A world away, but right at home

November 16, 2012

Engineering alumni Seyhan (left) and Reha Civanlar dined with Dean Martin-Vega and others with NC State connections in Istanbul, Turkey, in July. (Photo: Dr. Louis Martin-Vega) 
Engineering alumni Seyhan (left) and Reha Civanlar dined with Dean Martin-Vega and others with NC State connections in Istanbul, Turkey, in July. (Photo: Dr. Louis Martin-Vega)

After more than three decades of innovative work in the US and Turkey, two NC State Electrical and Computer Engineering alumni reconnect with their alma mater in Istanbul.

She is an Internet entrepreneur turned record-setting marathoner. He is a multimedia communications pioneer who built an engineering school from scratch.

Seyhan Civanlar and her husband, Reha, owe much of their success to intelligence and hard work, but they also recognize the irreplaceable role that NC State, where both earned PhDs in electrical and computer engineering, played in their globe-trotting lives. So when they learned that an NC State contingent led by Dr. Louis Martin-Vega, dean of the College of Engineering, would be holding a dinner for alumni and friends in their hometown of Istanbul in July, they knew they had to be there.

"It was an excellent dinner and it was great getting to know Dr. Martin-Vega," Seyhan said. "And it created a networking platform for all of us here in Istanbul."

The Civanlars have followed a fascinating path from Turkey to Raleigh and back. They met in the 1970s while studying at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. The couple later married and earned their undergraduate and master's degrees.

NC State became part of their lives in 1981 when they both received Fulbright Scholarships to pursue their PhDs in the United States. They came to NC State with their infant son and lived in King Village.

Once in Raleigh, they focused on their electrical engineering studies. Reha was interested in digital communications and signal processing. Seyhan studied electric power distribution systems.

But life at NC State wasn't easy. The couple had a small child and two research loads to carry. What helped was the kindness shown to them by other students and faculty.

"Graduate students loaned us TVs, chairs and sofas," Seyhan said. "Everybody was so nice and accommodating. Professors would invite us to Christmas parties and Thanksgiving dinners.

"We never felt alone in Raleigh. We felt right at home."

They remained at NC State after graduation, Reha as a postdoctoral researcher and Seyhan as an assistant professor. She was the first foreign-born graduate of NC State to become a faculty member at the university.

A short time later, the couple moved to New Jersey for jobs with AT&T research labs, and that's when their careers really took off.

Reha found a niche working on the development of hi-definition television and Internet video; he later became the head of the visual communications research department at AT&T Research and received about 50 patents in the field. A landmark came in 1994, when at an international conference his group demonstrated the first high-quality, intercontinental video streamed live online.

"On one side was us and on the other side was Japan," he said. "We showed it was possible to move digital, TV-quality video over the Internet."

Seyhan also excelled, performing pioneering work in electric feeders and systems. In the mid-1990s, she led the group charged with building AT&T's Internet services. She later used that experience to found and lead Lemur Networks, raising about $6.5 million for the Internet protocol startup.

Anxious for new challenges, the last 10 years have seen the Civanlars traveling the world supporting each other. In 2002, they moved back to Turkey so Reha could teach computer engineering at Koc University in Istanbul and Seyhan could focus on startups in her home country. Then the couple moved to Palo Alto, Calif., so Reha could serve as vice president for research at a Japanese multimedia company. Seyhan, meanwhile, worked on starting a US subsidiary of a Turkish software company in Silicon Valley.

In 2008, Reha was offered an opportunity to return to Turkey and become the founding dean of the new engineering school at Ozyegin University in Istanbul. His job: Build a new engineering program from scratch.

"When I started at Ozyegin, it was just me in the entire School of Engineering," he said. "It was a very interesting and challenging task to find good people and grow the school."

Today, the school boasts about 900 students, 40 faculty members, five engineering programs and $7 million in research expenditures. By emphasizing entrepreneurship in the curriculum, Ozyegin has helped its faculty and graduate students launch several high-tech startups.

"This is a different approach in Turkey," Reha said. "We are the first ones doing it, and I believe my US engineering education and experience was helpful."

Seyhan recently began to seriously pursue an entirely different passion: running. She holds two Turkish records in her age group for the marathon and half-marathon, and her times have earned her a spot in the 2013 Boston Marathon, one of the most difficult marathons to qualify for in the world.

"I'm a late-blooming marathoner," she joked. "I'm lucky to have good knees and good ankles."

Now settled back in their home country, the Civanlars had the chance to re-forge old ties with NC State. Martin-Vega was scheduled to travel to Istanbul to be the opening keynote speaker at the 3rd International Conference on Industrial Engineering and Operations Management, and he arranged to connect with people in Turkey who had connections to NC State. Also on the trip was Dr. Russell King, professor and director of the Furniture Manufacturing and Management Center in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NC State.

"Meeting them both was wonderful, and Reha and I realized that there were a lot of people like us from NC State right here in Turkey," Seyhan said. "I now have a NC State engineering sticker on the back of my car."