Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil, Astrophysicist

With many accomplishments and honors to her name, Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil is a stellar example of where passion meets hard work, and she is credited with the discovery of a whole new type of galaxy. Mutlu-Pakdil faced innumerable challenges with regard to her career choice, facing obstacles at nearly every turn. The lack of a notable support system would have daunted many, yet her drive never faltered even as she battled the omnipresent prejudice against young women in science. A TED senior fellow and APS woman physicist of July 2017 name just a few of her decorated accomplishments; she uses her position as a spokesperson to strive for societal change and empower gender minorities in science. The challenges faced as a Muslim immigrant woman only solidified her determination. She is an inspiration to young girls, encouraging them to pursue their goals and persist in male-dominated industries.

Born and raised in Turkey, her passion for physics stemmed from her love of watching the stars at night, as, in her own words: “How is it possible not to fall in love with the stars?”. It was then consolidated through a research assignment in middle school, where she was tasked with researching an interesting person. Her sister suggested Einstein, as he was “the cleverest man in the world,” and since then, she became forever obsessed with studying the universe and all it contains. The first obstacle she encountered arose when she decided to move away from home to study. This was unheard of at the time in Turkey, and despite the unconditional support from her parents, she was the recipient of significant doubt and judgement from relatives and friends alike. “Girls should not leave home to study” was the general consensus, however, Mutlu-Pakdil paid them no heed and went to Ankara, where she received her Bachelor’s degree. Being one of the only girls in her class was daunting unsurprisingly, but it was the attitude of the faculty that was the most distressing. On the first day of university, one of the male professors displayed shocking, derogatory behavior by questioning her presence in the physics department and asking her if she was crazy. Furthermore, at the time, women were not permitted to wear a hijab while studying at university. As a consequence, she had to resort to hiding her hair in hats, and the pressure to alter her appearance was nearly insurmountable. A change of pace, however, came when she moved abroad to the United States for her Master’s, and later her PhD. While this presented a new set of challenges, the freedom to dress how she wished relieved a burden from her shoulders.

Her contribution to astronomy centered around a galaxy called PGC 1000714. While this is a largely uninspiring name, its uniqueness revolves around its two rings of stars of different ages. When first observed it was believed to be a Hoag object, and even this caused great excitement as they are a highly rare group of galaxies in and of themselves. What makes a Hoag object so special is its incredible level of symmetry. A ‘bowl’ of stars located in the center surrounded by a ring of stars, with nothing visible connecting them to the center. This separation is a mystery in the field of astrophysics because how can such a precisely symmetrical structure exist separately from the center. It is theorized that dark matter has a hand in this, and since so little is known about it, these Hoag type galaxies provide a key focal point for its study. The concept of dark matter arose from discrepancies between theory and observed reality. It has been known for decades that the universe is expanding, however, the nature of this expansion was assumed to be slower at the edges. This was shown not to be the case, in fact the opposite was true with the universe accelerating outwards. Regular concepts of matter couldn’t explain this phenomenon, so as a result dark matter was what was assumed to be responsible for it. With her galaxy, Mutlu-Pakdil carried out light analysis, with ultra-violet, optical and near-infrared light, to illuminate hidden features of this presumed Hoag object, and came across a stunning conclusion. Instead of one ring of blue stars, she found an additional diffused inner ring of red stars. What makes this so peculiar is the fact that there is no current mechanism to explain the presence and attributes of this ring, thus highlighting gaps in our knowledge of galaxy evolution. Further research into the origins of this galaxy would deepen our understanding of the universe, as potentially make headway into understanding dark matter.

Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil has championed many accomplishments in astrophysics, distinguishing herself as an influential woman within the scientific community. Her story highlights the plight of minorities and the external pressures they face trying to define them by the labels they have been burdened with. She advocates for the freedom of scientific curiosity, which transcends gender, race, and social standing, and as one of TED’s 20 invited changemakers, she has the platform to share her story. Undoubtedly, she is an inspiration to all aspiring young scientists and beyond, as she has showcased a sense of resilience, hard work, and commitment to be deeply commended.

by Laura Jewsbury

References

Borowiec, Brittney G. “How This Astronomer Discovered a New Type of Galaxy.” Science Friday, 20 Oct. 2020, sciencefriday.com/articles/burcin-new-galaxy

Vyas, Kashyap. “Meet Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil — the Astrophysicist Who Discovered a Special Type of Galaxy.” Interesting Engineering, 14 Apr. 2019, interestingengineering.com/meet-burcin-mutlu-pakdil-the-astrophysicist-who-discovered-a-special-type-of-galaxy

“About Me.” Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil, 2017, burcinmutlupakdil.net/about-me

Zakeer, Fehmida. “Meet the Woman Who Discovered a Whole New Type of Galaxy.” National Geographic, 21 Nov. 2018, nationalgeographic.com/science/article/meet-woman-discovered-new-type-galaxy-burcin-mutlu-pakdil-astrophysics

Weston, Madalyn. “Celebrating Women in STEM: Dr. Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil.” UMKC Roo News, 22 Nov. 2019, info.umkc.edu/unews/celebrating-women-in-stem-dr-burcin-mutlu-pakdil

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