Q&A: UA Faculty Highlight: 2018 TED Fellow Dr. Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil
Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil is a Turkish astrophysicist that has a passion for science, specifically the study and research of galaxies. The Daily Wildcat talked to her one-on-one about being a TED Fellow, career accomplishments, society's stereotypes on women in science and her upcoming TED talk in Vancouver. Answers have been edited for clarity.
Daily Wildcat Q: How competitive was the application process for the TED Fellowship?
Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil A: The chance of getting the TED Fellowship is less than one percent. I am really happy to get the opportunity, and I really feel glad that as a woman in science, as an immigrant, as a minority, it is really important to show people that, yes, we can do science and be very successful with it.
DW Q: What will your TED talk focus on?
BMP A: It will be about my recent research, mostly about how it lead to the discovery of an extremely rare galaxy. In popular culture/media, the galaxy is being referred to as the "Burçin Galaxy." I will describe very briefly how we scientists can discover extremely rare galaxies.
DW Q: What inspired you to join this field of study?
BMP A: Since I was a little girl, I always wanted to study and to be involved in science. Science deals with accuracy, and there is never a basic/simple methodology, it is very concrete. When relating to the universe, the concept of looking at the sky is intriguing and exciting.
DW Q: As a female astrophysicist, I am sure you are aware that there a few women in STEM fields. What do you believe can be a possible solution to this lack of representation, and finding a way to motivate young women to join the field?
BMP A: We need to change the language and the profile in the universities. In my time, and even now, it is still the same scenario. I never had a female instructor in science — I always had a male instructor. I was always alone in my classes because I was the only female.
Society always told me that if I take the science route, I can only be a teacher and cannot be a scientist. At first, it discouraged me... and then I said, "No, I can be the first one!" Every child will not have the same opportunity, and I want to show that we can support each other as women; we can become scientists.
In college, I remember my classmates, and they were getting together, hanging out and also collaborating/networking in their field. I was a big outsider because I wasn't like them.
If we can change this environment, change the culture and mindsets of others, then women won't feel like outsiders in this kind of field, and it will be so much easier after that.
I also want to point out that, for example, in society the most frustrating thing that I am encountering right now is the following: I am married, and my husband lives in Dallas while I live in Tucson.
Everyone — it doesn't matter which background they are — tells me that, "You are doing very interesting research, but your marriage is much more important... You should quit and go to where your husband is."
No one makes the same suggestion to my husband. Everyone expects women to make the sacrifices for their family and this is the most frustrating thing. I know several people, friends of mine actually, who made this sacrifice because of the constant stereotypes and criticisms.
DW Q: In your career so far, what would you say is the most memorable element of what you have discovered in the galaxies?
BMP A: I enjoy every single step of my research, and of course the most exciting thing was the recent discovery — the first time I realized a unique object, which I then studied in detail.
It is an exceptionally peculiar system, so at first, I couldn't understand the reasoning behind it and I tried several different methods to prove its existence. It was a huge excitement.
I enjoy what I am doing. I am looking deep into the sky and searching for the unknown. It's like I am doing my hobby and they are paying me for that.
DW Q: What do you do at the University of Arizona?
BMP A: We [the astronomy department] study the Milky Way and the nearby environments. We are trying to find the smallest and faintest galaxy near the Milky Way to help us to further our understanding of its formation. We have made interesting observations. I visit places like Hawaii and Chile to make observations and gather data, using eight-meter telescopes.
DW Q: After working here for a while, have you noticed any improvements in your research, and has it made a difference in your career?
BMP A: Tucson, AZ is a huge astronomy community, and I feel so lucky to have this diverse research environment which I can learn from and improve my knowledge. Each week, we have several scientists coming here with their research, sharing their experiences and providing advice — a huge plus for us.
DW Q: What is one message that you want to spread across the Tucson community?
BMP A: I want to say, especially to the girls, to women, to minorities — anyone whose dreams are questioned because of all of the social norms — don’t give up and hang in there. Follow your dreams and support each other.
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