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Burçin’s Galaxy: The Acclaimed Research Journey of Dr. Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil

Dr. Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil giving her TED talk.

 

A discoverer of a galaxy with an extremely rare structure, a leader of several ambitious imaging surveys, and a role model to young researchers all around the world, Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil was also once a university student with a dream of solving the mysteries of the universe.

 

The start of her legendary academic career began with a B.S in physics from Bilkent University in Türkiye, but the process was not easy. “Faculty members and advisors are really important for first-generation students to realize their potential,” Professor Mutlu-Pakdil says. “Unfortunately, I did not receive the necessary support structure.”

 

On her first day of college, a male professor had openly voiced his doubt towards her presence in the physics department, as she was one of the only women in her class. Despite this, Professor Mutlu-Pakdil told herself that she did not want to give in to the stereotypes and blend in; in contrast, she wanted to stand out. “In each of these challenges…I fought against all these stereotypes and worked hard to live beyond the labels,” Professor Mutlu-Pakdil reflects.


Now an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College, the astrophysicist probes the most peculiar phenomena of our universe in the form of small, faint galaxies. In fact, one of her most groundbreaking discoveries was a rare type of galaxy distinguished by its uncharacteristic double-ringed elliptical structure, now known as Burçin’s Galaxy. To scientists, this finding opened a whole new world of galaxies that were previously unknown and introduced new challenges to modern understandings of galaxy formation and evolution.

 

Professor Mutlu-Pakdil continues to use her observations of small and faint galaxies to study the smallest dark matter halos, and the mechanisms of which they get populated with stars. Along with her fellow scientists, she has discovered novel methods to determine the luminosity, structural parameters, and distance to dwarf galaxies, one such method employing the cosmic microwave background (CMB) to acquire more accurate measures of distance. Her work has been recognized by several prestigious awards. For her research, she has garnered over 2 million views on her TED talk, been honored as a 2018 TED Fellow and 2020 TED Senior Fellow, featured in National Geographic as a “woman of impact”, and named an AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador.

 

What makes Professor Mutlu-Pakdil a woman of impact is not limited to her groundbreaking research; it is also her aspiration to share knowledge with her students and with other underrepresented and under-resourced youth. Her teaching philosophy extends well beyond the classroom, and mentoring undergraduates has been a cornerstone to her scholarship as her research.

 

While answering the big questions about the universe, Professor Mutlu-Pakdil also aims to facilitate a friendly and welcoming environment for all her students, with visitors to her office often greeted by vibrant, colorful decorations and astronaut-themed teddy bears. She has created a plethora of accessible avenues for undergraduate research as a faculty mentor for Dartmouth’s Women in Science Project and connected numerous female-identifying students into paid research assistantships with Dartmouth professors.

 

Once a girl with a dream, Professor Mutlu-Pakdil now dedicates part of her career to open the possibilities for numerous young girls who also want to discover elusive galaxies. Reflecting on her fruitful career and anticipating the endless opportunities arising in our expansive universe, Professor Mutlu-Pakdil highlights the growing presence of women in astrophysics.She states: “I might not solve the mysteries of the universe, but maybe one of those girls will one day. That’s my dream.”

 

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