My first University experience was not physics, but aerospace engineering. To summarise, material science seemed most interesting to me, so after one year I switched to the stuff we do and love. My first long project was in nuclear physics, specifically in perturbed angular correlation of radioactive isotopes in the reactor institute of Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands. We used the effect of the environment (e.g. acidity level) on the timing of cascade gamma emission of those isotopes to probe said environment. Next was particle physics and I was lucky enough to do a project on optical alignment of future linear accelerators at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
After a short project at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) on Silicon microstrip detectors for X-ray free electron diffraction experiments, I started a PhD at Nikhef in Amsterdam. There I worked for Virgo and the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector (KAGRA), while developing an interferometric readout of a Watt linkage type accelerometer. This was a great experience and, as we all know, ‘well timed’ (or, I was lucky once again). It gave me ample opportunities for outreach that led to 10+ public seminars and a national TV appearance in the Netherlands!
In June 2016, a few months after the first gravitational wave detection was announced, a Dutch TV crew flew to Pisa, Italy, to shoot an episode for Klokhuis—a Dutch children’s TV show. Explaining the story of gravitational waves to our target group (8-12-year-old children) was challenging, but I like to think we did a good job. Our script was presented to perfection by the presenter, and I even got a few seconds of fame as the ‘physics expert’. Growing up watching Klokhuis every day, so this meant a lot to me. The show was aired in February 2017, and a few months later I was pointed to a tweet by a Belgian professor. He praised the ‘excellent’ show, but the biggest compliment of all was the drawing he posted there by his 10-year-old child depicting the concepts we had explained in the episode!
My next goal is to help design, fund and build the 3rd generation of gravitational wave detectors. In addition to the opportunity to study OzHF where we push a 2.5 G high frequency detector to a good position, I would love to work on the Einstein Telescope or Cosmic Explorer. The future is bright for our field; I hope to benefit from the momentum and hope that we’ll ‘never stop listening’!
I studied Mathematics at Moscow State University before I came to Australia in 1993, at which time I started a PhD in Applied Mathematics under the expert tutelage of Bill Moran at Flinders University in South Australia. I have worked on a variety of signal processing projects, such as Wavelets; Statistical Signal Processing and Optimisation; and Radar and Sonar Sensor Management. My own special skill is finding elegant practical applications of mathematical knowledge to unsolved problems.
OzGrav Chief Investigator Andrew Melatos recently introduced me to the astrophysical problems associated with gravitational waves recorded by LIGO. These recordings may contain ‘messages from the Universe’. I believe that the way to understand these message-waves is by using the methods of signal processing.
I work on developing cutting-edge, radical and efficient algorithms in this exciting area—my team were the first people to introduce the Viterbi Algorithm to detect continuous gravitational waves. Our implementation is now recognised by LIGO as the standard for this. I’m also currently working on pulsar timing analysis.
I continue to raise my two boys who also have mathematical interests (one is already a Humboldt Research Fellow) and keep a menagerie of four-legged (two dogs) and no-legged creatures (two fish) as companions. Unfortunately, only the two-legged creatures in my family have mathematical interests.
I was interested in astronomy from a young age. Some of my earliest memories are from going for walks in the evening with my father, who was an avid amateur astronomer. He would point out planets and constellations and explain how the Earth’s rotation and orbit are the result of gravity.
Like many, when I decided to take on a PhD, I was unsure where it could or where I wanted it to take me. I just knew I was interested in gravitational waves so studying them sounded good to me (for a few years at least). My first exposure to the concept of gravitational waves came in 2006, when it was listed on the topic list for the research component of my third-year undergraduate physics course.
I was intrigued and spent the next semester teaching myself general relativity (which was not formerly taught at my university until honours level) to unpack Einstein’s field equations. I learnt about the types of various detectors around the world and found out about LIGO. Although the prospect of detecting gravitational waves seemed onerous and still a long way off, the idea of an entirely new observational window on the Universe really inspired me and I wanted to be a part of it.
During my PhD, I developed a data analysis pipeline to search for a continuous signal from neutron stars in Low Mass X-Ray Binary systems. I continued to write and run search pipelines as a postdoc at Monash University, searching for the stochastic gravitational wave background. Developing and testing analysis code and scripts in different computer languages, as well as installing and maintaining software packages on various operating systems, provided me with a desirable skill set in the field of Scientific Computing.
It was a busy and exciting time with many new detections coming in and OzGrav coming together and gaining momentum. I enjoyed my involvement with LIGO and was excited by the prospects of OzGrav, however I was also feeling ready to try something new. There was an opportunity for a Senior Scientific Software Engineer at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), which runs the Australian synchrotron facility. This job would allow me to combine my passion for science and my experience in computer programming and software development to facilitate leading edge science for the benefit of the broader community.
As part of the Scientific Computing team at the Australian Synchrotron, I am responsible for designing and developing the software solutions for the operational and scientific outcomes of the facility. A synchrotron is a light-source that generates extremely bright light by accelerating electrons to almost the speed of light and deflecting using magnetic fields. At each deflection, very intense light is emitted which is a million times brighter than the sun.
The scientific research and innovation output of the Synchrotron span hugely diverse fields—from medicine to cultural heritage—and the many specialised ‘beamlines’ or experiments make my work interesting and varied. The systems developed and maintained within Scientific Computing range from communicating and moving technical hardware (motor, mirrors, cameras, etc.), to enabling facility users to access and analyse their data.
And for the multitude of problems, there are usually a multitude of possible solutions. My job involves staying up-to-date with and on top of the ever- changing and advancing programming tools and software engineering. This means I am constantly learning and applying new tools and technologies, often working on multiple projects at once.
Being part of a team also means there is lots of collaboration, usually involving multidisciplinary groups. This teamwork and collaboration is something I really enjoy, and am happy to be able to continue after the collaborative experience of being part of both LIGO and OzGrav.
Originally featured in LIGO magazine.
At 12 you were diagnosed with a degenerative eye disorder. Did you know you would eventually go blind?
Yes, but the speed of that varies. As a teenager growing up in Sydney I had night-blindness, but I drove a car until I was 30 and I was able to pursue my PhD in chemistry and my career as a scientist. In 1992 I was one of the foundation team members of the Synchrotron project, which generates powerful X-rays to analyse the molecular structure of various substances, and I worked in that field for more than 20 years. But after I turned 40 my visual field began collapsing inwards and my capacity to operate precision equipment was really affected.
In 2010 you retired prematurely due to your blindness – that must have been distressing.
It was a dark period; there was a lot of self-pity and despair at what I’d lost, because one of the joys of working on the Synchrotron had been collaborating with scientists from different fields – drug design, the mining industry, earth sciences, optics. Colleagues in Japan offered me a desk role at a particle physics facility but after three years there I returned to Australia looking for a new direction.
So you decided to become an astrophysicist. Why?
Part of my make-up is to take on challenges. I’d always been interested in astrophysics and I still had a bit of vision in one eye; it wasn’t enough to analyse visual data but I’d been using screen-reading software for several years. I guess I had blind faith, no pun intended. In 2015 I heard a radio interview with some of the astrophysics team from Swinburne University; my wife Atsuko and I lived nearby. I approached them and they were fantastically supportive, particularly my supervisor, OzGrav Chief Investigator Jeff Cooke.
Shortly after, you discovered you weren’t the world’s only blind astrophysicist…
In 2016, Jeff told me he’d seen a TedX talk by blind astronomer Wanda Diaz Merced, who had devised technology that translates digital data from telescopes into different sounds. Wanda was an inspiration and we are now collaborating on refining these sonification methods with the help of Jeff Hannam, a sound designer at RMIT University.
What’s the advantage of listening to data from telescopes rather than looking at it?
Humans respond faster to sound than to vision; also, our ears are very good at selecting unusual signals out of noise. One of my interests is studying violent explosions in distant galaxies – these can be very fast and transient events, so we often have many telescopes around the world sharing data as we race to observe them before they fade. Transforming the data into sound can speed up the process.
You also work with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Gravitational Wave Discovery…
Gravitational waves are caused by massive events such as collisions between neutron stars that cause a ripple to pass through space like the wave on a pond. By studying the light from these events millions of years ago, we hope to explain why the universe looks like it does and what might happen to it in the future.
What’s been the impact of your new career?
The ability to feel enabled rather than disabled has restored my balance in life – I owe a lot to the team at Swinburne and my wife. My vision is reduced to perceiving light and dark, and discerning shapes with one eye, but my trusty guide dog, Trooper, gets me around. I hope the research we’re doing into sound will ultimately help sight-impaired people in many walks of life, not just astrophysics.
This Q&A was orginally published by The Australian in The Weekend Australian Magazine
Risk-taking means different things to different people. When a scientist takes a risk with their work, what are they putting on the line? It could be months of effort, their reputation, or the next career step. But with risk, comes reward. When scientists pursue ambitious science there’s no guarantee of success, but they’re still prepared to push the boundaries to advance frontiers more quickly.
Jielai Zhang—OzGrav’s newest postdoc working with Chief Investigator Jeff Cooke in the Deeper, Wider, Faster program--has all the traits of a born scientific risk-taker. This is no surprise if you dig into her background and her upbringing: born in Shanghai, China, Jielai moved to Sydney when she was 8-years-old. She completed an undergraduate degree in engineering and science, majoring in maths and physics at the University of Sydney before crossing continents to take a PhD in astrophysics and astronomy at the University of Toronto. Jielai then seized the opportunity to become one of the first Schmidt Science Fellows in 2018, shifting her focus to work on biomedical imaging at IBME at the University of Oxford. Her combination of curiosity and an appetite for taking risks has now taken her to the cusp of her next leap: starting a new role with OzGrav to study how astronomical phenomena changes on timescales of seconds.
Jielai’s academic journey so far…
I started taking significant risks in my work when I travelled to Canada for my PhD at the University of Toronto in astrophysics and astronomy. During my PhD, I built a new telescope in a small team of 4, the Dragonfly Telephoto Array, using an unproven novel design. The unknown factor was worth the risk and I did not shy away. I wanted to explore faint galaxies that nobody had looked at before and we had to build a new telescope to see it.
At the end of my PhD, I become interested in a new field of astronomy called ‘Time Domain Astronomy’. This looks at how the Universe changes on a very fast time scale. The constellation in the sky used for sailing 1,600 years ago is the same today but the sky is also changing on very fast time scales – we just didn’t know about it before. We’re talking days, minutes, seconds or less.
The new field of astronomy I now work with requires very fast exposure times which acquire a lot of data, so I had been looking into new techniques, methods and tools from other fields that I could apply to this huge data volume in astronomy that we haven’t had to deal with before. That’s when I came across medical imaging, deep learning and machine learning. I zeroed in on medical imaging as I started to investigate it because of the way it applied a method called ‘Deep Learning’ which I felt was useful to astronomy. I was intrigued to learn more and then I came across the Schmidt Science Fellows program which would allow me to pivot for a whole year into another field rather than learning slowly on the side which is what I thought I may have had to do. The program would allow me to get face to face exposure to people in the field that I wish to learn more about and that’s why I applied.
Now, as I enter my new role as an OzGrav postdoctoral research fellow, I am confident knowing that can I approach and get advice from a network of people outside of my field. This is particularly useful when I want to apply deep learning and machine learning to new types of data.
This article is an extract of the original feature published on Schmidt Science Fellows.
OzGrav Alumni - Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech
Tell us about your time at OzGrav.
When OzGrav was established it was quite an exciting time for those who like gravitational wave science, so I applied for student membership as soon as it was possible to do so. OzGrav grew at an impressive rate. I was surprised to see how many people, who are working in many different fields, contribute to gravitational wave discovery. During my time at OzGrav I had the opportunity to be exposed to a broad range of topics, which was somewhat challenging but valuable. I particularly enjoyed the workshops where people can throw ideas and inter-node projects come to life.
Tell us about your journey after OzGrav.
At the end of my PhD, I wanted to continue doing research in astronomy. One of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made was to leave Australia (how could you not fall in love with it after living for a few years in Melbourne?) and start a new experience overseas. Now I work in a collaboration called GROWTH (Global Relay of Observatories Watching Transients Happen) and the focus of my research is even more gravitational-wave related—I spend most of my time chasing after LIGO and Virgo triggers with optical telescopes. The experience that I gained through my PhD with OzGrav is proving invaluable. Moreover, I am happy to witness (and continue encouraging) a productive collaboration between GROWTH and OzGrav.
How did you come to decide on this career choice?
I guess that becoming a researcher has always felt like a natural path to me. I like the creative aspect of being a researcher and a postdoctoral appointment is a great opportunity to better understand different potential professions. Far from tying you up too tightly, a postdoc position provides a good deal of freedom about future careers. For example, it is interesting to see how many opportunities some fellow postdocs found on their way, including several different types of roles within academia as well as exciting industry jobs.
What opportunities do you believe OzGrav has provided you as a person?
Most of all, the opportunity of networking and to further appreciate that several pieces of expertise must come together to produce results.
What are some of the proudest moments of your career?
Probably when people came to help out with our ‘Deeper Wider Faster’ program (DWF) in December 2015, when I had just started my PhD and coded a rough pipeline to discover optical transients in real time. I have never been a master programmer, so seeing the pipeline actually working and allowing other colleagues to assess the results felt like an unbelievable success. In general, I feel proud of how we encouraged the community to work together during DWF, gravitational wave follow-up and other projects. I can’t thank Jeff Cooke, OzGrav Chief Investigator, enough, especially for guiding me towards this collaborative vision.
What have been the challenges in getting to where you are now?
PhD students face all sort of challenges! Probably the most difficult challenge is remaining balanced and motivated in stressful times, especially towards the end of the PhD program. When starting a postdoc, the challenges are different. For example, you may feel that you cannot afford to make any mistake as a postdoc, because you can longer say ‘sorry, I’m just a student’. I guess that facing the fear of failing is a key challenge that we all should experience (and overcome) to work with greater peace of mind.
What inspires you to continue the work you do every day?
The chance of discovering something new at any time, especially when it is less expected.
On my first day in 6th grade in a new school, my Physics teacher introduced me to astronomy in the form of pictures from NASA. She always went out of her way to introduce us to concepts beyond a planned curriculum. That, coupled with a course on general relativity and a talk by Prof. Bala Iyer on the LIGO detectors, motivated me to pursue a career in gravitational wave astronomy.
Moving my life from India to Germany was one of the biggest career changes for me, and now I’m a postdoc with OzGrav at the Australian National University, in Canberra. I’ve always liked working in a lab so naturally, I chose to work on instrumentation to play around with parameters that are crucial in the design of a gravitational wave detector. For instance, for my PhD, I worked on designing and controlling the Einstein Telescope—a future gravitational wave detector planned in Europe—and now I work on quantum noise-related experiments. I also help out with the design of OzHF: a potential gravitational wave detector planned by the OzGrav community, in Australia.
Having worked with precision interferometry for so long, it’s no surprise what I enjoy doing— baking! In my spare time, I love baking all forms of cakes, cookies and other desserts. When I’m not baking, I enjoy walking and hiking around all sorts of hilly and mountainy terrains!
I’m a PhD student with Ozgrav, based at the University of Western Australia (UWA), studying the suppression of low frequency seismic noise in advanced gravitational wave detectors.
I became interested in science and engineering from a young age, building home projects with my dad. However, I didn’t take the typical academic route to where I am now. While in my final years of high school, I couldn’t concentrate and be efficient in class. So, I decided to leave school and become an electrician. I did this for 6 years, in which time I was lucky enough to work around the world on large ships. I then started working directly with the engineers for the ships. This spurred me to enrol into university where I studied electrical and control systems engineering. During my undergraduate degree, I developed a strong interest in physics (as I was not always satisfied with the approximated equations used in engineering) and as a result, added it to my studies
Once I graduated, I began working as a control systems engineer for a ship manufacturing company. Two years into this role, I found myself looking for the next challenge. I was lucky enough to find an advertisement for PhD students with the UWA Gravity Group which allowed me to combine my love of space and physics with my engineering skills. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my PhD so far, and I’m excited to see where my career goes from here.