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Alumna awarded inaugural Schmidt Science Fellowship in Astronomy

5 September 2018
Taking machine learning to astronomical proportions
Engineering alumna Jielai Zhang is part of a team building the world’s best telescope to observe faint and large extragalactic objects.
Jielai Zhang Schmidt Science Fellow


As a high school student, Jielai set her sights on making discoveries as a physics researcher. But once she embarked on an engineering–science degree, Jielai’s interest in aeronautical engineering became a launch pad to explore the outer realms of galaxies.

We met with Jielai to find out more about the fellowship and how her time at the University of Sydney prepared her for a ground-breaking research career.

What research are you currently working on?

I’m currently at the University of Toronto, as part of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and the Canadian Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics undertaking research on observing the sky in ways that have never been done before.

I have teamed up with astronomers from Yale University to build the world’s best low-surface brightness telescope, the Dragonfly Telephoto Array.

We are trying to observe and understand the faintest parts of galaxies which haven’t been seen before. By studying these, we can reveal the nature of dark matter and how galaxies are assembled through cosmic time.

How did the Schmidt Science fellowship come about?

An emerging field of Astronomy that has recently exploded is the study of the transient sky using conventional telescopes that can see different types of light, together with neutrino telescopes and gravitational wave detectors.

This multi-messenger approach to transient astronomy will take Astronomy into the era of big data. I want to explore the power of machine learning to aid the study of astronomy in this era.

The Schmidt Science Fellows program is perfect for early career scientists like me to integrate different disciplines into their fields of expertise. 

Jielai Zhang with Dragonfly Telephoto Array and team

Jielai Zhang (third from left) with Dragonfly Telephoto Array team

Why did you choose to study engineering at the University of Sydney and what did you enjoy most?

I wanted to pursue a research career in physics and the University of Sydney has a good reputation for its physics program. Doing physics alone wasn’t enough though; great paradigm shifts in physics often occur at the intersection of physics and engineering.

Experiments in physics require high space-grade precision and so I decided to do aerospace engineering as well. It was a fantastic choice. My fondest memories during university were completing the team assignments in engineering- those moments when the code we were working on finally functioned. 

How has your engineering degree at the University of Sydney prepared you for what you’re currently doing and your future goals?

The University of Sydney allowed me to gain the skills to work productively in a team and this truly valuable. For a scientist, being able to work independently is important but the scale of projects increasingly requires teamwork.

My aeronautical engineering degree within the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering provided many opportunities for me to develop these skills and demonstrated to me that working in a team produces the best results.

At university, I also developed a goal-oriented mindset. We had assignments and large-scale projects such as writing a flight simulator for flight mechanics and building a Mars Rover which taught me to set goals and get things done – something I’ve applied to projects since graduating. I also had the amazing opportunity to do an honours thesis with Qantas.

“Jielai was part of our undergraduate space engineering program which aimed to give students an in-depth understanding of the space environment in which they could hone their skills. Focused on problem-based learning outcomes the program has a significant element of research to it. Students were brought together across different disciplines of engineering to work as a team. The program provides students with a strong foundation for continuing into applied research areas within space engineering, and more broadly the ability to work in large teams focused in solving great challenges. "
Professor Salah Sukkarieh (Jielai’s project supervisor)

What career advice would you give students who are currently studying engineering at Sydney?

The knowledge you gain in the classroom will be useful, but what is more useful is learning how to learn, learning how to work in a team and learning to get things done.

Don’t be afraid to take on ambitious projects and extra subjects if they are going to give you problem-solving skills and experience working in a team and to deadlines. 

Make friends with those who share many of the same values you hold. As you move forward in life, your university friends will be the bedrock you can come back to in times of confusion, uncertainty and difficult decision making.

As you build your career, your friends will also be the ones who feel proud of you, celebrate with you and fill your life with joy.

The friends I made at university have been a constant source of inspiration and grounding, providing a different perspective and a source of personal and professional growth. 

Outside of work, what are your interests and/or community service that you’re particularly proud of?

The University of Sydney gave me many opportunities to do extra-curricular activities. I was involved with several societies such as Engineers Without Borders.

I am proud of my part in growing the Connectivity program where engineering students teach asylum seekers, new migrants and those in detention centres how to use computers to gain access to things that others in everyday Australian life take for granted. 

What’s next for you?

Since being awarded the fellowship by the Schmidt Science Fellows in partnership with the Rhodes Foundation, I will undertake my fellowship year at the University of Oxford, working on the intersection of medical imaging and machine learning.

I plan to make the most of the experience by gaining as much knowledge as I can, taking back what I have learnt into the area of Astronomy and developing networks to continue interdisciplinary collaboration in the future. 


View more information about studying aeronautical engineering and our courses here.

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