"I Can See Myself in STEM" Ambassador Profile - Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil

Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil

Postdoctoral Researcher
Steward Observatory, Tucson, AZ


Personal Statement:

I have always been interested in science since childhood. While others at my age kept journals with pictures of rock stars and actors, I kept one with scientists. I grew up listening to my father’s stories about how he was successful in elementary school, but he dropped out after fifth grade to take care of his parents. These stories have been the motivating force for me to do whatever it takes to follow my dream. After high school, I left my hometown to earn my degree in physics, the first generation in my family to do so. I received a full scholarship from one of Turkey’s leading universities. In those years, the hijab was banned in public institutions, including universities in Turkey. As a Muslim hijabi woman, I was forced to give up my hijab and hide my identity just to get my education. After college, I came to the United States not only to get higher education but also to live my true identity. In each of these challenges, I reminded myself that I do not want to blend in, I want to stand out, so I fought against all these stereotypes and worked hard to live beyond the labels.

Biography:

Astrophysicist Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil studies the most peculiar objects in the Universe. Her research has led to a discovery of an extremely rare galaxy, which is now commonly referred to as Burçin’s Galaxy. Her work has provided the first description of a double-ringed elliptical galaxy, introducing new challenges for our understanding of galaxy formation and evolution. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona. She uses the world’s largest telescopes to study the smallest galaxies as a novel test of the Cold Dark Matter paradigm. She has been honored as a 2018 Ted Fellow and 2020 Senior Ted Fellow, and featured in National Geographic as a “woman of impact”. Her findings have been featured by CNN, Science Daily, Astronomy Magazine, Independent and MPR News, among many others. Damon Brown wrote in his regular Inc. Magazine online column: “Many organizations are dedicated to filling the STEM pipeline with more girls and women. Others are supporting the cause by being an example. TED Fellow Burçin is representing by being one of the most notable astrophysicists today.

Segment Pitches: 

From an early age,   I learned the importance of education. I grew up listening to my father’s   stories at the dinner table about how he was successful in elementary school, but he droppedout after fifth grade to take care of his parents.

These childhood stories have been the motivating force for me to do whatever it takes to follow my dream. After high school, I left Istanbul to earn my Bachelor’s degree in physics, the first generation in my family to do so. I received a full scholarship for undergraduate education at Bilkent University, one of Turkey’s leading research universities. People questioned my presence in the department, asking if I was crazy, leaving Istanbul and studying physics. In those years, the hijab was banned in public institutions, including universities in Turkey. As a Muslim hijabi woman, I was forced to give up my hijab and hide my identity just to get my education, and many told me “true scientists cannot have religious faith”. After college, in 2009, I came to the United States not only to get higher education but also to live my true identity. I obtained my Ph.D. degree in astrophysics from the University of Minnesota. During my graduate studies, I got married and became a target of “traditional family stereotypes”, being criticized for “being selfish and choosing career over family”. In each of these challenges, I reminded myself that I do not want to blend in, I want to stand out as stars do, so I fought against all these stereotypes and worked hard to live beyond the labels.

Being “outlier” in society also affected my research and compelled me to find the most “outlier” objects in the Universe because the information from one unique object can be much more valuable than those from ordinary objects. During my Ph.D., I focused on super-massive black holes in the center of most galaxies and peculiar ringed galaxies. My research has led to the discovery of an extremely rare galaxy with a unique circular structure that has never been identified before. This galaxy is now commonly referred to asBurçin’s Galaxy, and it adds new challenges to our current theories and assumptions about how the Universe works. This exciting finding has received extensive media coverage both in the US and beyond; and been recognized by several prestigious awards. I have been honored as a 2018 TED Fellow, and featured in National Geographic as a “woman of impact”.

I am currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona. I study the faintest and smallest galaxies in the Universe. The details of these tiny systems hold a promise of major breakthroughs in understanding the nature of dark matter, and a more complete picture of galaxy formation. I use the world’s biggest telescopes to discover, confirm, characterize, and classify dwarf galaxies in order to understand how the Universe works. Mysteries of the Universe have taken the once young girl from Turkey to observatories in Hawaii, Chile, and more; and she looks deeper and deeper into space and searches for the most peculiar objects in the Universe in order to unlock these mysteries.


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