In May, Yellin, who is originally from Turkey, read in the Nesin Foundation's newsletter that a new mathematics library was to be built, and she thought that it would be a great idea if its first books came from MIT. Not quite knowing what she was getting herself into, Derya embarked on this ambitious project. Ultimately, 41 boxes of mathematics texts were loaded onto two pallets and shipped from Cambridge to the remote Turkish village.
Q. How did you get the word out to people to donate their books?
A. As I was collecting mathematics books and journals, I naturally started to spread the word with the mathematics department. I made an appointment with department head Professor [Michael] Sipser, and he told me that over the summer the entire department was going to move out of their building so renovations could begin. This meant that many people would be packing up their libraries as part of the moving process. I found a great contact, Michael Collver, who would email me every time there was a box of books left for donation, and I would go pick it up. This worked very well.
Q. What was the biggest challenge of the project?
A. If Sally Susnowitz at the Public Service Center had not stepped in and offered her office for a place to store the books, finding a place to store 2,000 pounds of books for six months would have been a big challenge. Thankfully, this was a non-issue from the start. Finding a good, reliable estimate of how much each leg of the shipping process would cost was not easy and it took me a long time to figure that out. We had a budget of $2,500 from the PSC, and for a couple of months, I had no idea how many pounds of books we had, how much space they would take and whether it'd be below or above budget to ship them all. In the end, I found a Turkish logistics company who not only handled the initial expensive Cambridge to New Jersey shipment, but also gave me an $800 discount on the overall shipping cost. (You could say I used my Turkish bargaining skills.) A customs agent helped me use the correct language and include the required terms on the customs documents. Once I had a ballpark estimate of domestic shipping, ocean shipping, customs fees, customs agent fees and local delivery, it was much easier to make decisions and move on. In the end, the whole campaign cost under $2,000.
Q. Has the village appreciated your efforts?
A. Yes, very much. They put my name on their website for book donors before they even received the shipment (it says: MIT students via Derya Akkaynak Yellin). The books cleared customs in just a couple of days and were delivered to the village in late December. Professor Ali Nesin, the founder of the Mathematics Village, opened up one of the boxes as a New Year's present, but the rest of the boxes will stay sealed until the library construction is finished.
Q. Do you think other departments might consider a similar book drive?
A. I hope they will. The variety and level of books I collected for the Nesin Mathematics Village in Turkey cannot be matched by any local campaign. I am sure there are books that are sitting idle in many departments at MIT, perhaps outdated by their online versions, which would find great use at similar specialized schools and camps throughout the world.
Q. Would you have any advice for other book drives?
A. It is important to start an inventory as soon as the first book arrives. I had a database of every book title, a photo of the book and how much each book weighed individually. This saved me a lot of time later. Also I would suggest that they get in touch with the PSC, of course.
Q. What drew you, as an engineer, to support the field of mathematics?
A. I find many things about mathematics inspiring; proofs are elegant, fractals are beautiful! Mathematical thinking makes a big difference in my life as an engineer and I think that if more people in Turkey embraced math, as a society our quality of life would improve. I hope that world-class mathematicians will emerge from the Nesin Mathematics Village, and one day, mathematics will be the common denominator in our highly polarized country. Professor Ali Nesin, the founder of the Nesin Mathematics Village, has a saying I like very much: "In a modern sense, the difference between the master and a slave is that the master understands the mathematical proof behind a concept and the slave does not."
Q. Is there anything else you would like to share about your story?
A. I learned a lot during the course of the six months this campaign was active for. I learned that even if you are one person, it is possible that you can make a valuable contribution to a cause you believe in. Having gone through this personally, I gained a lot of respect for the MIT Public Service Center and its mission. It would not have been possible for me to make a contribution of this magnitude if it had not been for the experience, the help and the funds the PSC provided.
My next project is already underway, and it does not involve collecting, packing or shipping anything. I want to raise awareness about the planned construction of an irrigation dam on the Aras River in eastern Turkey. The dam would destroy the rich wetland habitat that is home to 240 species of Turkish birds and a crucial stopover location for migratory birds. There are alternatives to the dam — such as drip irrigation — and I am working as a volunteer with the environmental non-governmental organization KuzeyDoga to not only stop the planned dam construction, but also obtain protection status for the wetlands.