Women ‘don’t have to fit themselves into someone else's perception,’ says Turkish aerospace engineer

Gökçin Çınar

Gökçin Çınar/used with permission

According to UNESCO data (2014 – 2016), only around 30 percent of all female students worldwide choose STEM-related fields in higher education. 

It is well-documented how gender biases and harmful stereotypes, often instilled in children from a very young age, contribute to such inequity.

Gökçin Çınar, a 30-year-old aerospace engineer from İzmir, Turkey, is among the minority of women who've pursued a career in a STEM.

She's currently a researcher at the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory (ASDL) at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), in Atlanta,United States. Her work focuses on novel aircraft designs and technologies that could help make aviation more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

On YouTube, Çınar and her husband run a popular channel about science and engineering. The couple frequently encourages young women to follow their passions and dreams.

I've spoken to Çınar on March 4, ahead of International Women's Day via phone and e-mail about her career, her field, and her adventures on YouTube.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Sevgi Yagmur (SY): How did you become interested in aerospace engineering? 

Gökçin Çınar (GÇ): As a child, I have always been fascinated by the concept of flight. I remember wanting to become a pilot from an early age. I also loved building stuff. I don’t think there is a single event or person who inspired me, but the engineering part definitely comes from the men in my family. My father is a very hands-on and creative person. I’ve always enjoyed helping him design and build things from scratch. When I was a little girl, I had my own little hammer that I used to build wooden airplanes with my grandpa. All I had to do was to combine my passion for flight and space with my interest in engineering. I guess it was meant to be.

SY: Did you face any gender stereotypes when choosing your area of studies? 

Aerospace engineering was the only profession I ever wanted in high school. My parents and I were overjoyed when I got my university entrance exam scores, that placed me into the top schools, and most importantly, my dream field.

Little did I know about all the criticism I’d get from my extended family, teachers, or even total strangers. Many people didn’t think I’d have a future in aerospace engineering. Some thought I “wasted” my exam score by not choosing to study medicine, which apparently was more suitable for my gender, others thought if I wanted to study engineering, I should have chosen something that was more “girly”, whatever that meant. But I didn’t listen to any of it. I was sure of myself and I knew what I wanted so at the end of the day it didn’t have even the tiniest impact on my life. My parents supported me all the way, so I feel I’m privileged in that sense. 

SY: What excites you the most about your work? 

My research focuses on novel aircraft designs and technologies that can make aviation more sustainable and environmentally responsible. Although the global aviation industry by itself is not a major contributor to climate change right now, we expect its share to grow rapidly as the demand in aviation increases. There are many design solutions, technologies, and operational improvements that can help reduce the amount of fossil fuel necessary to fly an aircraft. I did my Ph.D. in one of the most promising and most radical solutions: electrified aircraft. With the recent technological advances in electric machines and batteries, we can now talk about electrifying the aircraft propulsion system. Electrified aircraft propulsion is a novel technology that has the potential to significantly reduce, and even fully eliminate fuel consumption and aircraft emissions while allowing for more affordable and quieter flights. Of course, it also comes with many challenges that we engineers have to overcome. My current research projects funded by the US government, including NASA, are focused on finding the right solutions to these challenges. 

SY: As a foreign female engineer, did you face challenges as a result of your gender and ethnicity? What did you do to overcome them?

I think, in the US, we live in a transition era where diversity, equity, and inclusion is becoming more and more important in both every day and professional life. But we are not there yet. Especially those of us in STEM have a very, very long road ahead of us. I am lucky that my current working environment supports diversity, but obviously, I don't always stay within my bubble. As a foreign female engineer working in a white-male-dominated field, I have had many unpleasant experiences over the years.

Recently, I was told by a source of authority that I should change my name to be more successful because it was hard to pronounce. We are expected to deal with such daily micro-aggressions, with a smile, looking our best without trying hard. And although there is a rising awareness to be more inclusive, there are still not many female engineers in high-level positions. There are not many female academics in the aerospace engineering departments of top universities. Most panels are still male-dominated. And as many of my other female colleagues do, I try to overcome such challenges by excelling in my field, working harder and putting more effort into everything I do.

SY: You mentioned you work with NASA and other aviation giants such as Boeing and Airbus. How does your work feed into the industry?

I joined the Aerospace Systems Design Lab (ASDL) at Georgia Tech as a Ph.D. student and graduate research assistant eight years ago. ASDL is a very unique lab. It consists of a very large and multidisciplinary group of students and faculty. The close relationship we at ASDL enjoy with the industry allows us to work on real-world problems and make a significant research impact in our field. The findings of our research in academia are being utilized in real-world applications and informing the decision-makers in the government and the industry, which is the most exciting part of my job.

SY: You also have a YouTube channel focusing on STEM and a series called #kadındediğin [a woman, you say]. What made you decide to start both the channel and the series and what is the main purpose?

Back in 2016 when I was a grad student at Georgia Tech, I came up with an idea to combine my passion for acting and engineering. My then-boyfriend and now-husband liked the idea and together we created Biz Siz Onlar [Us, You, Them], our YouTube channel.

We made videos about various engineering fields where we interviewed each other and our friends with STEM degrees. I wanted these videos to help break the gender stereotypes that I experienced back in high school. I wanted to encourage young women to follow their dreams and choose their professions according to their passions, not according to society’s expectations. Shortly after releasing these interview videos, I started to receive messages from high school students from around Turkey. This helped me realize all the challenges some of these young, brilliant girls have to overcome. Their stories about suppression and their admirable resilience against it are the main reasons why I will never stop advocating for equality and social justice. My goal is to show them that they don’t have to fit themselves into someone else’s perception of who they should be, how they should behave, what they should dream and achieve. I think showing the younger generation that it is possible to live your life outside the boxes that their society might try to put them in is a powerful inspiration.

SY: What's next for you?

Many things! The more steps I climb, the higher I’d like to go. I wouldn’t be able to list all the things I’d like to do here even if I wanted to. But my top two goals in the near future are to become a successful academic faculty member and get my private pilot’s license.

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