Who? Julia Schuring (1996)
Studied: Bachelor’s in Physics and Astronomy
First job: service employee at Pathé Tuschinski cinema
Favourite place at the UvA: the library at Science Park, where it is always reasonably quiet. You have a view of a pond and the motorway, which is very calming.
Essential: mathematical insight and motivation
'I never dreamed that I would major in Physics and Astronomy. My family is not university educated and, moreover, I hated physics when I was in secondary school. For years, I had a teacher who could hardly care less about his subject. He would roll his cart with an old square television set on it in front of the class and show videos about physics in the 1980s. Deadly dull and uninteresting. When I was in my final year, we got a new teacher who also taught at Leiden University. He was quite a bit younger and a thousand times more enthusiastic. He showed us what physics was truly all about, where formulas came from, the history of science and so on. He told us such amazing stories that all I could think was: this is exactly what I want to learn.'
'Initially, I only wanted to study Astronomy. I had become interested in the subject by watching documentaries on Netflix and the series Cosmos hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It is part of human nature to wonder where we come from and what else is out there. You stand outside on a summer night staring up at the sky, and realise just how small you are, as you wonder what all of those billions of stars are. Astronomy is all about not only the very biggest – the universe and the cosmos – but also the very smallest – nuclear physics. Actually, it is part of physics – an extreme version of it. It involves a lot of mass, light or gas – or indeed very little. Astronomy is not just science fiction either; it can also be useful in solving the climate problem, for example. The sun fuses hydrogen, which releases huge amounts of energy and barely any hazardous substances. If we could do that on earth, we would no longer need fossil fuels.'
Physics may seem like a degree programme for boys, but fortunately more and more girls are becoming interested in it.
'Physics and astronomy in Amsterdam is a combined programme. That sounded appealing to me because I was also very interested in physics. You can choose courses from both tracks during your studies. In the first year, you take mostly introduction courses and learn the foundations of physics, quantum mechanics, wave optics and Newton's laws of motion. During the second year, you go deeper into the courses that you find interesting: if you discover in the first year that you like Astronomy the most, you can choose your electives accordingly in your second year. Ultimately, Physics proved more fascinating to me than Astronomy and I chose to go in that direction. The third year is all electives. You can also choose to minor in a totally different field, such as history or philosophy. I am not exactly sure which minor I will choose next year, but am currently leaning towards Privacy Studies.'
'There are two huge telescopes on the Science Park roof. You will see them immediately whenever you arrive by bike; the large domes on top of the building. They are the best optical telescopes in the Netherlands, specifically intended for students, from first-year students to Master's students. If you need the telescopes for research, you can spend the night at the university and use them. We spent 'a night on the roof' as a practical during the first year, which was very cool. The university's physics, mathematics and biology research institutes are housed under that roof at Science Park. So is the API, the Anton Pannekoek Institute for astronomy, which conducts research in the field of astronomy and cosmology. The researchers on the staff are also our professors. This proximity means that the degree programmes are intertwined with the latest research.'
It is part of human nature to wonder what else is out there.
'The Physics and Astronomy programme is a joint degree, a cooperation between the UvA and the VU Amsterdam. The idea is that you take some courses at the UvA and others at VU Amsterdam. As a result, you are taught by the best lecturers at both universities, you can use the libraries at VU Amsterdam as well as at the UvA and you have an extra large number of courses from which to choose for your electives. The study is research-oriented. This also means that you learn how to write a scientific report in your very first year; I think that is really cool. The practical part of the programme is focused primarily on experimental research. The expertise of the researchers at both universities is one of the reasons why the practical courses are of high quality.
'Physics and Astronomy has a reputation for being a degree programme for boys. Fortunately, more and more girls are becoming interested in the field. There is a lack of representation of women in science, which is unjust. Documentaries about physics are always about Einstein or Maxwell, old men with glasses. As a result, women are less likely to consider a degree programme such as Physics. Fortunately, I myself have practically stopped noticing the presence of so many guys in my year. I do notice that the girls tend to show up more. They work together more and are highly motivated, possibly because they are more inclined than the boys to doubt whether they can pull off their studies.'
The more you know, the more questions you have.
'I want to do a Master's programme called GRAPPA, which stands for Gravitation, Astro-, and Particle Physics, where you learn about particle physics, gravity and gravitational waves. We are trained to become researchers, but I discovered during my studies that doing research might not interest me that much. It sounds more fun to me to share physics-related knowledge with the public. For example, I would like to do what Robbert Dijkgraaf does on television: giving accessible, interesting lectures for people who are not scientists. I notice every day that people are fascinated by physics even when they understand nothing about it, perhaps because there is something spiritual about physics. It deals with the vital questions. Where do we come from, who are we, what is life? In physics, we try to approach these things scientifically and explain them with facts and research. When you decide to study Physics, you think you will find all the answers. In my experience, however, the more I know, the more questions I have.'
'As a student, you kind of assume the identity of your degree programme and your university, which in my case is two universities. I've noticed that the students here are pretty strong-minded. I think that is because we are challenged to think for ourselves, to look beyond what we are taught. To ask impudent questions. I like the contact with the lecturers; you learn to work together with people who have been in the field for some time. Maybe that also contributes to the students' assertiveness. Amsterdam students are proud of themselves and their university, but they also have a sort of “anti-attitude”. The rebelliousness is part of it.'