Croatian astrophysicist Vernesa Smolčić; 'Blackhole does not have to be the end of anything, it might be a super beginning'



Zagreb, 060713.
Vernesa Smolcic, astrofizicarka.
Foto: Bruno Konjevic / CROPIX
Bruno Konjević / CROPIX

Vernesa Smolčić, Croatian astrophysicist

Vernesa Smolčić wanted to be a stunt-double when she was a young child. Later, she got interested in scuba-diving and horseback riding, which made her ready for the future filled with excitement.

Then, she messed up her life plan by choosing a completely different career path. However, as she is currently studying black holes and passed times, she has still left some 'excitement' in her professional life.

It would be funny to describe Vernesa as a more serious and smarter version of female Indiana Jones and Ellen Ripley, but such description in her case would have been insufficient. In her realm of studies, she is first and foremost known for using her brains. She chose to put extreme sports aside as a type of leisure activity, to dedicate her professional life completely towards being a scientist of the future which is analyzing the past. During her career, she has seen galaxies being formed and as well as the ones disappearing.

Astrophysicist Vernesa Smolčić is known even outside the circles of Croatian scientific hub. The public is well-aware of the fact that Smolčić has managed to receive more than 1,5 million euros from the European Research Council for a project called 'Constraining Stellar Mass and Supermassive Black Hole Growth through Cosmic Times: Paving the way for the next generation sky surveys?'. Naturally, that money is not supposed to be put nonchalantly in her pockets to run off on a vacation in some tropical country. No, that money is ought to be spent on the project and paychecks for her international scientific team, seven young scientists from all around the world dedicated to the research.

For Smolčić, looking from this point of view, it was worth the trouble of being rejected from other tenders to qualify for this particular one. According to her, that is exactly how the life of a modern scientist looks like. Scientific life nowadays could not be further away from the image of getting a job in a peaceful institution while waiting for retirement. The actual life of prominent scientists goes hand-in-hand with a constant search for funds.

After spending months on project application, the applicant is expected to write the best and the most appealing project proposition. Then, the waiting starts. It often happens that the grant is given to somebody else, which means that you have spent months of dedicated work completely in vain. The biggest lesson of such failure is to remain dedicated to the project in which you believe in, and hope for more success next time. Luck has little to do with scientific success, claims Smolčić, the only thing that matters in this realm is persistent work.

- My name is Vernesa, and my team analyzes the development of galaxies through cosmic time - says Smolčić in a manner of a Hollywood film star, when she was asked to explain the work that her team does. Then, she started mentioning super-cool telescopes from New Mexico which she sometimes uses 'just to look at the sky' to see more than any other average person sees. One of such things is 'spectra' and that relatively unknown noun stands for a small piece of sky.

“That little part, that is a cosmos. There are approximately 2 million galaxies in the universe. First, we take a picture of them with high-tech telescopes, and then we are trying to find answers on key astrophysics questions by using complex mathematic formulas” she finished with a big smile.

Varnesa's job entails wonder and respect. More often than not, she finds herself stunned by data and images which she collected from space. However, being a serious and well-respected scientist means that in such situations one has to remain calm, cool and keep asking rational questions such as 'what are these numbers trying to tell me'.

- There is a 'wow' factor. The one which makes you start jumping, dancing and screaming. Because, unlike any other science, we are analyzing the past – Smolčić concluded with a secretive smile appropriate to those who are working with top government secrets.

- Science requires coming to new conclusions. We are ought to separate and define things that we do not know, from the ones that we do, to find the new answers during our research – she explains adding that 'having your project rejected can be very hard on scientist'.

- Sometimes projects die, and sometimes they are reincarnated. In any case, the job of a scientist is to perpetually create new projects and apply to new tenders, especially the ones which can elevate your professional career – says.

Ever since an early age, Smolčić was taught to believe in herself, and that has proven to be very helpful in the scientific field.

- The best ones do not always manage to succeed. The ones that eventually end up succeeding are the ones who do not get discouraged with failure - adds Smolčić peacefully.

- Competitive science is very comparable to a professional sport; only a millisecond can determine if you are a winner or a loser. - explains.

- 'Bottom-up' approach is the most efficient type of research and a sure path towards the best results. In my case, the ERC financing enabled us to form a group of young scientists at the University of Zagreb, and throughout the project, we have published more than 60 papers on the subject. - she concluded.

After having worked on the best universities in the world for a decade she chose to come back to her native Croatia, a country which invests almost noting in science and education. Smolčić claims that coming back to Zagreb was her plan all along, but given the fact that she is currently working on a project funded by ERC, for her it feels like working abroad.

- Had I been scared, I would not have come back – says Smolčić, while adding that she does not consider herself of being a 'great influencer for promoting science in Croatia'.