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"You can do anything you want!" -- Ana challenges young girls

Ana Kostic

"You can do anything you want!" -- Ana challenges young girls

A few weeks ago, we interviewed her as the Pecha Kucha winner of the PhD-event at ITER, but as a woman in the scientific field, Ana Kostic has also another story to tell. Hearing first about the concept of fusion energy through a cartoon TV-show at the age of five, Ana is now wrapping up as a PhD-student, having worked on a diagnostic tool to measure the electric fields that have a damaging effect on the plasma-heating antennas in a tokamak fusion reactor. But how did she get there and what are her plans? How can we motivate young people to pursue a similar career in the fusion field? We will discover this and more in part two of the Ana Kostic interview.

Can you briefly walk us through the path you took to get where you are now?

Fifteen years after hearing about nuclear fusion in a kid’s science show on atomic energy, Ana enrolled in the faculty of physics at the university of Belgrade (Serbia). In an applied spectroscopy lecture where subjects like plasmas, fusion energy and ITER were briefly addressed, she “ambushed” the professor with questions, ultimately yielding her a voluntary position in his plasma technology lab at the faculty. Besides shadowing people around and observing or partaking in experiments, Ana was allowed to attend the ITER summer school in 2009. “When you get a chance to see this as an undergraduate, there is no going back, it’s very addictive”. After her bachelor, Ana enrolled into the Fusion European Masters (EP) of nuclear fusion and engineering physics in Nancy and Gent. Her master thesis she later completed in Prague.

It was the seemingly endless sum of challenges which was presented during the spectroscopy lecture that really sparked her interest. One of these challenges, namely the measurement of electric fields near the ion cyclotron antennas in a tokamak fusion reactor, came to be the subject of her PhD-project. Applying the Stark Effect[1], Ana developed a diagnostic tool to optically measure the strength of the electric field used to accelerate ions to energies that can damage the frame of the antennas.

Careers in sciences such as that of nuclear fusion are still largely pursued by men, how, if at all, did you experience this through the road you just described?

“I grew up in a family full of engineers” Ana tells us, “even the women”. In that sense, she never really experienced the absence of female role models, something most girls interested in the beta-sciences lack. As she went along though, she noticed that “clearly, something was going on”. Determined to address the issue, Ana read up on solutions to close the gap of gender inequality. One book in particular, What Works¸ by Iris Bohnet, confirmed her suspicion that “having a female role model or mentor to talk to is nothing short of essential”.

But that’s not all. The way women, or minorities in general, are often treated in the workplace is discouraging at best. “The working environment is stressed already with the challenges that we have to complete. However, there are occurrences that cause people to feel like they don’t want to come to the office for a while, that they have been ridiculed, they have been outcast, that they have experienced sexism or that they are just being called on for being different in any way from the majority of the group; sexual orientation, race, religion and gender”. The inability to be yourself in the place you work is killing for your motivation and performance, Ana explains.

You’ve tried to address and tackle this latter issue; can you explain how you did this?

“Yes! With the help of prof. Elisabeth Wolfrum, I’ve composed a suggestion for the Code of Conduct towards each Other”. Ana found that most existing codes of conduct, including the one you’re to sign at EUROfusion, “don’t treat bullying the same way they treat plagiarism”. Using the documents from the few institutions that did actually start to incorporate this in their internal guidelines, she established a code of conduct that “introduces this whole section of treating each other with respect and making the working environment more culturally levelled”. Especially in the fusion community such a guideline is needed, she tells us. “we are such an international bunch that it’s likely that sooner or later, there will be friction”. The guideline should serve to “establish a normal workplace, where you don’t have to worry about how you will be treated that day”.

Apart from creating a comfortable working environment, how else can we motivate women to partake in solving the challenges of nuclear fusion?

“Most important is that you start to engage with younger women before they’ve made the decision to go to a certain university, meaning high-school level or even before”. Ana explains that this is done, for instance, through Soapbox Science, where female scientists perform experiments on the streets. With these and similar initiatives, you create role models by which “girls feel more relaxed to be who they are, unconstrained of whether they will be judged because of their gender”.

To create a growing interest in fusion energy specifically, you should “motivate people to love challenges first” she says. “If we try to invoke these challenge-loving brainstorming constants, we create the first ingredient for the recipe of driving more people towards challenging topics. Once you have a generation of kids like this, they will themselves move to such a field as that of fusion.”

What would you say to a ten-year-old girl living in Europe if right now you had the chance to do so?

“You can literally do anything you want; you can wear pink if you like, you can wear green if you like, you can play with a screwdriver and still be convinced that when you grow up you'll be Audrey Hepburn-like. It’s absolutely fine. In this manner from the top of my head, you can build rockets, you can build fusion devices, try to cure cancer or be an actress, be whoever you want to be, and do it in a way that pleases you”. “I’m wearing pink right now”, Ana laughs, “you can do anything!”

You’re about to finish your PhD, what are your dreams to pursue thereafter?

“I want to stay in fusion for sure”, she says “I’m hoping to continue as a post-doc”. The dream would be to find the optimal balance between teaching, doing research and reaching out through public services.


Did you like this article and missed the first part of this interview? No worries, you can find it here!


[1] The splitting and shifting of spectral lines observed when the radiating atoms, ions, or molecules are subjected to a strong electric field.