatever, except maybe mathematics. Mathematics was a regular, traditional class.

Vardalas:

[Interposing] Wasn't that very unusual for Turkey?

Onural:

It wasn't, but it was very few elementary schools—

Vardalas:

[Interposing] That's what I mean.

Onural:

—was doing it, because the government was apparently experimenting with this kind of education system. They were “experimental” elementary schools.

I liked it very much. I did my own research. We went to sources. I was like an historian, you know. We went and interviewed people about how they performed their jobs. What were the important things in different jobs? We went and visited a lot of production facilities nearby, large factories sometimes. And we dug into a lot of encyclopedias and whatever educational material we could get at that time. So to make the long story short, it fit very nicely. I believe it is also my, nature. I like to go and check things all the time. I had many encyclopedias at home. Read them one by one, all of the pages. [Laughter] I just liked it. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

I gather your parents were very encouraging

Onural:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Very supportive of all of this.

Onural:

Exactly. Exactly. No doubt about it. But what, I can remember is I liked to read almost everything, you know, all parts of the regular newspaper, all of the pages of the encyclopedias, this and that, [laughter] and ask people, talk to people, if there is a person that that I know especially in terms of profession, whatever, I liked to ask questions. I think that's how it started.

Vardalas:

—okay.

Onural:

Yeah, and then when I finished the elementary school—typically it was five years at that time. Well, I finished it in four years.

Vardalas:

Right.

Middle School and High School

Onural:

There was a special [middle/high school] in Izmir (Izmir Koleji; now it is called Bornova Anadolu Lisesi-BAL (38° 26’ 53” N, 27° 13’ 10” E). It was a government school, but it had an English preparatory year when you started, one year of intensive English language only. And then science and math courses was in English afterwards and also a lot of English language courses. All of the social sciences courses were in Turkish. My father and everybody targeted that school for me. An exam was required to enter that school. I took the exam and did well. It was a very nice campus-like setting; green and large buildings on it. But the distance was large, so they had also boarding school facilities over there. The school drew students from all of the western parts of Turkey; a large geography. But it also drew students from Izmir who also stayed in the dormitories and including myself. So at age ten I was away from home, visiting my parents only during the weekends. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

And did you find that difficult?

Onural:

I don't think so. There must have been difficulties, for sure. I was only 10-years old. Okay. However, I had very good friends. The school was very nice. It also had a social life. I think that I did quite well in a short time. Students from Izmir had options. Either they commuted every day, or they went for a boarding school during the weekdays and visited their parents during the weekends. Many of my friends commuted. But 50/50 or even more, students from Izmir boarded because it took at least one-and-a-half hours to travel at that time. But it was an excellent school with an excellent curriculum and also excellent teachers, selected teachers. I learned the English over there first at age ten. And this might be interesting to you as an American. Some of our teachers were, from the American Peace Corps at that time. So we had native speaker English teachers; many of them. It worked fine. And again, I was successful in math and science courses, social sciences also. I didn't like history. I didn't like civics courses. I liked geography very much, though.

Onural:

They came as volunteers to Turkey and teaching English.

Vardalas:

Yeah.

Onural:

Yes [Laughter]. That was what we call over here as a middle school.

Vardalas:

Yes, yes.

Onural:

And a high school.

Vardalas:

Oh, the same complex?

Onural:

On the same campus. So totally three years were middle school, three years for high school, and one year English. So it was a total of seven years of, school. But I did only the first four years over there. After graduating from the so-called middle school part, I took another exam for the only science high school in Turkey at that time, in Ankara (Ankara Fen Lisesi 39° 52’ 33” N 32° 48’ 26” E). Now we have many science high schools all over Turkey. They started a very special science school in Ankara I guess, I don't know the exact date now, in early sixties or late fifties sometime. [They had their first students in 1964]. You can see this school from the window actually. It's nearby. Started by a huge donation from the Ford Foundation in the US.

Onural:

As a special high school, they translated some of the very well-known, textbooks from English used in the US. Professors were involved. It was also an experimental teaching method for education professors in physics, chemistry and so on, both Turkish and American, I believe. They also sent the teachers to US for a lengthy time to see how the teaching was conducted over there in science and math. I took the exam, did very well. I was ranked 5th in Turkey among the middle school graduates, in the exam. The school was a long distance away from home at age 14 [The distance between Izmir and Ankara is 600km].

Vardalas:

Even longer than…

Onural:

Even longer. [Laughter] Yeah. Again, dorms and I can visit the family only in holidays and summer times, you know.

Vardalas:

Did this place an economic hardship on your family?

Onural:

They handled it pretty well. It did not. But maybe dorms were subsidized because these are all government schools. It was not a private school, so it couldn’t have been that expensive. It was also a very big decision at home, of course. I took the exam, I was successful in the exam and admitted to the science school.

But an intense discussion started at home after I was successful in the exam. My mom said “Oh, you will be away”. You know, I insisted. [Laughter] I insisted on getting away from home to get good education. That was a very good decision, because I had extremely competitive students with me, very good friends, some of them from my uh—

Vardalas:

[Interposing] Middle school.

Onural:

—middle school from Izmir. And so, you know, I knew some of them already. And it was a boarding school. So we were together day and night, studying hard, helping each other to learn something. There are people who would answer questions on the spot. And teachers were excellent and we got very advanced level physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics courses, which was not available anywhere else. Even in the universities, they didn’t teach that level in the freshman year. We learned calculus, abstract math and algebra and stuff. And it was also fun. That's where I met my wife. We are still married. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

Oh, she was a student there?

Onural:

Yeah. [Laughter] She was my high school sweetheart. [Laughter]

First Interest in Engineering

Vardalas:

In middle school, did you have any aspirations as to what you wanted to become?

Onural:

Yes, definitely an engineer.

Vardalas:

At that early age?

Onural:

Yes, even in elementary school, I knew that I liked to be an engineer, but it was not electrical engineering. Mechanical engineering instead because of my dad, you know. My dad had a machine shop. I told you, he got, high school-level training in a vocational school. His school is also a very historical building in Izmir and still open (Mithatpasa Sanat Enstitusu 38° 24’ 23” N 27° 06’ 36”). The school building is a very historical site. That's where he got his training.

And he probably admired mechanical engineers pretty much. He could not become one, but he always played with machines and understood the difficulty in designing machines. So he probably wanted me to become a mechanical engineer and probably I picked up the idea and liked it. So I thought about becoming a mechanical engineer all the way till the last year of high school. It was only the last year in high school I switched to electrical engineering. And I'm very happy, by the way. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

What changed your mind?

Onural:

I think it was the influence of friends. Close friends, yeah. Remember, it was a boarding school. So we are always together with other students. And we had very good relations and all were competent. They all had excellent math skills, excellent science skills. So there was a lot of collective interaction about which university to go and what kind of profession to select. And as a consequence of those discussions, I believe I, and many other friends of mine, decided to go to electrical engineering. And we were only 96 people in that high school, in each year. It was about 300 people in one campus like setting.

Onural:

It was away from the city, by the way. And that resulted in an intense interaction among the students. Middle East Technical University was next to us. It's an excellent university in Turkey.

We visited the university a few times when we were in high school for different reasons. So we liked the Middle East Technical University. That was the first choice. And towards the end of the high school, the university entrance system in Turkey changed. When I was in second year in the high school -- third year is the last one -- each university had their own entrance criteria. They gave written exams, tests, this and that, and sometimes interviews. So Middle East Technical University had its own entrance exam. I took the exam when I was in second year in high school and admitted to electrical engineering. I was not able to register before graduation, because I had another year to study in high-school. But I did well in the exam; it was only a trial for me. It wasn’t valid since I did not yet have the high school diploma. If you can't use it, it's gone. You have to take it again the next year. But it was very satisfying to know that I was able to be admitted before even taking the last year of high school. But the next year, the entrance exam changed; it became a central system throughout Turkey. It's still central like that. All of the high school graduates took a single exam. Then according to your preferences, if you have good ranks, good grades, scores, you are placed to a university. So the following year, I took this central exam with all of my friends; the official year of graduation.

Again, I did pretty well. I was 22nd in Turkey among maybe more than 200,000 students that year. And many of my friends were in top 50. So most of us went to electrical engineering of Middle East Technical University. Again, a bunch of people that I knew from middle school and also high school were there.

Vardalas:

You said, there was a lot of discussion amongst friends about the options to take. What was it about electrical engineering that seemed more appealing than anything else? Was it the newness of things? Did it sound exciting?

Onural:

I don't know, but it has been like that in Turkey for more than 30-plus years now. You know, you're talking about 40 years ago. We celebrated our 40th anniversary of graduation from high school a few months ago.

Engineering is a socially highly respected profession in Turkey. It has always been like that. Actually there are two most prominent professions. One of them is the medical profession, doctors. The other one is engineers. And they compete with each other. Every year it is slightly different. Among the engineers, electrical engineering is the top choice of many people. So it is the prestige and probably we didn’t know too much about it at that time. However, I think, I'm not sure about this, but I think the mathematical basis, the foundation of electrical engineering, made the difference compared to mechanical engineering and other things. I like math myself very much. And all of my friends also liked math a lot. So it was a combination of math and physics—

Vardalas:

So then why didn’t you and your friends consider physics or math as a career?

Onural:

It was a sort of pressure. Those two areas do not have a good professional reputation in Turkey, maybe because of the limited job prospects. Our society as a whole, considers engineers as more competent people, more able people, and also they get better jobs and probably better pay at the end compared to pure scientists. If you are a pure scientist, you go to academia, of course. If you go to academia, it's pretty much the same. It doesn't matter which field you are in. But if you end up working in industry or, you know, getting, let's say a job outside of academia, engineers are definitely in a better situation. This didn’t influence me as a student in high school, but it does influence the society, the families, and everybody. And then you get that peer pressure back onto you.

Vardalas:

That's very interesting. It must have certain ramifications about the state of pure, basic research in Turkey, getting good people to do basic research.

Onural:

Yes. This is also kind of unique for Turkey. I have many friends like that. They like to study physics. They like to study mathematics, pure sciences. But because of this pressure, they ended up going to engineering schools. But after getting their BS, they went back and got their master's and PhDs from math and physics. So they could have secured diploma first to satisfy everybody - - [laughter] including themselves in engineering, but then made the choice to go somewhere else.

Vardalas:

So really it's possible that there are a lot of frustrated physicists who are engineers.

Onural:

May be. [Laughter] May be. Physicists inside of engineers. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

Yeah, I want to get to that because I want to discuss the kind of, engineering research that gets done in universities—

Onural:

Okay.

Vardalas:

But that's a fascinating story. To wind up with Ankara Science High School phase of your life, are there any memories that stick out in your mind?

Onural:

Yes. We had to do projects, especially in the senior year. We had senior year design projects. And we had nationwide competitions at that time organized by TUBITAK. TUBITAK is like the counterpart of American NSF here in Turkey. And I also took part in that. In fact, I have some pictures to show you if you are interested in. We had posters at the end of the year from participants from all over Turkey in a national competition, located in Ankara. It still goes on. I even remember the project I did. It was a typical electrical engineering project. [Laughter] I worked with thermocouples - , getting electricity from two different metals and running some measurements.

When I was in high school, after the first year or second year, it was a summer vacation. In summers I go back to Izmir and stay with my family, of course. Izmir, at that time, had a very famous international fair, an international, trade exhibition. It was in a very nice location. It's like the Central Park in New York. It was a park setting. The entire park was for this annual exhibition, which lasted a month at that time. Almost all of the countries were represented; showing their products and selling things and stuff. It was a tradition in Izmir; maybe starting from early 1930s or maybe late twenties that people enjoyed going over there. It was also like a social event in the city. Families, everybody went into these pavilions of different states to look at their products. I liked that very much. So I insisted, you know, when I was a kid that we go over there with my family, I insisted on visiting all of the pavilions. Not to miss anything. [Laughter] Collect all of the papers—everything. I liked geography. I liked the countries.

I also liked the products. They had different machines, different instruments, different this and that. So I did the same thing when I was older. And during my high school summer breaks I was over at the Exhibition either by myself or with my friends.

I recall the Russian pavilion. As you may know, in 1970’s, relations between Russia and Turkey were quite tense. People didn't even talk to each other. [Laughter] But there was always a very nice Russian pavilion there. They had interesting things inside, always interesting things. They had a hologram. A hologram is a three-dimensional picture, you know. And it was on display, probably illuminated by a laser. It must be either 1972 or '73; I was in high school and especially interested in this holography stuff. Let's go back a little if you like.

I told you I loved to read a lot of things since elementary school. So I am a fan of libraries; my middle school had a modest library, but still decent compared to most. And so I was almost always in the library whenever I had a chance. But another quite good and kind of appealing library was the American Library, again Izmir. There was the Turkish-American Association. They used to give language courses to the general public. And then next to that, they had a library. So they had American books inside in English; a lot of scientific books and many others. A small library, but still big for my interests. I think I happened to find a book on holography over there. Someday, maybe in the first year of high school, and read that with excitement. I understand what it's talking about, never understood the underlying mathematics and physics at that time, of course. Then a year later while I was walking in this exhibition [Izmir International Fair], I saw a hologram live on stage in the Russian pavilion. So I was tempted to ask some technical questions, because I knew how it works and operates, to the attendants over there. Of course, they weren't technical people. They were kind enough to translate the answers to me from Russian-speaking attendants, but didn't get in much of a technical content, of course. But both that book I got in the American library and also subsequent interest somewhere in my mind and then seeing that hologram over there, on the stage, I was definitely interested in holography. I know it. [Laughter] This was 40-plus years ago now. [Laughter] And that's how my research life started. I'm still doing holography every day. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

So we have a continuity theme.

Onural:

Yes. You don't see it on the board [showing the white-board in the office] today, but my graduate students come, still we work on optics, wave propagation, holography, this and that. I met all of the big names in holography, in my professional life, including…

Vardalas:

Gabor?

Onural:

No, Gabor was dead I guess, but I met Denisyuk himself. Denisyuk, a Russian scientist, who was one of the two most famous inventors of holography. There's an American side of it and also there is a Russian side of it.

The Middle East Technical University

Vardalas:

So you get to Ankara, did you chose it because it was the best one for electrical engineering?

Onural:

Yes, the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. There were many other universities. This is the Middle East Technical University [Showing the METU campus visible from the window]. It's actually next door, so we can see it from here. Its official name is Middle East Technical University. Again, some grants from Ford Foundation was used, I guess. Founded in 1956.

Vardalas:

Oh, I see. Were you very excited as you entered the first year of university?

Onural:

Yes. Yes, But maybe this is not right if I tell you this one, but I'll tell it anyway. After all this is a kind of open interview. [Laughter] … So it wasn't a big difficulty of any kind during the freshman year. Rather it was very smooth and easy. Again, I was in the dorms, by the way.

Vardalas:

Oh, I see. So the second or third year it started to get more challenging?

Onural:

Yes, exactly. You know, it's the second, third, and fourth year, when the real electrical engineering content comes. That was a lot of fun. I did well, never had any difficulty, always get very good grades. We had excellent professors. So if you would like to ask me what was the most significant impact, definitely the teachers, starting from elementary school and then middle school and high school and the university. I was very fortunate to have excellent teachers. The second impact is maybe you guessed that, is the nearby libraries. The Middle East Technical University has the biggest technical library in Turkey; still does.

Vardalas:

Right.

Onural:

Huge, content. And all of the other schools I attended had very good libraries.

Vardalas:

I can see you spending all of your hours in the library.

Onural:

Yes, but not all. I was also a social person. [Laughter] But I enjoyed reading books.

Vardalas:

Did you start to get a sense of where you wanted to go?

Onural:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Did you pursue holography through your university training?

Onural:

[Interposing] No. Kind of. I forgot about it in the university because electrical engineering and holography has nothing in common, I thought at that time. Of course, that was a wrong, impression. So I got only a bit of holography in electrical engineering topics. And I made a choice towards the end of my university education: inclining more to signal processing. Still my favorite area. I am a professor of signal processing today. I made a definite decision to study signal processing in my graduate level studies.

I also did my master's in Middle East Technical University. I still like the work I did at that time on signal processing. I have a few firsts in my life. One of them is when I did my master's work. I and another friend of mine, now he's the dean of engineering in another university in Istanbul, by the way, we were the first people who actually had and worked on a microprocessor here in Turkey. It was 1979. The microprocessor was the Intel 8080.

It was a [microprocessor] board and I built an instrument, which ran signal processing tasks to compute the discrete Fourier transform in a very strange manner. It was a very modern way of doing it at that time. So microprocessors and signal processing and all of that stuff was my master's work. And then you know how it was, and it is still like that nowadays, the United States was very appealing, especially in those times. Everybody wanted to get their education, especially towards the final stage, you know, PhDs, in the US. So I also had that kind of, thought. And I applied for the Fulbright scholarship over here; Together with also another bunch of friends.

SUNY at Buffalo

Onural:

And towards the end of my master's work, I got the scholarship. Fulbright did many nice arrangements with the American universities, so I didn't have to file tons of applications. I filed only one set of papers to Fulbright and then they circulated it in the universities in the US. I got accepted from a couple of universities I guess, but I don't know the reasons, I chose Buffalo.

Vardalas:

I was going to ask you that question, too.

Onural:

[Laughter]

Vardalas:

If you don't know anything about it…

Onural:

I didn't have good guidance at that time, I admit, but I am also very happy about my education in Buffalo. Let me put it this way. Nobody, including our professors and anybody else, kind of guided us to the “right” universities for PhD education. So it was my own decision without thinking too much I guess. And Buffalo gave me a very good scholarship at that time, in addition to Fulbright scholarship. So I accepted Buffalo and went over there. There was obviously snow and this and that. I was married, by the way. I got married after my BS degree.

Vardalas:

[Interposing] Great.

Vardalas:

Oh, after your bachelor's you got married?

Onural:

Yes, to my high school sweetheart. [Laughter] She's a metallurgical engineer and from the same university. The metallurgical engineering department and electrical engineering were side by side. So we used the same locations most of the time.

Vardalas:

And so you went to Buffalo about which you did not really know much.

Onural:

I didn't really know much about the university. And we didn't have much idea about the rankings of universities at that time.

Vardalas:

Right.

Onural:

Maybe nowadays it's more …

Vardalas:

[Interposing] Yes.

Onural:

—but at those times, it wasn't like that. But the good thing is when I was in Buffalo, David T. Shaw, the professor I was working with in his group was interested in holography. And it was the signal processing aspects of holography, which fit in very nicely to what I was thinking. I was 100% signal processing guy in my university years and also during my master's, but had an interest in holography starting from high school days. And this gentleman, who is a professor of aerosols, wanted to make optical measurements in the lab using holographic techniques. And then I had a professor Peter D. Scott, who was my supervisor in signal processing. So we put together a very nice lab doing holography, actual holography, which was excellent for me. We collected optical data from this setup, and we did image processing, signal processing on this collected data. It was unique at that time and I think we did the first digital processing of holographic content. And he was able to attract a lot of funds himself. We had an excellent image processing lab, one of the best in the US.

Vardalas:

It turned out well for you then—

Onural:

Excellent. Excellent because the facilities were excellent, the lab was excellent, one of the best in the entire world. It combined things that I liked very much: signal processing, image processing, and holography.

Vardalas:

Did you have any role in defining the problem with government research? Or would you think—

Onural:

[Interposing] Yes. Probably I did most of the work myself over there. Because the funding was for aerosols, as I told you, which had nothing to do with my own interests. They just wanted to measure the aerosols using these techniques. How do you do that? They didn't have any clue for that. So it was me and my supervisor in signal processing who worked on different problems. It was mostly me as the PhD student, of course. It worked nicely. And still I'm doing the same thing, a similar line of research over the years.

Vardalas:

What was some of the challenges in your Ph.D. research? Was it straightforward or did you find that it was a hard nut to crack?

Onural:

This was a difficult task. In fact, when I teach my students, the research students, sophisticated people, I still tell them probably they are dealing with one of the most difficult problems in this area; difficult in terms of its underlying mathematics, difficult in terms of its signal processing aspects, difficult in terms of underlying optics and physics.

So definitely it's one of the most difficult problems. When people look at the textbooks, the diffraction and holography and wave propagation and optics theory start from a few centuries ago. However, the way it's presented even today in most prominent textbooks is unnecessarily complicated, because it's difficult. So it's a challenging problem, still is, after 40 years of thinking on it.

Vardalas:

[Interposing] Do you remember the kinds of frustrations you had? Do you remember trying to solve specific problems?

Onural:

[Interposing] Oh. Oh, many, many things. Mathematically frustrating problems, I'm dealing mostly with the signal processing issues. I always had a lab. We always had practical applications and practical results and implementations. This is engineering, you know. But the theoretical aspects of it is the most challenging part, difficult mathematics and difficult way of understanding the physical aspects by looking at the mathematical side of it. So I think still it's one of the most difficult things in the optics area in signal processing.

Vardalas:

Was there any point in your research where you were worried I'm not going to solve this problem?

Onural:

[Interposing] Yes, oh, of course, yes. [Laughter] research is like that. Research is tons of frustrations and—tons of unsuccessful attempts. You know that. But once you solve it, it becomes easy. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

Yes, it certainly becomes obvious.

Onural:

Yes, exactly. And also telling it is also easy. You can explain it maybe in ten minutes to somebody, but maybe it took you ten years to find out that result. Of course, we had a lot of frustrations, a lot of difficult problems, but it turned out okay so far. The problems are not finished, by the way.

Return to Turkey

Vardalas:

Was it always your intention to want to return to Turkey or did you have a vision of going to the best places in the world?

Onural:

I like to live in Turkey and I am very happy about it. I feel very comfortable and everything works nicely. Let's go back again. Turkey had some political difficulties in the past, which always went side by side with economic problems. One of them generates the other. And there are also deeper reasons why that happened, but that's out of the bounds in this interview.

There was a military coup in Turkey in 1971 when I was just graduating from middle school and starting high school. Again, economic difficulties and many things. But then there was another military coup in 1980 when I was doing my master's. And probably we had the most difficult years here in Turkey around 1978, 1979, 1980, going all the way through '82, '83. I was in the US from 1981 till 1986, end of 1986.

So when I left Turkey in 1981 there were deep political problems and very fundamental economic problems. There were queues in gas stations. There were queues, sometimes, in getting basic food items here and there. There was a lot of fighting, here and there, because of political reasons. So there was quite a difference between the life in the US and life in Turkey when I left. Also when it was time to consider coming back, when I got my PhD in 1985, we wanted to come back to Turkey. I checked a few university jobs; Middle East Technical University was the primary choice at that time. The job salaries were significantly low compared to anywhere else and kind of difficult to make a living as an assistant professor. I had a kid at that time who was born in the US in 1984, so he was only 2-years old or so. So I checked the job prospects here in Turkey, but I found it extremely difficult to make a decent life for the family. So I checked other alternatives as well because of these economic difficulties. I had a J visa in The U.S., which allowed me to stay 18 more months after graduation. I spent that time as a research assistant professor, again in Buffalo. But then I looked for opportunities in Canada. I got an offer from Canada, a nice offer.

Vardalas:

Which university?

Onural:

Newfoundland, as an assistant professor. And we decided to go there. This was '86. I got my permanent residence papers done from the Canadian embassy. So my wife and my son, they said “let's go and take a lengthy vacation with our families in Turkey and then you can join us—because I still had something to do in the US—for a few weeks of vacation.” Then all of the family was going to go to Canada and start a new life. The family went to Turkey. I was still in the US wrapping up the final things. Bilkent University was just founded. The founders were professors that I knew pretty well from Middle East Technical University. They made me an offer. The offer was probably better than the Canadian offer. And it was a great joy on our side. So we accepted. We gave up the Newfoundland offer. We came back to Ankara. I'm still here, in the same building… [Laughter]

Vardalas:

So it was fortuitous that moment Bilkent was being formed.

Onural:

Exactly. And when Bilkent was formed, it was a changing time in Turkey. Military rule was going away again. It was a democratic election. Economic-wise things were also changing. And the offer I got from Bilkent University was 6 times higher than a typical salary from a state university at that time.

Vardalas:

Wow.

Onural:

So yes, I was able to make a decent living. I thought it was a good decision. That was the only concern, by the way. So we came back.

Vardalas:

Who created this university—

Onural:

[Interposing] That's a very long story. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

Was it private money or government money—

Onural:

[Interposing] I'll tell you the story. The founder of the university was Ihsan Dogramaci.

Vardalas:

Can you say it slowly?

Onural:

Ihsan.

Vardalas:

Ihsan.

Onural:

Dogramaci.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Onural:

Ihsan Dogramaci is a very interesting person. He was born in Arbil, which is northern Iraq right now. But it was the Ottoman Empire when he was born. He passed away a few years ago at age 94. He was born in 1915, when the Middle East was still the Ottoman Empire. It was during World War I. The family was extremely influential in Iraq. There was a governor appointed by the Sultan in Istanbul at that time. The local governor, of the entire Middle East was from their family.

And so they were an influential family—both economic-wise, from a rich family, and also politically very well-connected to the Ottoman Empire administration. Then he married to a very rich woman with similar, family stories. In fact, an uncle of his wife, his wife is alive, by the way, was one of the grand viziers of Sultan in Istanbul, equivalent to the prime minister today, at one time. So they got married. Both of the families were influential, both economically and politically.

He went to medical school and became a medical doctor. After all of that problems during the First World War the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. He went to school in Beirut, but then transferred to medical school in Istanbul University in 1930s, got his medical degrees from Istanbul University, and then got his postgraduate education in the US in 1940s. When he went to US, he was interested in academia. Well-connected politically, very influential and rich families and also liked the academic life. In the US, he saw the American university system firsthand. He decided to have similar university system here in Turkey. When he came back as a young doctor, he was politically very influential worldwide, one of the founders of, World Health Organization, one of the original signatories. The Turkish political system did not allow private universities. So he founded Hacettepe University first under the state umbrella as really the best medical university in Turkey in Ankara. They have a variety of different schools over there, but the medical school is the most prominent. And it was an American-style medical school; even it was a state university.

But then in 1984 when the regime in Turkey was also changing, because of the stories I told you, he found a way to influence the politicians to change the constitution of Turkey to allow for not-for-profit private universities, just like a typical good American private university. And then Bilkent University was founded as the first not-for-profit, private university here. He donated—this is the answer to your question—he donated an endowment to the university. His family was a very rich family, had some interest in oil companies I guess over there. After the problems in late 1950s in Iraq, they transferred their wealth to Turkey because of political reasons in the Middle East, I guess. And the family moved to Turkey in 1930s. They started large enterprises here: companies in construction, in paper-making, and some others. He donated all of those companies to the university as an endowment. So maybe this is a unique model to fund a university in the entire world.

Still today, the university owns one of the largest conglomerates here in Turkey called Bilkent Holding. A set of companies, and two of the airports you passed today, Istanbul a few days ago, Ankara today, were both constructed by our companies and still operated by our companies. We do have a share over there. We have large shopping malls, again paper and printing companies, construction companies, airport companies, et cetera. The entire value of these companies today is about $2 billion I guess and, again, university is 100% owner. The rector of the university is also the CEO of the entire holding. [Laughter] So that was the funding, which made the university possible. And it's a private university. They also collect tuition. Half of the income comes from the tuition. The other half comes from these companies, when they make profits; the profits come to university tax-free.

Vardalas:

[Interposing] Well, that's a nice model.

Onural:

Yes, so the students spend one unit of money, but they get two units of return. This is the story of Bilkent University.

Outline of Signal Processing Research

Vardalas:

Was there ever any thinking on your part, as an electrical engineer, to go into industry rather than stay in academia? What—was there any tension there?

Onural:

No, it was always clear that I wanted academia right from the very beginning. You know high school decision.

A few things might be important. One of them is that I think I am a very independent person by nature. I never take orders from anybody else and nobody tells me what to do and what not to do, so I decide on my own. This is not always good. [Laughter] —sometimes I make mistakes, so, of course, it's all my responsibility, but I do whatever I like. One of the reasons for choosing the academia is exactly this one. Whatever work I do, I decide on it. Nobody controls the timing of my studies. I don't have to be somewhere at a certain time or whatever. I am the boss of my activities year around. And I enjoy what I am doing. I'm really interested. I'm a hard worker, you know.

Vardalas:

[Interposing] I'm sure you do.

Onural:

Except for sleeping hours, I've worked for all of my life. But I do it on my own because I like it. If I don't like it, I can stop right away. And I do whatever I like. That's the reason for choosing academia. It wouldn't be like that in industry, that's for sure. And I like teaching, too.

Vardalas:

You commented earlier on the importance of good teachers in your life.

Onural:

Oh, yes, I also like teaching myself. I got a distinguished teacher award a couple of years ago from the university. I enjoyed that very much. I don't know if I deserved it or not, but I try to do my best in the classroom. So to make it short, I like what I am doing. And I knew it.

Vardalas:

Yes, I saw that. If you can phrase it in words, in terminology that a layperson could understand, how would you, organize the major research themes that you've done? It's about 30 years now that you've been at it.

Onural:

Yes.

Vardalas:

How would you organize it?

Onural:

Yes, in my early assistant professor years over here, I was in a large European network doing digital video, essentially signal processing. It's the most advanced level of signal processing. So we had contributions to some early standards in digital video standards that are still used today. Now, it is easy to put a video on a computer screen. But when I was doing my PhD, my lab was among the first labs to put an image on a computer screen; a still image.

So when I was an assistant professor, playing a video on a computer screen was still not possible. There were very special instruments to do that. But that was the time, when the essential research was done; even in today’s fast times, from research to commercial products at the end, it takes 20 years or so. The technology you use in your video camera was based on research probably done in the early 1990s. I was in that area: the digital video; and that includes video phone, interactive video phones, and also computerized video, which allows any kind of video to be transmitted to your computer. It involves compression, video compression and things like that.

Many years later, I found an opportunity to combine the holography stuff with my video and signal processing interests. And that's three-dimensional TV, holographic three-dimensional TV. I’ve been working on that topic for a long time now; at least for 15 years or so, I'm doing only holographic video, nowadays. The goal of holographic video is well-known to, everybody, due to movies. The goal is to put a ghost of anything in a real environment. So how would you create the ghost is my main research concern.

And other things related to that. At one level, it's easy to explain, I guess, but underneath it there's a lot of complexity. Here is a way to, explain it: We see our environment, right? Now you see me and all of the other things. I see you and all of the things around. The reason why we see these things is because we are floating in light. Light is filling everywhere, so there is a three-dimensional volume of light over here. If there were no light, it would be totally dark and we wouldn't be able to see anything. So we are floating in volume-filling light. And what you see is light going through your tiny pupils. So the goal is to record this physical light. That's an electromagnetic field. Okay? And record this light if you can, and store it somewhere if you can, and then play it back if you can.

Playing back means by some physical means, electronic and optical, create this same physical light, volume of light. Here is the catchword: If you are able to create the same light, this re-created light which duplicated the original goes into your eyes, and therefore, you see the same thing. But the original scene doesn’t exist anymore, physically, except the duplicate light. So it's just like any other telecommunications instrument, in a sense: all of the audio instruments, for more than 100 years or so, fax machines and video recorders, they all do the same thing. You record something first, either you transmit it live to somewhere else or store somewhere and play it sometime later. But the goal is the same. You record something and then you re-create it later on.

For that classical video that we are using right now, we are recording light, but only its limited physical features. And then when you re-create it, you create these limited features on a regular screen—a TV screen. One step further is, you record all of the physical properties of light around you, not only a limited version of it. If you can store all of the physical features of the light and if you have the electronic and optical means of replaying it afterwards, then you can create the volume-filling light environment. Then whoever is moving in it, either your eyes or your camera or it may be an animal, whatever. Since it's exactly the same light as we have right now, which carries the information about you, me, and all of the objects over here, will see the same thing. By the way, we don't see the objects; we see the light coming from the objects.

So if you create the same light as in this environment right now, whoever enters into that will see exactly the same things that we see right now, there. That's the goal. So how can we record it is a question, how can we store it is another question, how can we replay it is another question. We know the mathematical answers to these. We know what to record, how to record and all of the details of it. But technically we can only do very limited things in the lab today. We can create ghost videos, but very small nowadays; only 2 centimeters by 2 centimeters by 2 centimeters of volume. So it's not a large volume. It’s limited in colors, limited in content, this and that, because the electronic and optical technology is not there yet. But definitely it will be reached someday, especially based on what has happened in the past 20 years or so. The technology, it will be there to support the underlying mathematics. So that's the research.

There are tons of technical problems to solve on the technology side. There are lots of mathematical and theoretical problems to solve on the other side. We are talking about electromagnetic fields. So it's a three-dimensional and also time varying. So that makes four-dimensional signals. Very difficult signal processing in that regard and you have to push to the limits of nonexistent technology. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

And does your approach consider the eye, the retina, and the brain processing information aspects of vision.

Onural:

[Interposing] Yes. But if you can create the same physical light, it really doesn’t matter who interacts with it, either a human eye or a human brain or a, you know, or an animal or a regular camera like that one. If you have the same physical light, the end product will be the same; the optical image, the 3D image.

Vardalas:

That's very interesting. So I gather from what you're saying, it's still a long way from commercialization.

Onural:

Exactly; that's true.

Vardalas:

[Interposing] You're waiting for technology to catch up.

Onural:

Yes, that's true. And we also make up the technology. That's what we do in the lab. And many companies are interested in that. So we do cooperate with some of them. But it's still a long way from commercialization. That's typically appropriate for an academic work.

Vardalas:

At a pre-competitive level.

Onural:

Exactly.

Vardalas:

Oh, okay. Fascinating. Well, that was a very succinct synopsis. I see the thread now, that's interesting, holography in high school, you're still—

Onural:

[Interposing] It's still holography—

Vardalas:

…on the journey.

Onural:

Yeah—I have the best combination, I guess, both mathematics and the signal processing at the highest satisfying level; I may put it that way. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

Thinking back over this 30 years journey, do any particular achievements stand out in your mind as your most satisfying?

Onural:

Let me put the question from the other side.

Vardalas:

Or are there any big disappointments? [Laughter]

Onural:

Of course there are, but those are tiny steps in this long process of 30, 40 years or so. I'm satisfied with what I have accomplished so maybe that answers the question.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Onural:

That's the biggest reward. I'm very happy with the contributions I made, but more important than that, well, look—let me go back a little. I had this curiosity in me, which actually, is the driving force behind all of this. You know, I was very lucky to be in the right environments all the time with excellent teachers and excellent education and friends and students. And so the combination was right to satisfy my own curiosity. Looking back, I'm happy because I got the answers.

Vardalas:

Before I segue to your IEEE involvement, I wanted to ask you a general question. After having spent all of these years in academia and now the dean of engineering, what do you see as the relationship between the engineering research that goes on in the university in Turkey and the needs of industry? Is that relationship productive or not productive?

Onural:

Yes, that's a mixed feeling. When I was a university student 30-plus years ago, my professors were talking about university/industry relations in Turkey, and improving it; never worked properly at that time. Yes, we are still discussing it, today, too. And we do a lot of things. It has significantly improved over that 30 years period. Now the university/industry relations are very lively. Nowadays universities in Turkey—and we have about 200 universities in Turkey—almost all of them has very good relations with industry. They enjoy, and benefit from, each other. Otherwise it wouldn't work anyway. That's the reason why it didn't work maybe 30 years ago. But it's very lively nowadays because the level of industry has improved significantly compared to 30 years ago. Turkey made incredible political changes, which included all sorts of economic changes as well, starting from mid 1980s by the time I was returning back to Ankara. So all of the industry is now open to the entire world. It's not a protectionist system anymore. It's a competitive system. They are very able and do excellent jobs all over the world. Therefore, they are at the edge, together with all of the other companies anywhere in the world, with their products. Otherwise there is no survival, anyway. You cannot be a local goods industry. If you do something good, it has to be globally good. And with that in place, they needed real research because you can’t be competitive unless you create and own intellectual property; it is impossible for the industry. That need has developed with a very strong pace over the past 30 years and still going up with a very fast pace. But I believe in the last ten years or so, it is at a satisfactory level. Now prominent Turkish companies are operational everywhere. In order to be competing, they need to create new ways of doing things. So therefore they are after real research and they really see the benefits of real research, it's not too far away for them anymore.

And they come and visit the universities very often for their real-life problems. And these problems are appealing to academicians, as well, because they are real problems. In the past, they were kind of trivial problems. They said that for some reason they cannot solve it on their own and they tried to get help from the universities and university professors never interested in those kinds of things; you know, we have our own egos in academia. Now it looks like there is a very good match. So most of the universities have special units in them to facilitate this kind of relations. And it's at a very good level. It can be improved. Government is also aware of it. Government is leading with a lot of political changes for this kind of interaction. Most research related activities are exempt from income taxes. The taxes are high here. [Laughter]

Joining IEEE

Vardalas:

Very interesting. Now that we're in industry, I want to move over, into IEEE.

Onural:

Okay.

Vardalas:

So I see that you’ve had a long involvement with IEEE. Were you a student member?

Onural:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Well, do you remember when you joined as a student member?

Onural:

Yes, when I was a PhD student in the US. It must be '81 or latest '82. I'm not sure about it. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

Did somebody suggest that you join or was it something you thought that you should do?

Onural:

Initiated by myself, I guess. We were aware of IEEE because of professional reasons. When I was a student in the university, here in Ankara, I was well aware of IEEE, used the journals all the time, look at the publications, that stuff. So when I was in the US for the PhD education, while walking in the corridors of the EE department of SUNY at Buffalo, within a very few weeks or months after I joined, I saw the room over there with IEEE signs on it. I just walked in and they are very happy to have me in and I signed up the papers and thus I became a student member, right away. But I learned the organizational structure and other aspects of IEEE, after joining IEEE and becoming an active volunteer, of course.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Onural:

Previously it was just the publications.

Creating the IEEE Turkey Section

Vardalas:

Tell me about the creation of the Turkey Section. You were involved. How did all come about?

Onural:

Yes, yes, with pleasure. I came back to Turkey in January 1987. And after my arrival, maybe a few months later, I get the Region 8 News. I still have copies of its recent issue over there on my desk. That's a newsletter by the IEEE Region 8. Region 8 is Europe, Africa, and Middle East. That was the first time I was aware of a newsletter coming from IEEE. I don't remember getting any newsletters when I was in the US. So it was quite colorful. I looked at it; just a few pages, talking about very nice things, you know, IEEE France section, Germany section, this section, that section; there are many sections in Region 8, but there were no Turkey section. [Laughter] I said, how come there is no Turkey section; It was really a deficiency. IEEE is important, technically important for academia, papers are important, this and that. And apparently IEEE was doing a lot of things beyond publishing papers. Conferences are among the main activities, of course. We were all aware of the conferences. So I understood at that time, after receiving the Region 8 News, that a local IEEE section was definitely necessary in order to have more activities here in Turkey, especially to attract large conferences and things like that. But we didn't have any. How could it be possible? Electrical engineering profession has been over here for maybe more than a century, in Turkey. IEEE was over a century old. And we didn't have a section while almost all of the other countries had one. So I went to the dean's office at that time. The dean was a professor I knew well. I mentioned it to him; I said, “How come we don't have a section?” Well, I don't know what he said, but we immediately made a decision in his office that since we don't have one, we should be starting one.

So I said okay, fine. He said, “Why don't you find out how to start it”. We didn't have email in those times. It wasn't—email. I'll tell you another story. I'm the first person to send an email to Turkey, in Turkey's history. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

Really?

Onural:

Maybe I should tell you about it, later.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Onural:

So we had some email access, but very limited connections. It was not the same email that we use today. Our communications went through faxes most of the time and via teletexts. And telephones, of course. So I was in touch with the Region 8 director of that time who was Hugo Ruechardt. They were very happy and supported the idea of a Turkey section. There are apparently some paperwork from the IEEE side, which was easy in a sense. The Director said that we needed to have 50 members, at least. Probably we had 50 members in Turkey at that time, but I wasn't sure and I didn't have connection with all of them. And then the dean (Prof. Ozay Oral) said “Let's support membership dues from the university funds, and cover the cost of membership for all faculty members who was not a member yet—

Vardalas:

[Interposing] To become members?

Onural:

Yes. [Laughter] So we can reach that number 50 easily. At least we had maybe 20 or so faculty members at that time. That was a good number, and we also had graduate students. So we made some further efforts to come up with the needed number.

But then, the Turkish bureaucracy at that time was burdensome. Remember I mentioned the military coups and everything. One of the things that these military rulers and probably rulers before them—by the way, that was also the state culture of old, ancient Turkish times, were suspicious of anything which they could not control themselves. So any kind of an organization, which is not coming up from Turkey originally, was considered suspicious. IEEE was an American institution and not a Turkish institution. So how do you officially start a legal entity here in Turkey, which is not originally Turkish? An American institution having a branch and operating here in Turkey? I checked the law. Apparently they changed the law at that time, so a one-page, simple law, which seemingly facilitates this, but if you read it, practically, prohibits it. Because the steps you have to fulfill were almost impossible.

Here are the steps we had to complete: It said that we had to get the opinion from the Ministry of Interior Affairs. Is this a good association or a bad association? Okay, whatever that means. [Laughter] And then since it's a foreign entity, we had to get the opinion from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Is it a good association or a bad association? And then we had to file an official petition to form it, seven persons at least. I remember six of the names. I couldn't remember the seventh one; I thought about it last night. In fact, I made a phone call to Ayhan Altintas to check and ask. He could not remember, either. So I know the six names. We filed an official form to the office of the Governor of Ankara. They asked us, as in any other similar petition, for a translation of the bylaws and the constitution of IEEE to Turkish. IEEE constitution is a few pages, but the bylaws are thick. It's a legal document. Translation to Turkish is almost impossible. But they insisted on it. So we had somebody, one of our graduate students, to do the translation. It took a lot of efforts.

Next they said, since this is an open society, we have to publish the translated constitution and the bylaws in a public newspaper. It's also expensive, you know. But there were small, local newspapers, which could do that for a reasonable amount of money. Anyway, we translated only the constitution, not the bylaws. We had these bylaws published in a local paper in Turkish. It was published in a newspaper located about 100 kilometers from Ankara, in a small town. And then gave these translations and everything to the governor’s office together with the petition. Then the governor’s office processed the application. The procedure was to ask the ministries I've mentioned. And then the law says after their approval, it goes to the cabinet, the Turkish Government. If the government grants an approval, then it is published in the Official Gazette, and thus takes effect.

But we had another obstacle: even if it was not in the law, they also insisted to get an opinion from the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources here in Turkey. Why? Because IEEE was an institution related to electricity. [Laughter] And then there's the Turkish Chamber of Electrical Engineers; and the ministry also asked their opinion. They all get favorable answers from all those institutions involved, but it took time. And then, the Turkish Government approved it, signatures were completed. Then it went to the President's Office. The President was the general who made the coup in 1981. [Laughter]

So we expected his final signature. Thenthere was a phone call from his office to the dean over here at Bilkent. The dean (Prof. Ozay Oral) was among the founding members of IEEE Turkey Section. Apparently their legal branch was calling. And they said, “We have a problem over here. We cannot approve it like that.” Why? Because you translated only the IEEE constitution and did not translate the bylaws. Where are the bylaws for this institution?” [Laughter] Then we went to their office, showed them the bylaws booklet, and we said, “but this is impossible to translate with a meaningful effort since it was quite lengthy.” They were convinced. And then the President signed it and IEEE Turkey Section became official.

Vardalas:

How long, from the time that you and the dean decided to do this, did it happen?

Onural:

Ah, look, I got the idea in, you know, months after I came over here, must be mid-1987. The official approval was in May '89.

Vardalas:

Two years.

Onural:

It shouldn't be that long. At least a year probably.

Vardalas:

Well, how many members were there in the first year? How did it grow?

Onural:

Probably we had about 50 members. Remember, the university also helped a little bit to increase the number. But then the number quickly went up to a few hundreds and then we went up to 500, in a few years. Now I don't know how many, but the Turkey Section is one of the largest sections in Region 8; so, definitely there was a need. And also student branches were very lively. There was a lot of interest from students from many universities and they were active. So it was a good decision to have it started. Now the issue is—

Vardalas:

[Interposing] Yeah, please talk about the problem that arose.

Onural:

The problem was actually resolved at that time. The governors, local governors, had confusions because the law under which we were formed and also quoted in that Official Gazette was not the commonly used law which governs the ordinary associations here in Turkey. That was a very special law on its own and specifically written for foreign organizations to have a branch here in Turkey. So it was legally a different stuff. If there was a grassroots association over here, whose membership, memberships dues and everything are written in its own constitution, then its operational and financial audits would be conducted according to related Turkish laws But this law we used was specific for foreign entities having an operational branch over here in Turkey and fits very well to IEEE, as well. However, that law was new at that time. And when we used it, it was used very few times in Turkey. Maybe another two, three different entities used it—so they didn't know what to do with this law at the governor’s office. They knew the other law well. So they came back to us with questions and requests associated, in general, with the other law. One of the requests was to have a general assembly every year. “Look” we told them, “we don't collect dues on our own, the IEEE headquarters in New York collects the dues and then sends us the money, so it's a different operation. We don't have that kind of financial operations”, and so on. They understood. . We operated very nicely for many, many years like that without any difficulties. But once in a while, here and there, again, somebody would refer back to the commonly used law which governs the regular associations over here, and asked for something related to it. Again, we were able to convince them by indicating the law we were based on. But then things changed. It got better, by the way, in time. The related laws got more relaxed and became easier to operate. But then suddenly I got that paper you saw from the courts, three years ago. The court said “since you didn't have your general assembly”—and it was right, we didn't have it. We had it only once when we started at the very beginning because everybody was there when we elected the first, section officers. We didn't have it afterwards. But we didn't need to have it because of the legal basis, I've told you. But this court was probably not aware of the entire situation. And the Turkey section did not really bother to go to court and defend itself at that time.

Onural:

All past section chairs, we got together; we tried to make recommendations to the Turkey section chair of that time. Let me show you the court notice. Just three years ago they were reluctant to go to court and actually defend and tell them that a general assembly was not needed, and therefore, the section cannot be closed on those grounds. There was a lawyer appointed by the IEEE headquarters to deal with this issue and IEEE knew it actually. So IEEE headquarters was also very much aware of the organizational form of the old section, and the troubles we experienced with that court action we received over here. But they were also reluctant to go to court. The court “decision,” at the end, technically was not a decision, but a “record.” So they just observe, and seeing that we didn't have the general assembly in accordance with the new law governing the regular associations the court records that IEEE Turkey Section have automatically abolished itself.

Vardalas:

So what is their real status now?

Onural:

From the IEEE side, there's an official Turkey section because that's easy to follow all of the IEEE rules and regulations, but IEEE Turkey Section haven’t had a legal status here in Turkey for the last three years, which means that the section cannot handle money, cannot open a bank account, cannot officially deal with anything.

Vardalas:

You can't officially host a conference.

Onural:

We can have a conference, but then it's a bunch of people who organize the conference. It's not the legal entity—

Vardalas:

[Interposing] Okay.

Onural:

—which does that. So having a legal entity is something else, and having a bunch of people doing something, is another thing. But technically, since it doesn’t exist as a legal entity, it cannot handle any money and any money transaction on its own.

Onural:

That's the biggest problem. I think it will be resolved. There is another action to have the section formed again under the new law and it's going on right now. In my mind, since I have the feeling that the Turkey Section administration three years ago did not deal with this issue properly, I'm not helping them now, anymore.

Vardalas:

That's quite the saga.

Onural:

[Laughter]

As Region 8 Director

Vardalas:

Then you became the Region 8 Director.

Onural:

Yes.

Vardalas:

And then, then you were exposed to the issues and the challenges of a diverse grouping of countries.

Onural:

Since the start of the section in 1989, actually a year before that, we were a part of the Region 8 administration and we attended their meetings regularly. So I knew very well how Region 8 operated. I knew all of the IEEE sections and people in different countries very well. And I enjoyed it very much. Actually IEEE Region 8 is the most interesting region in entire IEEE because of its diversity.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Onural:

There's a huge diversity in geography, huge diversity in cultures, huge diversity of everything, languages are different, political systems are different. We have many different countries. However, it operated very smoothly right from the very beginning. And probably it operated much smoother than any other IEEE entity anywhere at the local levels and also at the higher levels. I don't know the reason, but I think the, most dominant reason is probably the volunteers over here. They're always very nice people: and competent. They know what they are doing. And they always have a clear picture of what to do and where to go. And they like to cooperate. So we always had discussions, of course, on this and that, but we were able to smoothly solve almost all of the problems in Region 8. It still operates very nicely, as I see it. I haven’t attended the meetings for about ten years now, or so, but I attend once in a while. It operates smoothly. A single sentence that probably best describes the IEEE Region 8 is “It is like the United Nations”. We have 40-plus countries in it, and all that different languages. So running Region 8 is just like running the United Nations. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

—the United Nations is run very well. [Laughter]

Onural:

[Laughter] That's right. So during my term, my two years' term as the Region 8 director, I never had any difficulty. I have to thank all of my friends for that. It was a group effort, of course.

Vardalas:

When you became Region 8 director, did you have a set of goals that you wanted to get accomplished in Region 8 that—

Onural:

[Interposing] Yes. Actually that fits very nicely with the problems I mentioned to you. In fact, I tried to do that also in IEEE when I was on the IEEE Board of Directors. I was on the IEEE Board for two years as the region director and one year as the secretary of IEEE. One of my priorities was the legal issues and registration of IEEE in the different countries of the world. Being an American entity registered in New York. IEEE has been always operating worldwide, so IEEE is probably one of the best organizations which has the vision and the experience of how a globally organization runs. But even IEEE was ignorant about the legal issues in countries other than USA. They comply with all of the US regulations because it's mandatory, but then while operating in all other countries, 100-plus countries or so, IEEE takes it casually and, you know, it doesn’t really spend enough attention to comply with the local rules and regulations. So there were problems here and there. Some sections, when I was the Region 8 director, were, formally registered in their countries. Turkey was one of them. It was difficult. I told you the story.

Onural:

We were a fully, legally registered entity. France section was like that and—maybe a few other sections. But many of them were operated casually without any legal status in their countries.

Vardalas:

Oh.

Onural:

IEEE members worldwide, are members of an association in New York, but if that legal entity is not recognized in another country, those members legally operate only as a bunch of people, and not as a legal entity. If you do it like that, it's still possible, but you can never grow beyond a certain level of operations. And the real reason for that is the inability to handle money. Money is essential to do significant activities—running a large conference, for example, is a lot of money and related issues, like bank accounts, income and expenses, and reporting. So, don't you want to properly setup a section, having all of the legal papers and things in place and all of the auditing and this and that done properly? You have to have the legal entity. So I tried to convince people to actually work in that direction and do it. Nowadays IEEE is doing it rather well. Probably I initiated that feeling in IEEE; the necessity to comply with all the regulations, which are different in different countries. Tax rules are different. For example, VAT in Europe is different. Now IEEE is handling it very nicely, but it started when I was on the board. If you run a conference, for example, in UK, you have to collect VAT and return that to UK government. You cannot do it casually. Anywhere in the European Union you have to collect VAT, many other countries are also like that. So that kind of paperwork is now taken care of in IEEE, as I see it from outside. However, when I was on the board, when I was the Region 8 Director, this issue was taken very lightly. And that was one of my worries; I succeeded enough to convince people that it is important, at the end. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

When you say taken very lightly, they didn't see a need for it, or they just said well, you know, we'll do it later?

Onural:

All of that. First of all, it is a difficult issue because legal issues are complicated. I told you the Turkish story. So you need lawyers, legal people. Besides that we also got help from Turkish lawyers when we formed the section here. It's expensive and difficult in the first place. Secondly, going through these details and becoming a compliant institution is difficult. IEEE headquarters should also comply. And they do, by the way, with the EU regulations now, I believe. In the third place, there were some form of operations anyway at some level, even if there is no local legal entities. And that was kind of sufficient, I believe to, many people. Yes, they were aware of it, but kind of reluctant to take real action and maybe did not see the benefits at the end and think that was unnecessary. Assessing the costs and the benefits, many people thought that it was costly and the benefits and the returns were not significant.

Vardalas:

Today membership is more from outside of the US.

Onural:

Is it like that now? In my time, it was something like 60/40. Again, IEEE is probably the most successful, legal entity, which knows how to operate worldwide. However, it's not sufficient. That's what I'm, stressing. Legal compliance locally is definitely important. So probably I convinced a few people.

Vardalas:

I gathered your experience in just forming the Turkish section opened your eyes to this problem.

Onural:

Yes. Exactly. And I was able to see those problems, listen to those problems, and I was totally aware of them. I know how to get rid of it, but it requires a lot of patience sometimes.

Vardalas:

So you say you were on the board for three years. Before you got on the board, did you have certain views on how the board worked?

Onural:

Before I was a member of the board, I attended the board meetings many times. Because I was a volunteer in RAB at that time, Regional Activities Board. I was a student activities chair at one time. Those RAB meetings usually happened at the same place and the same time together with the board meetings, so-called Board Series. So I was able to attend many board meetings beforehand. I knew how they operated, so it wasn't a surprise at all. And it operated very nicely and efficiently, by the way. I learned also a lot of things over there myself about organizational matters, and how to run the meetings, how to get actions actually handled, all related issues. So IEEE board has been running efficiently at that time thanks to leaders, presidents and other people, other volunteers. It was smooth.

The Current IEEE Executive Board

Vardalas:

Now there has been some talk, that perhaps the board is too big and unwieldy. Did you notice that?

Onural:

Yes. That comment has been made all the time. You know, people will say that for effective management, you need at most nine people or so. You know, there are books like that. So they say oh, we are about 40 people over here, so we cannot run efficiently. I see that and I understand it. But still, I think the board is effective in IEEE and doing its job. For those smaller operational matters, there's the IEEE Executive Board anyway. That's a smaller, group. They also do their job very well.

So I don't think there is a major flaw in IEEE governance. However, revisions here and there are always necessary, just like anything else. If the whole environment changes, you have to make some changes too, both technically and legally and operation-wise. One of the most frustrating times at the IEEE board meetings that affected me the most, as the Region 8 Director, was either in my first year as the director or probably the second year. The US government imposed a lot of regulations worldwide as sanctions to other countries several countries that US was not friendly with were affected. Everybody was aware of it. It's on the papers here and there whenever it happens. It's also happening today. It was happening also in the past. So it was also happening when I was on the IEEE board. Some activities of IEEE was running everywhere in the world. One thing, which was quite a coincidence, was a significant event:

Apparently an IEEE entity in UK, England, was going to organize a conference in Iran around the year 2000. And then this was a locally-run, small conference with some IEEE members in Iran and UK. So they started the organization of the conference as usual. At one point, they had to transfer some money to the conference, a small amount of money. And the bank said you cannot send the money because there are US sanctions and no financial operations are possible with Iran. At that moment, starting from this small IEEE conference—we know there are thousands of conferences every year—it kind of, moved up to the board level. The board checked this legal issue, probably for the first time. I was aware of those kinds of problems. I told you that; in such worldwide activities, many governments, and therefore, a lot of international issues that you have to be careful with are involved. And then, apparently there were two significant US actions, which also affected IEEE operations. One of them is ITAR. The other one is OFAC. Have you heard about them? Some of them are still effective, I believe. ITAR is the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

Onural:

And OFAC is, I'm not sure, but I think it is the acronym for the US government office which implements the monetary sanctions So the issue was that IEEE could not financially operate in Iran, I mean, send in money and receive money from. Actually, there was more than that. IEEE could not have a section in Iran and in similar countries, but Iran was the largest one of such countries in Region 8 and that’s the reason I'm giving you Iran as the example. It was Iran, Libya—many countries. And then, apparently IEEE activities over there was not compliant with these issues or at least there was some concern. So that concern was significant to be dealt with at the board level. IEEE wanted to solve this issue. And I think we dealt with it very effectively and in a right manner. We had some, confidential sessions, closed sessions, by the way, to deal with this issue. I think we did very well. So IEEE formed a group of a few people, vice presidents of that time and a few other volunteers. I wasn't in that. These members went to the US government officers, who were dealing with these issues, and talked to them directly. And they tried to explain what IEEE did and what kind of an institution we were. We are not a political institution. We don't do anything wrong actually, but we have the publications, we do conferences, and this and that. Then the issue turned out to be this, as I understood and remember now—the US government was concerned about Iranian authors sending papers to IEEE journals for publication. Well, why is the concern right there? They were just sending the papers, to publish and make the contents available to the public. Then as it turned out the government's concern was this: the papers are reviewed before publication; there are reviewers. Technical papers are always reviewed. Their concern was what if the reviewer turns back some comments? Thus maybe unintentionally fills in the missing gaps of some kind of ongoing invention related research and helps them to complete the invention afterwards. Apparently that was considered as helping these people in that country, which the US government was not happy with. So apparently they were telling us that we could not accept papers to conferences and publications from Iran if it is further reviewed or edited; could only be accepted as it is received in its original form. You could not review or edit it. We didn't believe that it was right, among many other things. So that communications with the government went on. It continued also after my term. And I didn't follow up with the details, but it was nicely resolved afterwards, without any further tensions. I was also happy that it was resolved at the end. But that was one of the, major concerns in my time, especially being the Region 8 Director.

There was a section chair from Iran coming to our meetings. He was not able to come anymore, after these events. And all of the operations, sections, student activities in those countries were suspended because of this. So we took the precautions. We corrected all of the things to comply with the American rules. Of course, it's an American institution; we had to comply. So we did many corrections and we did a lot of negotiations with US government officials to, kind of, smooth out things and find a way at the end.

Run for IEEE President

Vardalas:

At one point the Board said, “Levent, you should run for president”.

Onural:

[Laughter] Yes that was an interesting time, yes.

Vardalas:

What was your reaction when you heard this? Was it a surprise?

Onural:

[Interposing] It was a surprise, definitely a surprise.

Vardalas:

What was your reaction?

Onural:

I was very honored with that, of course. It was the board’s decision to nominate me. And I was honored definitely. At the time, I was the first nominee to that position from outside of North America. In 100-something years of IEEE history.

Vardalas:

Did you have an election platform?

Onural:

[Interposing] Yes and no. But you know, IEEE has a lot of traditions on its own. IEEE also had traditions about the candidates and so on, so the whole process ran smoothly. Someone tells you what to do at some certain times. So I also did my part of it, of course. I campaigned a little. The whole process actually went very nicely with the help of those very competent IEEE staff, who know how these things work.

Vardalas:

Along the way, did any specific action plans crystallize?

Onural:

Yes, there were a few things. One of them was an activity started before my term and also continued during my term and probably afterwards, so-called at that time as “streamlining IEEE operations.”

Vardalas:

Streamlining?

Onural:

Yes. One of the biggest concerns was the relations of the societies with the central IEEE at the top level. You know, IEEE at that time used to have 40-plus societies. And societies thought that they were independent entities on their own. They think that only they do all those things that happen. That's true in a sense. They do the publications; very important. They do the conferences; very important. But they think that they are doing it on their own. So they wanted to keep almost all of the money which was coming back from those activities. And it's actually a primary income source for IEEE. Whenever the central IEEE, took out some funds from these sources to fund the central operations, there was always a tension. Societies thought that IEEE headquarters and central operations were not efficient, and so taxing the societies a lot. [Headquarters, on the other hand] thinks that it’s doing the groundwork and everything; if they didn't do it, the societies would not be able to operate, anyway. Both sides have their rights and wrongs in this discussion, but this discussion was a major issue in those times. I also had some views and a part in the discussions.

There were blue ribbon committees to consider new organizational structures to solve these issues and work on how the IEEE products and benefits are offered. For example, how to bundle products and benefits, or how you disassociate different components in it, and things like that. Those were the issues, the operational structure and the finances of IEEE.

And there was also the global economic crisis around 2001. There were concerns all over the world about economic stability and future expectations. So IEEE was also concerning about the levels of its reserves. We always had enough money.

And the other thing on the governance side, I did contributed when I was the Secretary of IEEE at the board, together with a group of people, myself, Eric Herz, and the legal counsel Bob Dwyer and a few other volunteers was the overhaul of the IEEE Constitution. We rewrote the constitution. We made some changes. And that was also an effort in the reorganization of the entire, body. I think there is still room over there to make changes, especially, along the international operations lines. That's one of my major concerns: compliance worldwide. So I don't know if the current structure is good enough to operate properly worldwide. It's still the best, though. It's still the best. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

One of your key elements in your platform had been the streamlining process.

Onural:

[Interposing] Yes, the streamlining process and more transparency, and accountability in finances and, you know, things like that and smooth international operations, of course.

Vardalas:

At some point during the election process, did you think that you had a chance?

Onural:

[Interposing] No. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

—just to do your duty?

Onural:

I was quite aware that it was almost impossible to win the election for IEEE president. Still, you know, not being from North America, maybe even nowadays, it might be very difficult to win that race. There are examples, of course. President Roberto de Marca did it. He was my good friend.

Vardalas:

There was no great disappointment when you didn't win?

Onural:

No, no, not at, not at all. I enjoyed being nominated. It was quite an honor. And I got enough, ballots, by the way. Members should vote for the ideas and the concerns of the candidates, and not because of geographic proximity. But I was happy with the return anyway.

Sending the First Email to Turkey

Onural:

Remember the time that I was almost going to settle in Canada.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Onural:

Nineteen-eighty-six, summertime. Then we decided to come back to Turkey. That was end of 1986. So there were a few months of decision-making. My family, my wife and my son, were in Turkey, in Izmir. I was in the US finishing up. We had BITNET at that time.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Onural:

And then, Turkey was not connected to BITNET. I was using email from early 1980s, but within the US only. To Turkey, telephone was extremely expensive in those times and I had lots of things to discuss: whether we were going to Canada or going to Turkey issue. One day, many nodes in Turkey appeared as new BITNET nodes. That was December ’86; I was very happy because it was free communications.

I sent some emails. We had addresses at that time like operator@something, at all nodes. So I sent an e-mail to operator@... at one of these nodes in Turkey saying that this is a test email. Nothing came up and actually the email bounced saying that there was no node like that. I tried it a few days later. IP addresses required some time propagate among the name servers, especially in those days. One day it went through to the center in Aegean University, in Izmir which was the BITNET entry point for Turkey. Operator sends me an answer saying “We are very excited; this is the first email we received from outside of Turkey.” Thus, I became the sender of the first email to Turkey because of my desperate need to communicate with my wife—

Onural:

But I wasn't able to use it effectively, because I returned to Turkey shortly after but it was a funny story. I had forgotten about it because I never thought that email would be so common one day.

Vardalas:

Got it. That's a great story. Thank you so much.

Vardalas:

Thank you so much for doing this oral history.

Onural:

My pleasure, thank you.