Astronomer Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil

While many kids might dream about growing up to make a great scientific discovery, very few get to live out the experience of having something like a galaxy named after them.

 

But for Dr Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil – namesake of Burçin’s Galaxy – that’s exactly what happened.

As a kid in Istanbul – one of the biggest cities in Turkey – Burçin was always asking questions. But her curiosity about the world didn’t always translate into success in the classroom.

 

When Burçin first started school, she had a hard time wrapping her head around even simple math problems. And like any kid who struggles to succeed, motivation also became a struggle. But at some point in the third grade, something clicked, and Burçin went from fighting with the simplest problems to solving the hardest ones she could come across.

With each step forward, she wanted to know what came next, and next after that, and next after that. Her ambitious side had started to take root, and Burçin found herself wanting to be a leader in any new room that she entered.
When a middle school homework assignment asked Burçin to write about a role model she admired, she looked inward and asked herself who she wanted to become.

 

In order to become the cleverest person, she would have to find out who currently held the title, so she asked her sister. Her sister shrugged and suggested Einstein. Burçin started looking into Einstein’s life for her essay, but she ended up getting sucked into the details of his discoveries. She discovered her own interest in physics along the way.

Burçin started reading everything she could get her hands on. When she learned about black holes and dark matter, she wondered how people could study things that could never be reached by people here on Earth. As soon as she knew what astrophysics was, she decided that was the path for her.

While Burçin’s parents were extremely supportive of her desire to continue her education – they both had been forced to stop school around the fifth grade for family obligations – they had pictured her becoming something like a doctor. An astrophysicist was a far more unfamiliar prospect, and one that did not have as many options in Turkey.

Burçin arrived for college orientation nervous about being in a new city but focused on her mission to learn. Unfortunately, one faculty member called her crazy for leaving her hometown – as a woman and a first-generation college student – to study physics. The comment came as a shock after her family’s support, but she ignored it. She knew she was where she belonged.

Hijab Ban Image

Unfortunately, that sense of belonging didn’t last. A hijab ban started in Turkey, including at the universities, and Burçin felt like she was
being asked to make an impossible choice. She wanted to study at the university, and she wanted to practice hijab, and giving up either one felt like giving up a part of herself.

 

She didn’t want to let go of either part of her identity, and ultimately, she decided to study in the United States to maintain both. As a first-generation college student, she wasn’t familiar with the process of finding a graduate program.

She applied to the one university where she knew a college friend had gone for graduate work. It was the only university in the United States that she knew.


But she realized, far too late, that the university didn’t actually have any astronomers. She ended up studying biophysics. By that time, she knew more about the academic system and how to find a mentor. She found someone to advise her for her PhD. Her advisor was studying the relationships between galaxies and black holes, but instead of focusing on the black holes she loved from childhood, her interest kept falling to the galaxies

She considers herself extremely lucky for ending up with such a supportive mentor who was open to new projects as her interests evolved. Most of the time the people in her group would go through the galaxy data, anything strange or unexpected would be flagged for later study. Then that graduate student or postdoc would move on and study the black hole or whatever other thing was the main focus of their work and not think about the strange thing they had flagged.

Then Burçin noticed one very strange structure: a double-ringed, elliptical galaxy. It was so strange Burçin was sure she had done something wrong. She used different tools, and tried different modeling techniques, but nothing got rid of the unexpected structure. She and the rest of the team realized that the structure had to be real, and they published the results.

While some graduate students might hope to make a meaningful discovery, very few expect to end up as international news. Her fellow students were excited for her, and the timing was perfect, as she was looking for postdoc positions. Her family, whom she’d been telling about the discovery for a year, hadn’t realized how important it was until the press release came out. Her mother called and asked what had happened, and Burçin laughed and explained that this is what she had been telling them all along.

 

That discovery is now in Burçin’s back pocket, and she has a new adventure ahead. She recently started as a faculty member at Dartmouth College and is in the process of building her own research team. That process was delayed by the pandemic, with hiring freezes making an already limited set of positions even harder to come by. But despite a lot of uncertainty, Burçin has found a place where she is really excited to go. Who knows what she will find next?

Fun Facts

Contributors

  • Amanda Baker, Ph.D.
    Amanda is a scholarly publishing professional and science writer. Whether writing articles for interested kids or helping researchers publish their latest books, she has a passion for communicating the latest discoveries to curious readers from college campuses to K-12 classrooms. Her academic and professional careers have pursued a commitment to lifelong learning across the academic spectrum – including a Ph.D. from Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science and undergraduate majors in geology, psychology, and German at Bucknell University. She loves writing for SMORE, because every issue is a chance to tell someone else's story – from physicists to podcasters, public health experts to programmers – and introduce the readers of Smore to who they are and what they do.

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


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