Kathryn Zealand
Kathryn Zealand
20 August 2009

In just one and a half years, one University of Queensland physics student has completed her Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree – that’s only half the time it usually takes.

But 18 year-old Kathryn Zealand isn’t your usual science student.

With a BSc under her wing, and her Honours degree and a Masters in Law underway, this UQ Science student has the humanitarian role of lifetime in Uganda firmly in her sights.

“I’m looking at humanitarian law and human rights advocacy because I’ve had experience working with an NGO in that field, which I really enjoyed and feel passionately about,” Ms Zealand said.

“Next year I hope to go to Uganda for a couple of months, which is exciting and slightly terrifying at the same time – I’m really looking forward to the challenge.

“Most people are surprised because I’ve been physics, physics, physics, really strongly until now, but in some sense I wanted a bit of a break.

“I’m not in a rush to do a PhD right away and get stuck into the research , particularly because I graduated with plenty of time to spare.”

Ms Zealand said the support of her friends, and a little bit of martial arts, helped get her through the strain of such a busy study regime.

“Tae Kwon Doe is my main sport. I think it’s really good to do lots of exercise when you’re studying like crazy because I find it’s a good stress release,” she said.

“My office mate and I sometimes go together. So we spend all day bickering and annoying each other in the office and in the evening go and beat each other up, it’s great fun.”

Although, she admits a passion for physics helps.

“Because I love it so much, I don’t mind spending 12 hours a day doing physics. So for me it’s been really fun, although it can be stressful,” she said.

“I had 11 exams last semester, so it was a crazy work load. It made me want to tear my hair out at times.”

And a crazy workload it was with Ms Zealand doing nine to 10 subjects per semester in her first year – most people only manage four – while completing Year 12 at the same time.

“I looked at the first and second year physics subjects at UQ and some I was already familiar with from extension work during high school,” she said.

“I was really looking for a challenge and wanted to skip straight to the very interesting third year courses.

“But I had to do the first and second year courses to get the credit towards my BSc.”

And she’s coped remarkably well finishing high school with an OP 1 and has completing her science degree with a high grade point average.

“The uni has been so flexible in accommodating me and some of my more ambitious plans,” she said.

“They’ve been very supportive and I commend them for that.”

Ms Zealand said graduating from the Bachelor of Science almost snuck up on her because she’s been so busy with her Honours project – investigating the gravitational entropy of black holes.

“Or gravitational entropy in general I guess, and energy conservation in the expanding universe, so all this cosmology stuff, which is just so fascinating,” she said.

“I love the fact that I’m actually answering the big questions. I sit in my office every day and its like, ok, how’s the universe going to end?

“Things that as a kid you dream about being able to research, it’s great to finally get to the stage where you’re actually doing it.”

Ms Zealand missed her graduation ceremony due to a prior engagement as coach of the Australian young physics team that recently competed in the International Young Physicist's Tournament China.

“For me, this tournament summaries what physics should be about: investigating simple phenomenon, constructing experiments, researching the physics, and communicating your understanding of how things in our everyday world work,” she said.

“Physics is at its essence a search for understanding, and I feel both humbled and privileged to be able to witness and guide the learning and understanding of bright young minds.

“The team this year came 8th out of approximately 30 countries, a very respectable finish, and we all had a lot of fun, met many interesting people, and did some good physics.”

Ms Zealand was a competitor herself in 2007, where as team captain the Australian team became world champions.

Media: Kathryn Zealand (3346 7953 or 0450367201) or Travis Taylor (07 3365 8598 or t.taylor1@uq.edu.au).