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Anyone could be anything!

by - 26 April

Photo credit: Ryan Lash /TED

Inspiring talk with the Turkish astrophysicist Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil, who recently has discovered a rare galaxy, for her path from Istanbul to the TED2018 stage

"Burcin's galaxy". That's how a very rare galaxy, discovered last year by the Turkish astrophysicist Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil, is called. The 32 years old woman had to go a long journey from the girl fascinated by stars at home in Istanbul to presenting her unique discovery at TED2018 stage in Vancouver. She had to challenge many taboos being a woman scientist and on the top of that being a Muslim woman scientist with headscarf.
How a woman could achieve success in male-dominated filed, how the headscarf could go along with making scientific discoveries - I asked these questions Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil.

Photo credit: Ryan Lash /TED

Burcin, how long was the path from Istanbul to TED stage?
My family lives in Istanbul, but I began my academic career by receiving a BS degree in physics from Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. I moved to America in 2009 for graduate studies. I received a master’s degree from Texas Tech University, obtained a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from University of Minnesota Twin Cities in June 2017. In August 2017, I joined the Astronomy Department and Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona as a postdoctoral research associate. I study the structure and dynamics of galaxies to help us understand how they form and evolve. My research includes near-field cosmology, nearby dwarf galaxies, galactic rings and peculiar ringed galaxies, supermassive black holes, intermediate-mass black holes, black hole scaling relations. Recently, my research in galaxy structure has led to a discovery of an extremely rare galaxy. This work has provided a first description of a double ringed elliptical galaxy. This discovery has received extensive media coverage both in the US and abroad, and been recognized by several prestigious awards, including TED Fellowship and Scientific Leadership Award-Ten Outstanding Young Persons (TOYP) of Turkey. I had the honor of joining a class of 20 change-makers from around the world and delivering a talk on 2018 TED stage.

What were the biggest challenges on the way?
As a Muslim woman in science, I have long been in a war against stereotypes. Before college, I was told not to study physics because “Girls do not do Science”. When I got into the best college for physics in Turkey with full scholarship, my family had been criticized for “letting” me move away for my education because “Young women should not live away from the family”. On the first day of college, a (male) professor questioned my presence in the department by saying “Are you crazy? You are a woman, and you left your hometown to study physics”. In those years, hijab was banned in public institutions, including universities in Turkey. I was forced to leave my hijab. Many questioned me because “True scientists cannot have a religious faith”. After college, I moved to America for my graduate studies. After I got married, “labels” are just doubled and I became a target of “traditional family stereotypes”, being criticized for “being selfish and choosing my career over my family”. My work is a response to all who questions me constantly: “Anyone could be anything, regardless of any of the social identifiers (gender, religion, race, etc.). Let’s live beyond the labels!”

Photo credit: Ryan Lash /TED

What is to be a woman scientist in Turkey?
This is hard to answer. I moved to America in 2009. A lot changed since I left Turkey, but I can easily say that being woman in any field is not easy in any country. It is a global problem. I had the privileges to meet with amazing women from different backgrounds in different fields. Our shared experience is that we are treated differently based on our gender, not based on our work. It does not matter if it is a science conference or a public discussion, “mansplaining” is a common occurrence everywhere. Some men attempt to explain my own research to me, some do not believe my credibility and question my sources or data, some even do not let me to speak and just find a way to talk about what they do. In my academic correspondences, people who email me make automatic assumptions and refer to me using the pronoun ‘he’.

Astrophysics is a male-dominated field. How did you as a woman with a headscarf manage to achieve success there?
My parents were forced to drop out of school after the fifth grade to take care of their parents. I grew up listening to their stories about how they could not get an education they wanted. My parents’ experiences motivated me to do whatever it takes to live my dream, and my family offered encouragement in every single step. However, that was not easy both for me and my parents. In any challenge, I reminded myself the stories of my parents, I did not listen to the discouraging voices, I worked hard and simply kept fighting to follow my dreams.

You have challenged many taboos being a woman scientist and being a Muslim woman scientist with headscarf. What gave you strength to go out of your comfort zone and to keep going?
When I was a little girl, I admired the stars at the night sky. Now, as an astrophysicist, I have the tools to reach these stars. I want to learn more about the Universe and how it came to be the way it is today. That is my passion in life. Also, I am very lucky that my family offered encouragement in every single step. The best piece of advice my sister gave me is “No one gets very far unless she/he tries it.” There are inevitable ups and downs in life. It matters a lot when we don’t give up. I try to avoid discouraging voices. I try to reach out to like-minded people and create a healthy network and support system. We may have different dreams, but we are all going through similar challenges. We don’t need to be alone in our journey.

How important is your discovery?

At first look, Burçin’s Galaxy is a beautiful celestial object that has a sphere-like core surrounded by a single ring of blue stars, with nothing visible connecting the two. We’ve observed galaxies with a blue ring around a central body before, but they are exceptionally rare in the Universe—less than 0.1 percent of all observed galaxies. By analyzing multi-waveband images of the galaxy, I unexpectedly discovered an additional unique structure - a second inner ring, which is more diffuse, and redder than the outer ring. This galaxy is the first example of an elliptical galaxy with two independent rings. The different colors of the inner and outer ring suggest that this galaxy has experienced two different formation periods, but we aren’t entirely sure how this strange galaxy is formed. The origin of the inner ring is especially puzzling, because there is currently no known mechanism that can explain the existence of this second ring in such a peculiar galaxy. This galaxy clearly presents an extreme case that stretches the boundaries of our understanding of how galaxies form and evolve. The discovery adds to the wealth of information that is needed to be explained with the theories.

How your parents who dropped out of school feel now after a galaxy is named after you?
In 2017, I was named as one of “Ten Outstanding Young Persons” of Turkey. I did not have a chance to attend the award ceremony. My parents received the award in my name and shared their joy at the stage. It was really powerful for me to see their joy. This journey would not have been possible if not for them.

How do you feel about your discovery?
I am very excited to be a part of this discovery. The Universe is full of mysteries, and we still have a lot to learn. We should keep looking deeper and deeper in space and keep searching for the unknown. This is just a beginning to understanding this interesting group of galaxies.

What’s the main message you want to deliver to people following their dreams?
Nothing happens unless we try. If no one has come before you, do not be afraid to be the first. Dream big, set goals, plan, organize, and realize your potentials. There are inevitable ups and downs in life. It matters a lot when you don’t give up. Do not let others discourage you. Do not hesitate to reach out to like-minded people and create a healthy network and support system. You don’t need to be alone in your journey.

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