Many organizations are dedicated to filling the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) pipeline with more girls and women. Others are supporting the cause by being an example. TED Fellow Burcin Mutlu-Pakdil is representing by being one of the most notable astrophysicists today. Most recently, she discovered a new galaxy - now colliqually called Burcin's galaxy.

As she gets ready to open the TED conference tomorrow, Burcin shared the way she pursued science in patriarchal Turkey, how she tackles "mansplaining" and what it feels like to have a galaxy named after you.

You're currently looking for the faintest galaxy that, from what I understand, means it would be the oldest. What significance does this hold? And what first compelled you to find it?

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 and I want to learn more about the Universe and how it came to be the way it is today.

The challenge is that the Universe is more than what we can see, and it appears to be mostly made of a mysterious, invisible substance called dark matter. What is the dark matter made of? What role does it play in the galaxy formation and evolution? An important step towards answering these questions is to figure out exactly where this mysterious stuff hides.

You discovered the double ring PGC1000714, now known as Burcin's galaxy. How did that come about?

Our journey started when my research team first spotted this peculiar object in the background while studying another galaxy. At first look, it 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.

You are the first generation in your Turkish family to go to college. How do you think your journey has been different than, say, someone who had parents or grandparents going to college before them?

My grandparents lived their lives in small farming towns, and they even did not have a chance to learn how to read or write. My parents grew up in these small towns. Due to the economic pressures, they were expected to support their families. At those years, most students in their towns were in elementary school until they were eighteen years old. They did not have any role model or any support from parents, and they were mostly busy with house or farm chores.

My father was different, as he was so successful that he skipped a grade in elementary school. But, unfortunately, he was forced to drop out of school after the fifth grade to take care of his parents. My mother also dropped out of school after the fifth grade because women were not supposed to have any higher education than that in her small town. My parents' experiences motivated me to do whatever it takes to live my dream, and my family offered encouragement in every single step.

I truly struggled in my first years, but at the end I learned how to cope with these social and academic transitions. I had a good academic performance and I got into the best college for physics education in Turkey with full scholarship.

Coming to America, have you met many men surprised at your science knowledge? How is the environment different than your native country?

Unfortunately, this is something very common in both countries. It does not matter if it is a science conference or a public discussion, "mansplaining" is a common occurrence. 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'.   

My family had been criticized for "letting" me move away for my education because "Young women should not live away from the family". Faculty members and advisors are really important for first-generation students to realize their potential. Unfortunately, I did not receive the necessary support structure. 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 each of these challenges, I reminded myself the stories of my parents and simply kept fighting to follow my dreams.

How do you hope your visibility in STEM will change the future of women in the field?

I've received hundreds of emails/messages from women in Muslim countries, saying that my research gave hope to Muslim girls to pursue a science-related career. One of them was from a mother of seven years old girl: "My daughter watched a news featuring your discovery and she looked so surprised. She said this woman is a scientist and she looks just like you. She was so happy to see a woman scientist from her own background. She watched this video many times. Next week, her school has a festival, in which students dress up as what they want to be when they grow up. She is going to dress up as a scientist."

So many of us are trying to be the first at something but have no role model available. What is the big suggestion you have for others who want to pursue something different, and may even get resistance from those around them?

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 conquer. There are inevitable ups and downs in life. It matters a lot when you don't give up. Do not to listen to the discouraging voices. Do not hesitate to reach out to like-minded people and create a healthy network and support system. Their dreams might be different than yours, but they are also going through the similar challenges. You don't need to be alone in your journey.  Ready to take your ideas to the next level?

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Published on: Apr 9, 2018