Anna Zovaro

STEMM Student Profile: Anna Zovaro | PhD student in Physics | Australian National University | Canberra | ACT

Thesis topic: Near-infrared optical instrumentation for astronomy and space situational awareness

Anna - taken by Anna Zovaro
Anna Zovaro

“In my experience, asking ‘stupid’ questions has often led to long and enriching discussions. Being a scientist is all about asking questions, after all”

The first time I realised that I wanted to be a physicist was when I discovered that Brian May, the guitarist of Queen, held a doctorate in astrophysics. Sixteen year-old me was a big Queen fan, and thought that was really cool! One thing led to another and before I knew it I was studying physics at the University of Sydney. At the end of 2015, I graduated with bachelor’s degrees in mechatronic engineering, with a space engineering specialisation and first class honours, and in science, with a physics major. I found that I enjoyed doing research, so I decided to jump right into a PhD. I’m now six months into my PhD at the Australian National University, studying optical instrumentation for astronomy and for imaging and tracking orbital debris and satellites. I like to tell my friends I work in ‘Big Telescope’ (a la ‘Big Pharma’).

A highlight of my studies was travelling to Hawaii to present my honours research in adaptive optics at the 2015 AMOS Tech conference. During the trip, I presented my findings to leading experts in the field at the W. M. Keck Observatory, which was a  fantastic experience. I was also given the opportunity to travel to the summit of Mauna Kea, home to many of the world’s most powerful telescopes. Standing in front of the 10-metre primary mirror of one of the Keck telescopes was an awe-inspiring experience I’ll never forget.

What motivated you to choose your degree?
I initially wanted to study physics, but as I was flicking through the UAC manual my eye was caught by ‘mechatronic (space) engineering’ at the University of Sydney. I didn’t know what ‘mechatronic’ meant, but it sounded cool, so I enrolled in a combined engineering and science degree. I ended up loving it!

What attracted you to your chosen field of study?
During my undergrad, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be an engineer or a physicist — I liked ‘making things that work’, but also ‘discovering how things work’. Astronomical instrumentation allows me to do both, and it’s awesome to think that I’m meaningfully contributing to our understanding of the universe.

What tips would you give to high school students wanted to study your degree in the future?
There’s no denying that engineering and physics are hard, and it’s easy to feel that you’re ‘not smart enough’ to make it — but no amount of natural talent can substitute for a combination of hard work and a passion for what you do. If you need help, ask for it!

What advice have you been given that has best helped you grow as a scientist?
‘There is no such thing as a stupid question’. It’s better to ask what may seem like a basic question than to stay silent (and confused!). In my experience, asking ‘stupid’ questions has often led to long and enriching discussions. Being a scientist is all about asking questions, after all.

How does society benefit from more women in STEMM and positions of leadership?
To this day, I am trying to overcome internalised and subconscious sexism with respect to women in STEMM which I can attribute to almost never seeing women represented in STEMM as a child. Having role models of all genders and races is vital in preventing this for future generations.

[Image attribution: Anna Zovaro]