A math Ph.D. that goes beyond the numbers
Bahar Acu has come a long way from her childhood in Turkish Kurdistan, earning a Ph.D. in mathematics from USC Dornsife and working to support other women who study and seek careers in the field. Photos by Mike Glier.

A math Ph.D. that goes beyond the numbers

Earning a doctorate in mathematics from USC Dornsife is the culmination of years of diligent study, and just the beginning of a prolific career.
Darrin S. Joy

Bahar Acu has come a long way as a mathematician, both academically and geographically.

Acu, who will attend USC Dornsife’s Ph.D. hooding ceremony on May 11 to receive her Doctor of Philosophy degree in mathematics, grew up in Diyarbakir, Turkey. The city of nearly a million people is commonly considered the capital of Turkish Kurdistan.

Despite widespread discrimination against Kurds and the social hurdles associated with growing up as ethnic minorities, Acu and her six brothers and sisters were exceptionally driven in their pursuit of an education. Acu credits her older siblings’ commitment to excellence with inspiring and motivating her academic success.

“There was conflict going on in that part of Turkey and also not many educated people around me. And you really need somebody, a model figure,” she said. “I think I had my siblings. They were pretty strong figures, very hardworking people.”

She points to her mother as highly influential, as well. Despite having little education, her mother set the example of a strong, supportive woman for Acu and her siblings.

Acu’s desire to protect her mother may also have played a significant role in her academic performance. Her mother spoke mostly Kurdish, having very little fluency in Turkish. However, speaking Kurdish in public then could result in harsh consequences.

“At parent-teacher meetings, my mom was not able to answer the teacher’s questions because she did not know Turkish well. And at that time, you were not allowed to speak Kurdish and you were expected to express yourself in Turkish,” Acu said.

To avoid putting her mother in a difficult position, Acu made sure that her academic performance and school behavior were as positive as possible, avoiding the need for too much discussion.

An educational journey

As the Acu children grew older, the family moved 600 miles to the Turkish capital, Ankara, where the siblings had more opportunity to advance their educations. One by one, Acu and her brothers and sisters advanced through high school to become first-generation college students. Now, her two brothers and two sisters are physicians, one brother is a computer engineer, and one sister is an aesthetician.

For her part, Acu fell in love with mathematics. She pursued and obtained undergraduate and master’s degrees in the subject at Middle East Technical University, finding that geometry and topology interested her most.

Portrait Right

Acu Bahar is a board member of the USC Women in Math organization.

“In my senior year, I took lots of upper level pure mathematics courses, and I realized that geometry and topology was my best suit,” she said. “I was doing good, acing all my classes.”

When she applied for Ph.D. programs, she had narrowed her choices to those that could help her pursue research in those areas.

“I had two schools in my mind, and USC was one of them,” she said. “I got an offer from USC, and immediately I said, ‘I’m coming there.’”

It was the first time she had traveled internationally.

“I’ve never been anywhere other than Turkey before moving to L.A.,” she said. “It was hard at the beginning, but little by little, things got easier.”

Despite an unexpected setback — her adviser took a position at another university — Acu persisted. Now she’s become the first person in her family to receive a Ph.D.

Worldly perspective

With a unique understanding of the challenges women who pursue careers in mathematics may encounter, Acu is active in promoting women in the field. She is currently a member of the Association for Women in Mathematics, a nonprofit organization that encourages women and girls to study and have active careers in the mathematical sciences, and president of the organization’s USC student chapter. She is a board member of the USC Women in Math group, as well.

Acu has also volunteered to teach math to middle and high school children through the Camp Euclid math research camp, based in Athens, Georgia.

“That was a great experience,” she said. “The children learn how to ask questions and how to prove things in high school, which is something that I learned in college. It’s a great opportunity for them to touch mathematics — real mathematics — for the first time.”

Acu has found time to expand her horizons on a different front, as well, learning multiple languages.

“My Persian is intermediate, and I know intermediate German. And I speak Turkish and Kurdish,” she said. That’s in addition to English and, to some extent, Armenian.

With her Ph.D. earned, Acu has landed a faculty position at Northwestern University in Chicago, where she’ll be able to continue both exploring mathematical theories and helping others learn about them, two things that remain at the heart of her life’s work.

“I love research and I love teaching,” she said. “The goal is definitely to stay at a school where I can do both.”