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Gifted young aspiring Croatian astrophysicist in running for international science award

Gifted young aspiring Croatian astrophysicist in running for international science award

Ema Donev

Ema Donev, a 14-year-old from Ivanić Grad in Croatia knows what she wants to be when she grows up. The gifted teen wants to be an astrophysicist and is already well on her way.  

Ema, who goes to MIOC in Zagreb, is the only student from Croatia and one of 30 semi-finalists from across the globe – out of thousands of submissions – in the the prestigious Breakthrough Junior Challenge competition.

Her original science video (below) impressed and now she is in the running to receive $400,000 worth of prizes, including a college scholarship and a new science lab for her school.  

Ema’s video helps people better understand life and entropy, a measure of disorder and affects all aspects of our daily lives. She chose a subject in which she could both teach herself and teach others. She wanted to take something challenging and make it understandable.

“When I first heard of the challenge, it sounded like just the right thing for me! I loved making videos and learning about science, and I knew it would teach me a lot about science communication and the topic I was explaining. And if I did a very good job, I could win an amazing scholarship and provide my school with an amazing laboratory, and that would enable me to go to any college I got into,” Ema says, before telling us more about her video. 

“The whole point of the challenge is to explain a complicated topic easily, and I wanted to explain something I did not understand very well so that in the process of making my video, I would learn it very well. This is why I chose entropy as my topic. As soon as I chose my theme, it was time to do a whole lot of research. 

I wanted a new and creative approach to entropy, so I explained it using its connection to life. This gave it an interesting twist and made it easier to understand since physicists don’t really know what entropy is, but its effects on the universe and the world around us. Then came the lengthy process of writing, rewriting, and editing the script. This took a lot of trial and error because of constant ideas and feedback on how to make the video simpler and more engaging. After finally finalizing the script, I made an outline of all the filming and animations and got to work. I illustrated the scenes, filmed everything, and put it all together into one video. This is the point where I realized that simpler was better, so instead of drawing out a million different things, I used images to provide a clear explanation that was still nice to look at. Finally, I edited the video with some tweaks and better illustrations, and it was complete! I absolutely loved the process of making the video and am super happy with the result.”

Gifted young aspiring Croatian astrophysicist in running for international science award

Ema (Photo: Supplied)

Ema has long been interested in science and has been making science videos since she was 12 – in fact she posted her first video (about the Big Bang Theory) on her YouTube channel on her 12th birthday.

It was an early love for math that got Ema ‘hooked’ on science.

“My journey into science started when I was fairly young, and it was just me and my mom doing math problems on the board to be better prepared for school. Soon I grew to love math, and to this day, I love to solve math problems for fun. Once my interest in math started to grow, so did my interest in other things in the world, including astrophysics. I started buying books about black holes because they were so exotic and different from anything here on Earth. 

As I read more about them, I realized there was more to astrophysics than black holes, and soon enough, I fell in love with stars, planets, and exoplanets. Currently, I am very interested in astrobiology and life on other planets. Other than astrophysics, in recent years, I have been more and more interested in physics, going to competitions, and just generally learning more. I have grown to like physics so much that I chose a part of physics as my theme for Breakthrough Junior Challenge,” Ema tells us.

Ema says her goal is s to become either an astrophysicist or an astrobiologist. 

“All I know for sure is that I want to be a scientist and a science communicator when I am older and going to college. I want to do a lot of research and explore the universe, treading into new and interesting places and mapping out previously unknown things,” she says. 

At just 12, Ema launched her own YouTube channel called Astrophysics for kids.

“I started my YouTube channel partly of boredom and partly by accident. I was bored one day while watching some educational videos after a tonsil operation, and I started thinking about how the channel did its animations and the different styles in different videos. It got me thinking: why don’t I make my own video? That is exactly what I did; I made a video about the Big Bang and the timeline of events that happened up until now. I am so proud of that video to this day, but at the time, I did not know what to do with it.

My parents said I should make a YouTube channel and post the video, and I thought it was ridiculous because I was very shy about sharing my work. However, I came around and decided to post the video. It turned out to be one of the best decisions ever, and every time I make a new video or get a new idea for a video, it makes me really happy. My plans for the future are to include more videos in a new format I started, a paper format, where I film myself drawing an explanation on paper. I am going to think of cool, new, and interesting questions to answer and going to make videos about them!” says Ema, whose first language is actually English.

“After learning English, my grandparents taught me Croatian. My parents lived in the USA for ten years, so they learned English very well and decided to teach me English first,” she says.

Gifted young aspiring Croatian astrophysicist in running for international science award

Ema started her own YouTube channel when she turned 12

Apart from studying a lot for school, making videos, and competing in astronomy and physics competitions, Ema loves reading books. 

“I don’t have a specific genre, but I love YA novels, fantasy novels, and some nonfiction books about various topics like history, biology, astrophysics, and physics. I also play tennis, hang out with my friends, watch movies and shows, and just generally do things that I find fun at the time.”

In the future, the bright teenager would love to impact science communication and science education.

“I think that it is very important to teach kids about science and how the world works, because then they will feel much better about themselves living in it, and they can find solutions to problems much more easily in life. I hope that when I become older, I can make a difference in teaching science in an easy way and maybe deepen our understanding of some topic I choose in the future to focus my research on,” Ema concludes.

Founded in 2015, the Breakthrough Junior Challenge is a global science video contest that encourages students to create engaging and imaginative videos that demonstrate difficult scientific concepts and theories in the physical or life sciences. Think: Steven Spielberg meets Albert Einstein.

The finalists’ videos are already up on YouTube and Facebook, and the general public can vote for a people’s choice winner in the Popular Vote Challenge between now and September 20. 

You can help Ema by liking her video on Facebook and YouTube.

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