Women’s History Month: Dr. Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil

Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil pronunciation: Burchin Moot-loo Pak-dil

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil. Source: 2018 Ted Scholars

The smartest person in the world

Dr. Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil first became interested in astronomy during a college assignment when she was asked to write an essay about her “ideal person”. At first, Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil didn’t have anyone in particular in mind, but knew she wanted to grow up to be “the smartest person in the world”. His sister suggested researching Albert Einstein, and Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil dove into his life’s learning. The more she read about physics, the more she became obsessed with black holes, galaxies and the Universe. This duty would mark the beginning of Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil’s journey to become an astrophysicist.

She then got her BS in Physics from Bilkent University in Turkey. After graduating, she moved to the United States to pursue a master’s degree at Texas Tech University. She then obtained her doctorate. in Astrophysics from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where she studied the relationship between galaxies and black holes. Throughout her career, she has won numerous accolades, including being named one of the world’s ten most remarkable people, receiving the TED Fellowship in 2018 and the TED Senior Fellowship in 2020, being named an AAAS Ambassador IF/THEN and receiving the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics (KICP) Postdoctoral Fellowship and NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship. She has been featured in National Geographic, Marie-Claire Reviewthe documentary film Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science and its TED Talk have racked up over 2.5 million views.

After three years of postdoctoral research at the University of Arizona, Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil became an NSF and KICP Fellow at the University of Chicago, where she continues her research on galaxy formation and evolution. It uses data from the Hubble Space Telescope, Magellan Telescope and Subaru Telescope to find and observe the faintest and smallest galaxies in the Universe. These galaxies are the oldest star systems, the most dominated by dark matter and the least chemically rich, so they provide clues to the nature of dark matter and the formation of small-scale galaxies.

Wearing a scarf in astronomy

Born and raised in Turkey, Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil attended university in Turkey, at which time she decided to start wearing a headscarf, or hijab. Unfortunately, at the time, Turkey’s ban on hijab in universities was still in place (later lifted in 2010). It was a difficult time for Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil as she struggled between pursuing her dream of becoming a physicist and staying true to her identity. As a first-generation student, Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil also faced pressure from her family, who encouraged her to prioritize her education above all else.

Moreover, as one of the only female scientists at her university, Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil constantly faced microaggressions, especially from older professors. On Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil’s first day of college, a senior faculty member approached her and said, “You are a woman and you left your hometown to study physics. Are you crazy?” At first, Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil was shocked and had no idea how to react. She also had no one to talk to or ask for advice, as there were very few female teachers. in her department. So after graduating from college, Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil decided to move to the United States for her master’s degree, a decision motivated both by her desire to have more freedom to be herself- same as well as increased educational opportunities.Today, Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil helps mentor young Turkish girls struggling with similar issues.Hundreds of students from kindergarten to grade 12 and university la contact with the dream of pursuing astronomy, but struggle with the expectations of their family and society. “You don’t have to choose your career over your identity,” she often tells them.

Burçin Galaxy

During his PhD, Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil discovered the galaxy PGC 2000714, which has since been dubbed the “Burçin Galaxy” (the article can be found here). Classified as a Hoag object, it comprises about 0.1% of all observed galaxies. Hoag objects, also known as a ring galaxy, have two components: a near-perfect outer ring of young stars that surrounds a centralized core of older stars. The Burcin Galaxy is even more unique because it contains not two but three components: a central core of older stars (similar to an elliptical galaxy) with no evidence of a bar or spiral structure, a more diffuse inner ring small and a younger outer ring. Through extensive analysis and observations from the Irénée du Pont telescope (2.5m), Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil and his collaborators have suggested that this galaxy was likely formed by an accretion event, where a galaxy accumulates the mass of another galaxy via gravitational attraction. While the age of the inner ring is indeterminate, the age of the core is 5.5 billion years and that of the outer ring is 0.13 billion years. Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil’s discovery of the galaxy attracted media attention, including articles in CNN, Astronomy.com and The Independent.

Despite Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil’s extremely careful and methodical analysis, she still encountered criticism from her male colleagues who questioned her techniques of discovery and analysis. In contrast, she noticed that when her male colleagues reported new findings, they received nothing but praise. Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil still sees this happening to other amazing female scientists today when it comes to their research.

Dr Mutlu-Pakdil hopes astronomy becomes more supportive as the community becomes more familiar with and educated about the experiences of astronomers with marginalized identities. Through self-education, she hopes astronomers will learn to recognize and eliminate microaggressions. “For example, if you see someone asking questions in a condescending way, you should speak up and ask more celebratory and constructive questions,” she advises.

Know your worth

Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil says his number one advice for aspiring astronomers is to know your worth and push yourself to try new things. “When you don’t [see yourself represented] and when your choices are constantly questioned by society, you begin to question your own worth. And then because you don’t recognize your own worth, you don’t apply or ask for things that might work for you. Right now, the thing I constantly remind myself is that I should try everything. Even if something is beyond me, nothing will happen unless I try”.

Your support system

Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil’s advice to graduate students is to surround themselves with inspiring, supportive and like-minded people. “It’s really important not to be alone because self-doubt can start to set in,” she says. Dr. Mutlu-Pakdil recalls that when she first started out as a scientist, she didn’t have a large group of female friends or allies. Today, she surrounds herself with other female scientists and mentors, and she feels so much more supported and empowered.

Featured image credit: TED Fellows 2018

Astrobite written by: Abigail Lee and Maryum Sayeed

Edited by: Sahil Hegde

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