Theorizing the unexpected advocate

Yesim Darici did not pursue a career in advocacy. She is a scientist – a theoretical and experimental physicist with expertise in transition metals and clean coal technology. Yet, Darici is a trailblazer for women in science. Today, she is also FIU’s leading advocate for women and gender issues as the director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.

This month, Darici will receive the In the Company of Women Science & Technology Award for her instrumental role in promoting diversity and new opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Organized by Miami-Dade Parks’ Women’s Park, In the Company of Women recognizes the accomplishments of women throughout the county and is timed to coincide with the national Women’s History Month.

Champion for diversity

For Darici, her advocacy comes naturally. Often, she doesn’t even notice that what she is doing is the textbook definition of advocacy. Take the National Society of Hispanic Physicists for example. For six years, Darici served as the education officer for an organization dedicated to advancing and celebrating Hispanic-American physicists. Yet, she is Turkish.

“Well I’m not Hispanic, but my school is,” Darici says without hesitation.

She also served on the American Physical Society’s committee on minorities to advance initiatives that attract more women and under-represented minorities to careers in physics. She worked with two federally funded programs – SwitchOn and Upward Bound — to engage local high school kids from economically underserved areas in both science and college life. She also coordinated physics workshops for high school teachers. Throughout her 30-year career at FIU, Darici has championed STEM initiatives for women and minorities at the university, including two National Science Foundation-funded projects to increase diversity among its faculty.

As she talks about her accomplishments today, Darici sometimes takes a pause as if it’s occurring to her for the first time that she has spent a lifetime as an advocate. In her youth, Darici existed in a world without discrimination — not because discrimination was absent, but because she was oblivious to it.

Pioneer for equality

Growing up in Turkey, her mother pushed her to get an education. “A woman should be able to stand on her own two feet,” she was told. So she enrolled at the Middle East Technical University in the mid-1970s to pursue a physics degree. In Turkey, most physicists are teachers and as a result, most physicists are women. But Darici wanted to experiment. She wanted to push the limits of science. So, she set her sights on a Ph.D. in the United States — a move that surprised many including her mother.

At the University of Missouri-Columbia in the early 1980s, Darici had no idea she would be an anomaly. Her professors were all men. Most of her classmates were men. Few were foreign. She didn’t really notice. She was self-aware. She was confident.

“I was a student. I thought I was equal, if not better,” Darici said with a smile.

She made the transition with ease and upon earning her Ph.D., she accepted a research position at West Virginia University studying clean coal technology. In total, 11 postdoctoral researchers were hired for the project. Ten were men.

“Discrimination, I’m sure that it was there, but I never looked for it,” Darici said. “Back then, you didn’t know. Even the complaint didn’t exist. As a woman, you either survived or you didn’t.”

When a new position was advertised for a physics professor at a young public university in Miami, Darici thought FIU would be a perfect fit. She applied. The interview committee was made up of all men. That’s because there were no women physics professors at FIU at the time. In fact, there were no women physics professors at any university in the state of Florida in the mid-1980s. That was about to change.

Professor Richard Bone, who served on Darici’s hiring committee, said there was particular interest in her experience in solid-state physics. Hiring her, he said, was an easy decision. Though she would become the first female physics professor in all of Florida, Darici was not aware. Pioneer was not in her vocabulary. She simply applied for a job she was qualified for and was hired. She even earned tenure two years before another woman would be hired by the department.

Though she found success throughout her career, there were times where her passion was irrelevant, her education didn’t matter, and her experience was overlooked. She was a foreigner. She was a woman. And to some, she didn’t belong. But as Darici puts it, she didn’t give a damn. She used her own experiences of discrimination as learning opportunities. She helped others find success in the sciences. She mentored countless students. And she even found time to be a mother, giving birth to her son not long after earning tenure. That was in the 1990s, but even then, a physics professor on maternity leave was an oddity to some.

When she talks about these experiences today, it’s usually with a smile — not because they’re all happy memories though many of them are. She smiles because she knows what success feels like.

Natural advocate

Darici was selected as the director of the FIU Center for Women’s and Gender Studies in 2011, largely because she is a natural advocate. She is not bound by her own experiences. In fact, her largest initiative since becoming director is focused on ending the cycle of violence against women.

Although she never experienced violence herself, she knows it is the grim reality for millions across the globe. One in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime. With the help of the WARE Foundation, the center is expanding its initiative for Gender Violence Prevention. Darici’s guiding principles are rooted in common sense. After all, as she points out, you don’t have to experience violence to know it’s wrong.

For a career that has spanned two continents, three states and three decades, Darici has spent a lifetime navigating both inequality and opportunity — whether she was aware or not. It is her desire now to help create a world where inequality is part of our history and opportunity is part of everyone’s future.

— JoAnn C. Adkins contributed to this story


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1 Comment on "Theorizing the unexpected advocate"

  1. Wow!!! I am thoroughly impressed Yesim. I always knew you were brilliant. I just wish we could have used all that physic stuff to help us win more on the tennis court. 😉. Congratulations my friend.

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