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AstroDoings Oct 2019 – Featured Astronomy Alumni: Dr. Jielai Zhang

01 Oct 2019



Jielai, a gifted and enthusiastic graduate student, was named one of fourteen inaugural Schmidt Science Fellows. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions for our newsletter. We would like to thank Jielai for her time.

Could you briefly tell us about yourself? What would be the first thing you would like people to know about you? I’m always up for trying something new and fun.

When were you part of the DAA graduate program? Why did you go to UofT instead of other schools? 2012-2018. When I started graduate school, I wasn’t sure what type of astronomy I wanted to do. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do theory, observational astronomy or instrumentation. I had a feeling that I might like all of it. At the University of Toronto, there are three separate institutions, each dedicated to one aspect of astronomy: CITA for theory, the DAA with a lot of observational astronomers and Dunlap for instrumentation. Three separate institutions in my eyes meant that there were separate groups of people thinking about how best to do each of the three aspects of astronomy in one place, including separate resources for each endeavor. The University of Toronto seemed like the perfect place to get a sense of all aspects of astronomy. Toronto as a city, and Canada as a country is known to be welcoming, full of nice people and I love snow. I had also never been to Canada before, so UofT really ticked all the boxes of good career move, great life choice with a touch of excitement because of the novelty.

Where are you now? What is your area of focus? Could you briefly tell us about your new research projects? What do you enjoy the most about being a part of the Schmidt Science Fellow Program?

In 2016, Gravitational Waves were observed for the first time. This, together with the growing field of transient astronomy sparked my imagination. What discoveries can we enjoy in the new parameter space that is the time domain on short timescales? I started imagining all the new types of observational techniques and programs needed to make discoveries in time domain astronomy. How should we treat the data coming in, and what about new telescopes we should build? One of my favourite aspects of my PhD was to build a telescope (The Dragonfly Telephoto Array), devise the observing techniques and write the software that allowed us to see the Universe in a new way.

As I was thinking about how to do transient astronomy, the Schmidt Science Fellows program came to my attention thanks to Margaret Meaney, the graduate administrator. The Schmidt Science Fellows program, in partnership with the Rhodes Trust, aims to give early career scientists the opportunity to explore different disciplines. The program believes that interdisciplinary thinkers can do the best science, and this is what is needed to solve the world’s most pressing problems. I decided it would be incredible to learn from those who are at the cutting edge of applying machine learning to image analysis. The Schmidt Science Fellows program allowed me to take this year after my PhD and be placed as a postdoc in a medical imaging/ deep learning lab.

I am placed at the University of Oxford, Institute of Biomedical Engineering. I am hosted by Prof. Alison Noble and also collaborate closely with Dr. Ana Namburete, who is the lead of the Oxford Ultrasound NeuroImage Analysis Group. My research is to produce refined atlases of the developing fetal brain using 3D ultrasound data for fetuses affected by congenital heart disease or were born small for their gestational age. These atlases can be used to study fetal brain development and has the potential to improve ante-natal monitoring and fetal outcomes.

My favourite aspect of being a Schmidt Science Fellow is being part of a large scientific family. I am part of the first cohort of Schmidt Science Fellows, and there are 14 of us. Over the course of the Fellowship year, we have become best friends who learn from each other not just about our science but also scientific ethics and leadership; we not only discuss our careers, but also our life choices, goals and what type of people we want to become.  I am also part of the larger Fellowship family, the Fellowship staff have put together a program providing resources and support for fellows to aim high, while being completely ourselves. As part of this family, I don’t feel what often comes with the prestige: that there is some pre-defined sense of what success is, and if I stray too far, I will be a disappointment. The family strongly believes that each of us can make great impact on the world’s most pressing problems, but we are not made to feel there is somebody judging our every move and decision. This is a very nuanced balance that is hard to achieve, and it is what I hope to provide to all members of any collaborations I am part of, and any scientists I mentor in the future.

What did you value the most about your years with DAA?

Bob Abraham and Peter Martin were my PhD advisors. I would not have finished my PhD without Bob’s enduring encouragement, advice and support. Not only is Bob an excellent scientific mentor, his appreciation of his students as multifaceted individuals, his continuous motivation for learning how best to supervise, and his infinite passion for the work we did together are aspects of being a scientist I will always return to in times of success and times of trial. Peter’s meticulous approach to understanding data and data statistics were invaluable in teaching me how to balance detail with the big picture. I started working more closely with Peter towards the end of my PhD, and at this time, my time was harder to manage. He went above and beyond in meeting me at times that minimized my stress and increased my joy. Both Bob and Peter were exemplary supervisors who were flexible and did what was best for their students. I would not be the researcher, nor would I be the human being I am today without their guidance, support and kindness.

The DAA is situated together with Dunlap, CITA and later The Centre for Planetary Sciences at UofT. Being part of this big astronomy community enriched my PhD experience. Beyond my interactions with my advisors, I learned so much from many other professors, postdocs, students, staff at the DAA, as well as visitors. I got help on all aspects of research, teaching, job searching and life. I would like to, in particular, point out the Dunlap Institute for the many conferences, teaching, outreach and leadership opportunities I was given.

Do you have any memorable moments you can share about your experience at DAA?

I have a myriad of memorable moments at the DAA. One joyful, encouraging and unexpected memory, like so many I have had at the DAA, was when the professor of a class I took told me that I was worth teaching when I felt I didn’t perform as well as I should have. Memories like this, happening over and over again, made me feel like I belong as an astronomer and researcher in general.

What advice would you give to our students who are hoping to build a career in Astronomy?

Get to know yourself. This applies no matter what career you want to build, but people often underestimate its importance in having a fulfilling and useful life. I did this by making friends, trying new experiences and asking questions. Learn the best ways for you to learn about yourself.

Learn under what conditions you are most happy, most productive, and most fulfilled. I learned that my happiness, self worth, and self identity are of utmost importance to protect, and that they should not depend solely on how my work is going. In fact, they should not depend on any single aspect of my life. I learned that I should not diminish my joy in teaching when my research is going badly, I learned that I should not feel inadequate amongst friends when my research is going badly, I learned that I should not deny myself love when my research is going badly. I learned that I have every right to deriving joy and wonder from other aspects of my life even when one aspect is going poorly, and that this is the only way I can build energy to work on the bad bits.