Turkish girls' science awards spark debate

The recent successes of young Turkish women in winning major international science awards has turned the spotlight on technology and education in the country.

Turkish girls' science awards spark debate

The recent remarkable success of a young Turkish girl called Ilayda Samilgil who beat all-comers to win the ‘First Step to the Nobel Prize’ for physics has thrown open a debate on the country’s commitment to science training and education, especially for women.

In the past, the core sciences such as physics and mathematics were regarded as male domains where women played second fiddle to men. However, there has been a concerted effort to increase the number of women in science, math, engineering and technical fields.

Ilayda, an Istanbul high-school student, beat thousands of submissions from 70 countries earlier this month to scoop the top physics prize in Poland.

Her project, which focuses on determining the water level in any liquid by using magnetics, beat nearly 5,000 other physics projects.

Ilayda’s story echoes that of Elif Bilgin, the Turkish schoolgirl who in 2013 won the ‘Science in Action’ award from Scientific American for using banana peels to produce ‘bio-plastic’ over petroleum-based materials.

Ilayda's and Elif's stories are inspirational examples of young women becoming passionate about engineering, the development of new products and new inventions.

However, their case is exceptional according to one prominent female expert. Arzu Eryilmaz is director of Istanbul Technical University Technokent, a huge research facility which opened in 2002 and houses 150 companies and startups with 5,000 personnel.

She says: "Though more and more women are involved in science and new technological projects with every passing day, the participation of women in research, science, technology, engineering, and math is still tremendously limited in Turkey."

As one of the leading women figures in the Turkish technology sector, Eryilmaz called for measures to boost female participation: "Women are the key factor for any change in society or future generations.

"We should especially back positive discrimination for women entrepreneurs."

Speaking to The Anadolu Agency, prizewinner Elif said: "I hope my success will continue to encourage young people to do their best." However, as inventor Thomas Edison remarked: "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

As one of the successors to Elif, Ilayda is a concrete example of Edison's famous saying. Not only did she find a kindred spirit in Elif, she also worked just as hard; Elif spent two years developing her bio-plastics invention.

Although such accounts are inspirational, Eryilmaz sounds a note of caution, saying that prizewinning talent needs to be sustained and developed.

Describing both national and international science competitions as a stage where young people can find a chance to prove themselves, Eryilmaz says: "Many people get degrees in competitions but their stories generally feel unfinished."

Eryilmaz, saying that award-winning projects need to be developed, adds: "The government, universities and the technokents [research centers] have some duties in this issue."

According to Eryilmaz, to support budding entrepreneurs and researchers like Ilayda and Elif, the university opened an 800-meter 'incubation center' in 2011.

"We select 20 projects every year from among 700 applicants. Following the admission process, we let them use the university’s laboratory, research centers and offices equipped with computers, telephones, and Internet for free," says Eryilmaz. "Also, we have the budget to buy additional equipment to support startups."

"Education and competition are joined at the hip. These two must be together, but education comes first," she adds.

In the last decade, the Turkish government has heavily supported women's education and female entrepreneurship.

As part of the Ninth Development Plan for the 2007-2013 period, the Turkish government set a goal of achieving a socio-economic balance between men and women in order to develop growth.

The plan was to equip citizens, especially women, with the kind of skills needed to successfully participate in today’s information and technology-driven global economy.

According to the official Directorate of Women’s Status, in order to support female entrepreneurship, schemes such as micro-credits and start-up support credits were developed by the government.

Nevertheless, high-profile success stories like Ilayda's and Elif’s projects provide their own momentum.

"I had heard about Elif; her project was so impressive," Ilayda tells The Anadolu Agency. "When I read the stories praising her project, I really admired her persistence.

“I said to myself: 'I hope I will be awarded like Elif' and worked a lot."


Güncelleme Tarihi: 21 Ekim 2014, 13:54

Muhammed Öylek