One of the most influential people of my generation is Turkish scientist, Dr. Bilge Demirköv. I first heard about Dr. Demirköv in 2013 when I heard a podcast by AstroPodcast, which featured her. I was fifteen, deciding what I wanted to do with my life. I had several options, but becoming a banker just didn’t cut it for me. I wanted to study aerospace engineering or physics, whichever happened first, but things weren’t looking too great.
My family was concerned about me going into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) because of the general opinion that STEM is hard – and harder so for women. Dr. Demirköv helped me decide what I wanted to do. She is an inspiration for girls in the twenty-first century who want to pursue STEM.
Why I decide to pursue aerospace engineering or physics
In the AstroPodcast, she said: “When your colleagues or when your high school mates or middle school mates make fun of you and say, ‘oh you come on, you’re not gonna become a scientist, there are no female scientists’… It’s really hard to give them an answer… so I was tempting towards going to become a mathematician which is, you know, less hands-on and somehow, more acceptable. I mean, somehow if I told people that I wanted to become a mathematician, it wasn’t as bad as it was telling them [that] I wanted to become an experimental physicist or something like that.”
Her observation was spot on. As girls, we don’t really have a lot of female representation in the STEM field. That being said, I am in no way undermining the works of scientists like Einstein. But even though we look up to them, they’re not enough to convince society that women can succeed in STEM. It’s true there are historical figures to look up to like Marie Curie who had her own set of issues- issues, which thankfully, we don’t experience in the twenty-first century.
But we need a modern woman who excels.
In the words of Dr. Demirköv herself, “…As a female, I think sometimes there this- I mean there’s no one to look up to. And Marie Curie is such an outdated figure that I really can’t put myself in the shoes of. So, there’s no one I think, as a female that you can hang on to and say, ‘well look she’s done a great job’ as I was growing up.”
But that’s exactly what Dr. Demirköv herself did. I’d say she’s doing a really good job herself. And that’s what makes her an inspiration.
Until she was fourteen, Dr. Demirköv had no real plans of becoming a physicist. However, a trip to
Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Laboratory for Particle Physics), or CERN, changed that forever. I think she describes it best herself:
“There was this European math competition….and that year the competition happened to be in Geneva and I had developed a distaste for physics at the same time because you know, I mean, I hate optics, I still do, and I was going through these really optical formulas which to me doesn’t make a lot of sense. I really did not like physics. “
“And after the competition they told us, ‘oh we’re going to take you to this laboratory and it’s called CERN’ and I hadn’t heard about it yet. I was fourteen. I mean, I heard about it but only remotely and I didn’t really feel like going and seeing a physics lab. But they convinced me that I had to come.”
“So here I was, fourteen and visiting CERN and I was completely surprised. I did not expect that these people were looking at fundamental questions about nature. We had a guide who explained us the cosmic microwave background and I was like, ‘Wow, you can actually hear the echo of the big bang and that is so cool!’ And they told us how they were trying to find- they had just found the w and zet particles and I was like “Wow those are so cool!” And actually can understand radioactivity… I think I decided that day – I think deciding is the right word – that I wanted to be a physicist and work at CERN.”
These were the very lines from the podcast that made the decision for me. I could either become an aerospace engineer- much to the horror of many people I know because there are ‘no female aerospace engineers’ anyone’s ever heard of – or I could study accounts or something and become a banker. I chose the former.
Above anything, it was simply because of the fact that I’d never heard of a scientist from my part of the world. If she could do it, against all odds, so could I. And that did for me.
Fast forward to 2018. I find myself looking up to her even more now. She’s one of the most recognized professors (at least I think so anyway) at the Middle East Technical University (METU). She’s working for CERN, which is a dream career for so many people. As undergraduates, we can only dream of working for organizations like CERN or NASA, and Dr. Demirköv is practically living the dream.
She’s a very impressive individual, and you’ll see why.
Demirköv’s inspiring education and accomplishments
Demirköv did her undergraduate in physics (with two minors in music and math) from MIT, followed by a master’s in particle physics. At the same time, she was also part of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) project, which was installed on the International Space Station in 2011.
Demirköv did not stop there. She went on to do her doctorate from Balliol College at Oxford University in the UK and worked for CERN at the same time on the Atlas Semi-Conductor Tracker (SCT). Dr. Demirköv later began a research fellowship at CERN, working on the ATLAS High-Level Trigger for two years before becoming a part of the University of Cambridge ATLAS group for six months.
Her resume also includes working as a researcher with IFAE Barcelona where she worked on the jet trigger and jet analysis with data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) as well. Presently, she’s a professor in the Physics department at the Middle East Technical University (METU).
Kindred STEM sisters
As a student at METU, it’s incredible to know that there’s someone who’s managed to achieve so much, and who actually has something in common with you. It is nerve-wracking because the bar is so high. But at the same time, it’s women like Dr. Bilge Demirköv who turn out to be an inspiration for girls everywhere.
And in 2018, when I was so unsure of what I wanted to do, I found Bilge Demirköv in a Science Magazine article, talking about her experience as a woman in STEM. In that article, she says: “In class, I love telling my students, ‘If I have done it, you can do it too’ and seeing their eyes light up. They go from questioning whether they can be successful to asking questions about how they can be successful. Especially for women, who even at a young age can internalize impostor syndrome, this is a big step forward.”
It’s women in STEM like Dr. Demirköv who inspire me to carry on. Failing a course isn’t the end of the world, and by no means should anyone give up their dream because of that. Facing challenges whether they be academic or personal are a part of life, and even though 2018 was quite challenging, it was a year of facing my fears.
Hopefully, 2019 will be much better. Needless to say, I think I’m more than prepared to handle whatever may come. This is why, for me personally, Dr. Bilge Demirköv was a very influential person in 2018.