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Who Is Burcin Mutlu-Pakdil? A Look at the Hijabi Scientist Who Discovered a Galaxy


Burcin Mutlu Pak at her TED talk

Despite growing opposition in the West to Muslim women donning the religious mark of modesty, the hijab or headscarf, the last two years have seen more positive exposure and self-representation by Muslim women across the globe. From the hijabi positive anthem “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)” by Muslim Syrian-American rapper, poet, and activist Mona Haydar, to the rise of hijabi athletes such as Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American woman to compete in hijab at the 2016 Olympic Games and Zahra Lari, a 22-year-old figure skater from the United Arabic Emirates and the first athlete from the region to compete in an international tournament, hijabis across the globe have been taking center stage, unapologetically and proud.

One such Muslim woman who entered the world’s radar seemingly out of nowhere is Burcin Mutlu-Pakdil. A TED Fellow, an astrophysicist in what has always been a very male-dominated field, and a hijab-wearing woman, Mutlu-Pakdil made waves earlier this year when she discovered a new galaxy, which was then named after her. Originating from Turkey, Mutlu-Pakdil love for the universe actually began as a little girl.

Speaking to Inc.com, she explained what drove her in her work to seek out new discoveries, saying, “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.”

In an interview with Sciencenode, she asked, “How is it possible not to fall in love with stars? I find it very difficult not to be curious about the Universe, about the Milky Way and how everything got together. I really want to learn more. I love my job because of that.”

Mutlu-Pakdil also explained to Inc how fortunate she has been in a family of generations who were unable to attend school. Her grandparents lived in small farming towns, which meant they never had the chance to learn how to read or write. Her father, although very intelligent in school that he skipped a grade, was forced to drop out after the fifth grade to care for his parents. Her mother also dropped out as the education of girls was not seen at the time as something important in her little village.

Despite her family history with school, Mutlu-Pakdil was able to finish hers and to pursue her passion for the universe. Today, she is one of the most notable astrophysicists out there, a Postdoctoral Research Associate, at Steward Observatory, University of Arizona, and before that a Ph.D. candidate at the Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics. Her findings have been featured in a number of notable publications and news media, such as CNN, Science Daily, Astronomy Magazine, Independent, and MPR News, among many others.

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