The journey to being a Fulbright Scholar
Two ridiculously high achievers on their journey so far, post grad opening doors and mentorship
Constantine Tsounis and Diana Zhang are the kind of high achievers that may annoy you. Constantine is 26, a scholar (when we asked him to talk about his scholarship, he said ‘which one?’) a student rep on UNSW Council (the uni’s governing body), and cofounder of a sustainability-focused startup. Diana Zhang is 26, she’s another scholarship recipient, she’s at Boston University studying machine learning, and between figuring out how to diagnose Parkinson’s, she sits on the board of Science & Technology Australia (STA) and plays piano professionally.
Their current research, like anything ground-breaking, is complicated, so we asked both scholars to describe their research as if they were talking to a child.
Diana: I study smelly chemicals and use computers and fancy machines to see if we can tell a healthy person from a sick person.
Constantine: We design materials called catalysts that can create sustainable fuels and chemicals, such as hydrogen from water, or methane from waste CO2, supporting the global clean energy transition.
Like all ridiculous high achievers, Diana and Constantine weren’t destined for this story, they had a journey to get to this point. When we asked them what in that journey they thank most for their recent success, they both highlighted two things – the importance of mentors and their post graduate experience.
For Constantine that meant having the freedom to research topics that he’s excited about. “I’ve always been very passionate about the human side of engineering, in my case, developing technologies that have the broadest impact possible in allowing industries and communities to transition to a sustainable energy mix.” Now Constantine is taking that passion even further with switcH2, a startup that brings research from the lab into the industry. “We have developed systems that can convert organic waste into clean hydrogen fuel, allowing a range of industries, such as breweries and distilleries, to decarbonize and turn their processes into circular economies.”
Diana credits her Postgrad experience for a shift in career goals. “Personally, my postgraduate experience has completely changed my viewpoint on what my ‘career’ would look like.” She thought her PhD would lead to academia, or maybe a related industry but her experience, particularly engaging ‘in as many extracurricular activities as possible’ - including a stint as Vice President of the Post Graduate Council, led her to dream of a future of entrepreneurship or working as a public servant. Now she’s an executive board member of STA, Australia's peak scientific body.
But without strong mentors, neither scholar would be where they are. Constantine recommended everyone find a mentor like he had. “A mentor who will back you all the way,” he says. “My supervisor Professor Rose Amal has always believed in me, even when I haven’t believed in myself.” Diana spoke of her music supervisor, Professor Emery Schubert, and her current PhD supervisor Associate Professor Alex Donald. “They’ve helped shape who I am today, [they’ve] always empowered me to keep striving for my best.”
Diana is now in the opposite relationship as well, working as a mentor herself to younger students. Despite the fact she’s a Fulbright Scholar, performed on a concert stage in front of hundreds, and an executive board member, she says her proudest achievement comes from her students. “When I’ve inspired or empowered my students or colleagues to achieve their best, that’s when I’m most proud.” For Constantine, it was the very start of his UNSW education. “The day I got my bachelor’s degree at UNSW, being one of the first in my family. It really meant a lot to see my family and friends there with me, and for those that weren’t there, I could really feel them looking down and smiling at me.”
But, like literally everyone on earth, the two scholars are still learning. Diana said she’s barely scratched the surface of machine learning, and she still has no idea how anyone wakes up at 5am to go running. Constantine, now in Switzerland, wants to learn how to ski but seems to have 0 confidence he’ll figure it out, and he says he’s still figuring out how to pause, enjoy the journey and stress less along the way.