GAINESVILLE, FL: Elif Akcali sits at a sunny kitchen table absorbed in her work. She’s an industrial engineer by training, but today she is busy folding colored squares of paper into hundreds of palm-sized origami cranes. This particular flock is destined for an art show at a local gallery, but others lie arranged in patterns of crimson and sage on a nearby triptych.
“I’m not sure what my colleagues would make of all this,” Akcali laughs. She’s an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at UF. “I feel like I’m becoming this crazy crane lady, but I have all these stories to tell and this is a way to get them out.”
The birds in the three-piece arrangement next to her convey a story from Greek mythology about how Hermes, inspired by the shapes and sounds of cranes in flight, created the alphabet. Another piece depicts a tragedy that unfolded in her native Turkey in 1994 when rebels tortured and killed a busload of unarmed soldiers returning home from boot camp.
The stories are complex and sometimes very emotional, but Akcali uses symbolism to help her distill them into clear, simple images. The process is not unlike what she does as an engineer when she uses numbers and algorithms to describe unwieldy problems that emerge in large-scale industrial systems.
“But sometimes I feel a little too boxed in,” she says of her work as an engineer. “Engineers have to be creative in that you have to be a problem solver, but I needed something more.”