Small town dreamers can certainly become world leaders

The moon in view: Ella Wishart is getting huge support in her plans to become an astrophysicist thanks to an arrangement engineered by Tenterfield High School then-principal Sandra Rosner. Photo: Leeza Wishart.
The moon in view: Ella Wishart is getting huge support in her plans to become an astrophysicist thanks to an arrangement engineered by Tenterfield High School then-principal Sandra Rosner. Photo: Leeza Wishart.

Dr Devika Kamath is walking proof that growing up in a regional area -- in her case a small town in Southern India -- is no impediment to taking on the world in your chosen profession.

Seeing similarities between herself and Tenterfield High School year 12 student Ella Wishart, she is taking Ella under her wing on a journey which could literally take them to the stars and beyond.

Ella has long held dreams of becoming an astrophysicist, but those dreams are shaping up now that she's being mentored by the scientist that is writing the book on how stars die and the implications on how the elements of the universe originated.

That's pretty heavy stuff, but Ella's star-gazing started innocently enough on the family property east of Tenterfield, where she credits the clear skies unhampered by city lights for her heavenly interest.

"It's impossible not to be curious," she said.

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The Wishart family often watches the night sky for meteor showers and while she doesn't claim an exhaustive knowledge of the night's stars, Ella can pick out the main constellations.

Her skills and enthusiasm, however, are gaining traction through the mentoring arrangement. Then-school principal Sandra Rosner saw the star potential in Ella, and worked with NSW Education earlier this year to identify someone in the field who could provide guidance.

They reached out to astrophysicist Dr Kamath, who also lectures in astronomy and astrophysics at Macquarrie University in Sydney. She was more than happy to participate, and the two have since been connecting by phone and video chat on a fortnightly basis.

"She an amazing role model," Ella said, "so easy to get on with and always patient."

Ella's receiving programming and coding help, which comes in useful for analysing the mountains of observational data collected in that line of work.

She's also getting career advice and, if she had her choice, it's Dr Kamath's job in lecturing and research that she'd like.

"I'd like to contribute to the body of knowledge," Ella said.

What was supposed to be a two-month arrangement is now open-ended. Ella aims to undertake a science degree next year, majoring in physics, maths or even astrophysics itself, possibly at Australian National University where Dr Kamath did her P.hD when she came to Australia.

Dr Kamath has an incredible career path herself. Much like Ella she was fascinated by stars and decided to become an astronomer at the age of 13.

Her grandfather was a sailor for the East India Company. He learned to navigate by the stars and passed on his love for the skies to his granddaughter. Her evenings were spent pretending to navigate through oceans using the night sky, a sextant, and a telescope.

On winning the International Postgraduate Research Scholarship, she left home in 2013 to pursue her Ph.D in Australia where she pioneered a hunt for rare stellar fossils, or 'dying stars'. This provided a gateway to reconstruct the life of stars and investigate their evolution and alchemy. During her postdoctoral research fellowship in Belgium her discovery of a new class of stars proved that the evolution of stars in our universe is more diverse and complex than standard theories predicted.

Dr Devika Kamath is keen to mould young minds.

Dr Devika Kamath is keen to mould young minds.

She said she feels a connection with Ella in growing up in a community where astrophysics is probably not the main topic of conversation, and in having a clear idea at an early age of where her aspirations lie.

"When you say you want to be an astrophysicist it can sound a bit offbeat, and it can be challenging to hold onto a decision than can seem too bizarre."

Dr Kamath is keen to support Ella in appreciating that her choice is not only reasonable but attainable, and in showing her how to get there.

"I want to pass on my experience, so that Ella doesn't have to break down the doors that I did," she said.

Part of the mentoring process is to help Ella chart out her career including developing a resume tailored to appeal to those who could influence her career path.

Dr Kamath said she is also careful to provide a reality check on what being an astrophysicist involves on a day-to-day basis.

"I want to make sure she sees the reality of it all," she said. "It's not all star-gazing.

"Some of it is, but it's also lecturing, administration work and the never-ending pursuit of funding and writing proposals."

Dr Kamath said some astrophysicist do pure research, but they're rare. Most combine it with lecturing work and that's something she enjoys, hoping her younger perspective may engage students in a manner that other lecturers can't, although she said she herself has had a number of great lecturers in the past.

"Personally I love teaching, moulding minds at an early stage."

Dr Kamath mentors five girls at the moment (although Ella is the only one still in high school) and finds that girls are more ferocious about determining their paths and getting more from life.

To all her mentees she emphasises the need for computer coding skills along with maths and physics. She feels it's important to be comfortable in these fields early on, and even to make it fun.

She is helping Ella be prepared for any and all opportunities that present themselves such as scholarships and courses.

"There are plenty out there, and it can be hard to filter them down," she said.

While Ella is considering a gap year before going to university, Dr Kamath said there are pros and cons but Ella is definitely capable of securing a scholarship to remove any financial worries.

She's excited to see where Ella is eventually accepted, not necessarily at Macquarrie but wouldn't that be nice to have Ella in one of her classes?

"She might choose something different, but that's OK."

Should Ella continue down the astrophysicist path Dr Kamath said she could use her position to recommend Ella to a college, vouch for her as opportunities come up, and help her navigate university life in general. She's prepared to provide as much or as little mentoring as Ella needs at each stage, and would love to see more high schools take similar initiatives.

"Take the top two percent of kids in any class -- the ones with goals and passions -- and do everything to find someone who can guide them as a mentor," she said.

"Someone external to their current lives can help them see the bigger picture and provide a whole new perspective."

Meanwhile Dr Kamath is confident that Ella will do well whatever she ends up choosing.

"She'll have a stellar career, with real stars or otherwise," she said.