PhD student Gülin Tuzcuoğlu is a self-professed globe-trotter. A native of Turkey, she’s traveled to one-fifth of the world’s countries and plans to cover much more. But it’s more than curiosity fueling her desire to travel—she’s passionate about social impact and often volunteers in the communities she visits.
While backpacking through Southeast Asia as an undergraduate, she sought out NGOs in underprivileged communities to explore opportunities to get involved. She led photography classes at assisted-living communities in Singapore and taught English to high school students in Cambodia and Myanmar—a skill that opened up more job opportunities for them. “English is an important tool to work in the tourism industry,” Tuzcuoğlu said. “It’s a way to escape poverty. In that sense, it’s really important.”
Shortly before starting her doctoral studies in 2018, Tuzcuoğlu traveled to Madagascar to continue her civic engagement work, despite limited access to running water and electricity. Even a recent plague outbreak didn’t stop her from trying to make people’s lives better.
“The health issues scared me, but I really wanted to volunteer there,” Tuzcuoğlu said. “So I did my research, packed all the medicines, got all the vaccinations, and bought solar chargers.”
Tuzcuoğlu had never been to Africa, and she wanted to broaden her perspective on humanitarian issues to inform the social impact research she aspires to do at Booth. Luckily, she said, everything went well, and the experience fueled her passion for social impact.
“Experiencing these conditions firsthand helped me understand humanitarian problems more deeply,” she said. “I volunteered on an island where there were no roads. We had to take trails around the rocks and the sea. The conditions were quite challenging, and it was just a one-month experience for me. This was the way people live throughout their lives. I learned a lot.”
Tuzcuoğlu’s experience in Madagascar strengthened her conviction that operations research—a field she had studied as an undergraduate in Ankara, Turkey—could help tackle many of the issues she witnessed, including limited access to water, electricity, and roads.
“Operations research is about improving complex systems and processes,” Tuzcuoğlu said. “It could be a health-care system, an energy system, a transportation system, or any other service or manufacturing system. We use quantitative tools to improve decision-making. These tools could be used to make things better in these kinds of communities.”
And yet these tools aren’t being used in places like Madagascar, where NGOs often fail to take a holistic approach to humanitarian issues, Tuzcuoğlu said. Instead, many of them focus narrowly on short-term solutions such as collecting and donating clothes or sanitary products—solutions that only offer temporary relief.
“As humans, we tend to try to solve systemic problems by treating symptoms, rather than root causes,” she explained. “But it’s so important to dig deeper to find the root causes. That’s why I decided to pursue a PhD at Booth—to dig deeper.”
Now that she’s started her PhD, Tuzcuoğlu plans to leverage operations tools to investigate a huge humanitarian issue in Chicago: homelessness. Already, she’s working with Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, a social impact hub committed to tackling complex social and environmental problems, and with the University of Chicago’s Poverty Lab, which partners with civic and community leaders to identify, evaluate, and scale programs and policies that reduce poverty.
Tuzcuoğlu admits that thinking about huge systemic problems like homelessness and poverty can be daunting, even paralyzing. Instead, she tries to adopt a humbler mindset. She may not be able to eliminate these problems, but she can certainly use her research to alleviate them and improve some people’s lives.
“It’s about replacing the pursuit of success with the pursuit of contribution,” she said, paraphrasing the renowned educator Peter Drucker. “I just want to make sure that I make some contribution to make the world better.”
—By Melissa Brooks
July 17, 2019