Spotlight on: Dr. Asli Soyler-Akbas, Head of Modeling and Simulation at Universal Parks and Resorts
The Women in STEM: Innovation and Leadership series is currently open for submissions! Under the leadership of Dr. Pamela McCauley and the Transforming Your STEM Career team, in partnership with CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group, this series aims to amplify the stories of women in STEM fields to help establish their reputations and encourage the future generation of STEM professionals. In celebration of this book series, we’re putting the spotlight on a woman in STEM each month.
Introducing Dr. Asli Soyler-Akbas
You may think that engineers and STEM professionals have their careers mapped out for their whole lives, but Dr. Asli Soyler-Akbas didn’t connect with engineering until she entered college. She recalls taking a trip to a production warehouse with her father as a child, to see his work as an electrical engineer in person. However, she didn’t enjoy mathematics until high school, when one instructor changed the way she approached the subject entirely.
Dr. Soyler-Akbas credits much of her engineering journey to the mentors and role models she surrounded herself with from a young age. The high school math teacher who helped encourage her interests lit the path to her future studies. She tailored her college course curriculum to her passions, beginning in the physics department and eventually changing tracks to systems engineering. As she participated in internships and co-ops, she gained a deeper understanding of what she liked and what she didn’t.
Finding the Right Fit
Dr. Soyler-Akbas received her undergraduate degree in Systems Engineering with a focus on Control Theory and System Dynamics from a university in Turkey. She went on to earn a Master’s in Engineering Management from Rochester Institute of Technology, a Master’s in Industrial Engineering & Management Systems from UCF, and a Ph.D in Modeling and Simulation from UCF.
Before she took on her current position at Universal Parks and Resorts, she tried several different tracks to find the perfect career fit for her passions. “I have in some context,” she says, “worked in general business management support, camera lens manufacturing, defense, training, gas turbine energy, and IT industries.”
Ultimately, she says that holding out for the position she truly wanted was worth the time and effort. She applied to Universal at least three times before being accepted. She encourages the next generation of women in STEM not to waver from their dreams, and to keep trying in the face of adversity.
A Typical Workday That’s Far from Typical
As a modeling and simulation specialist, Dr. Soyler-Akbas’ role at Universal Parks and Resorts incorporates various issues, including crowd behavior, attraction design, transportation solutions, and IT. As such, there’s no such thing as a “typical workday” for her; she manages a team of engineers and mathematicians as they make progress on several projects simultaneously.
Dr. Soyler-Akbas splits her workload into three categories. The first involves study and observation to collect data and understand operations. Whether her team is working on a new attraction or observing crowd wait times at a particular ride, they gather as much real-life data as possible. The second category of work involves developing simulations based on the data she and her team have gathered. “Most of our work utilizes an integration of agent-based simulation and discrete event simulation methodologies and a lot of statistics,” she says. Finally, the third category is generating reports after her study is completed. She presents her work to high-level executives of the parks.
Challenges and Rewards
One of the greatest challenges Dr. Soyler-Akbas encountered on the path to engineering was the coursework. She noted that while she was at university, it was sometimes difficult to link practical applications to theories to make them more graspable. As a STEM professional, she can now look back and understand that course material better.
She also notes that it can be intimidating to be a woman in STEM. It’s hard to break into a majority-male industry and earn the same respect that your male peers have. However, Dr. Soyler-Akbas is surrounded by a brilliant team that collaborates openly with her as she guides them to success.
Dr. Soyler-Akbas’ Advice for Future Engineers
“If you are thinking about it, you are halfway there,” says Dr. Soyler-Akbas. “Just give it a try and you will see that the joy of an accomplishment is worth [the effort]. Becoming an engineer opens a door to a world of amazing opportunities.”