Student Spotlight: Doğa Yücalan

Doga Yucalan

June 8, 2020

Doğa Yücalan is a doctoral candidate in aerospace engineering. After earning her undergraduate degree at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, she chose to pursue further study at Cornell due to her advisor, the Cornell community, and Ithaca.

What is your area of research and why is it important?

Today’s spacecraft are really slow if you consider the size of outer space. For example, if we wanted to travel to the nearest star to the sun, Proxima Centauri, it would take the fastest spacecraft we’ve ever built (Parker Solar Probe) over 6,500 years to reach there. So, to go anywhere outside the solar system, we need to travel much faster, at speeds where Einstein’s relativity theory starts to become important. I’m studying how to navigate these extremely fast spacecraft, fast enough that the unusual physics of relativity make a difference.

What are the larger implications of this research?

How we do most spacecraft navigation nowadays: We receive information from the spacecraft, analyze it using our powerful Earth computers, and send back some commands to the spacecraft. When spacecraft are really fast and are really far away from Earth, this method is not feasible because of the immense time delay in communication. Those spacecraft need to somehow navigate themselves. If we can solve this what we call “lost in space” problem (i.e. there is nothing known nearby), we can adapt that solution to any space mission, to spacecraft traveling at any speed, between any two points.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I find it fascinating that we figured out how to send stuff outside the Earth and explore the universe we belong in. I wanted to be a part of this exploration. Also, physics is much more interesting when you are not restricted by strong gravity.

What have you gained by participating in the NextGen Professors Program?

I gained a supportive and knowledgeable community. I really enjoy people in general, and I think it is nice to interact with people, with whom I share interests, every month. I also learned so much about how to be a faculty member. NextGen Professors Program is sort of like a get-ready-for-the-real-life course for future academics. Everyone is very honest about the good and the bad parts of academia, and we trust each other in confidentiality.

How has this program been helpful in working toward your professional goals?

Last fall, I had a very vague idea about what to do to be a teaching faculty (i.e. my goal) after I graduate. At first, I realized I’m not alone in these feelings of being lost. People around me felt similarly, some had more knowledge/experience, and some less. This realization slowly turned into us sharing our knowledge with each other, with our facilitators/mentors/sunshine Sara Xayarath Hernández and Colleen McLinn and with our guest speakers/mentors. I learned what steps to take, and I now feel more confident about my direction.

What are your hobbies or interests outside of your research or scholarship?

I really like dancing; I am a member of the Salsa Palante troupe in Cornell. I also enjoy playing video and board games with my friends.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree?

Primarily, I really wanted to work with my advisor (he is super cool). In addition, Cornell looked like it had some nice people in it (I was right!) who wanted the best for me. I also really like Ithaca, how it is mostly safe and quiet.