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Petra Fersterer

Bachelor of Science (Hons 1st Class), PhD in Physics
Data Analyst, Oranga Tamariki

Petra_2_280pxI grew up in Dunedin, so Otago was a natural choice of University. I decided to study physics because I have always really enjoyed maths and problem solving, and physics has heaps of interesting problems to solve. I particularly liked the topics that went to the extremes; the tiny cold world of quantum physics, the time warp of relativity and the expanse of cosmology. These areas exist so far from our everyday experience that their behaviour is completely counter-intuitive, yet beautifully clear from both theory and experiment. Theory particularly interested me as it allows you to explore these worlds without any physical limits (for example the Bose-Einstein condensate was predicted theoretically in 1924, but it wasn’t until 1995 that we had the technology to observe it experimentally). Hence why I chose theoretical quantum physics for my postgraduate studies.

During my postgraduate studies I volunteered with the Otago Optics Chapter, a student group that organises professional, social and outreach activities. I particularly enjoyed the outreach activities, which took place both across New Zealand and in Malaysia. Organising and delivering these events was not only lots of fun, but also helped me to gain other skills which complemented the academic skills I was developing in my PhD. I got to collaborate with other departments, schools and museums, and enjoyed coming up with simple ways of explaining complex concepts.

Another highlight of my studies was getting the chance to spend a month at JILA, in Boulder Colorado. This started a new collaboration between Otago, JILA and an experimental group in Paris. Working directly to model experimental results presented new interesting challenges, and it was humbling to work with experts from across the globe.

After my PhD I left academia and shifted to Wellington to pursue a career into Data Science. My first job was at a private company called StarNow, which is an online platform for people in the entertainment industry to find work. Now I’m working for government, at Oranga Tamariki. Although the context of these two roles is completely different to my PhD (and from each other), I can see how many of the skills have been directly transferable. Both the technical skills (e.g. writing code) and the abstract skills (e.g. how to dig into a problem and understand the different drivers) have been essential in my data career. The volunteering and teaching I took on taught me essential soft skills such as how to communicate complex ideas to a variety of audiences, and how to work well with the team. My PhD also taught me the ability to pick up new skills independently which helps with any gaps!

Advice I would like to share with prospective students would be to choose to lift each other up over competing with other students. Create an environment where you celebrate each other’s successes and are kind through the failures. Part of what I loved about being part of the University of Otago physics department was the student community and the support we gave each other. Caring for our mental health was also an important and regular conversation.