Children of the stars
Through a gift in her Will, Ann Rusden hopes that more people can continue to ask the big questions – including what the universe looked like 13 billion years ago, as Associate Professor Michele Trenti seeks to discover.
As a child growing up in Italy, Michele Trenti would marvel at the night sky. From that childhood curiosity, a universe of possibilities opened.
“What fascinates me most is how vast space is,” says Michele, now an Associate Professor in the School of Physics at the University. “There are 100 billion stars in a typical galaxy like the Milky Way, the one we live in, and we think there are 100 billion galaxies in the universe. These numbers are really challenging to visualise, even for professional astronomers.”
Raised in Yallourn – a town in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley built in the 1920s to house state electricity workers – Ann Rusden enjoyed a different view of the starry night sky in the Southern Hemisphere.
Though her mother was a nurse and her father a civil engineer, Ann paved her own path. One of only two girls out of a class of 20 to matriculate in science at her all-girls school, she won a Commonwealth Scholarship in year 12. She went on to study physics at the University, and as a non-resident member of Janet Clarke Hall – at the time, the women’s college associated with Trinity College, where she had to do her science tutorials.
Ann later accepted a position as a secondary teacher while completing her university studies. The stars aligned and her career progressed, intertwining physics, teaching (including a stint abroad in England) and later a position as Principal at Camberwell High School.
“I loved teaching physics – getting the students enthused about the subject,” Ann says. “That’s one of the rewards of the profession, seeing children develop and succeed.
“I got very involved in physics education, as a member of the Physics Standing Committee, which helps write the Victorian physics curriculum.”
While she’s no longer at the front of the classroom or in the principal’s chair, Ann continues to devote herself to helping others flourish and grow. She’s an active volunteer and has served on a number of committees at the University for decades.
Through a gift in her Will to support physics, Ann’s positive influence will continue to light the way for others, such as Michele, who still holds on to the sense of awe he felt as a child when gazing at the star-filled sky.
After completing his PhD in Italy, Michele has held research positions on both sides of the Atlantic. He now studies the formation and evolution of galaxies, stars and black holes across cosmic time, “with a particular focus on the first billion years after the Big Bang, so 13 billion years ago,” he says.
As a Principal Investigator of observing programs on the Hubble Space Telescope, Michele is using data from the telescope to find these distant galaxies. “Our space telescopes, like Hubble, are time machines,” Michele says. “Because the speed of light is finite, we can look at distant galaxies and how the universe was in the past.” Using a combination of computer and theoretical modelling, Michele is striving to paint a clearer picture of the evolution of galaxies across time.
While astrophysics may focus on the cosmos, Michele says the pursuit of knowledge in space is firmly grounded in our inherent desire to pursue the unknown. “I think space exploration is deeply tied to the human drive to pursue curiosity and explore our environment. We have always been explorers trying to push the boundaries of our knowledge, and now space is the current frontier.”
“Space research really forces you to take a long-term approach – to plan ahead, solve problems effectively, identify and mitigate risks,” he adds. “This is a skill that’s beneficial for society as a whole. I think it’s extremely important for humanity to consider what is best for the planet in the long term rather than just for short-term gain.”
Ann agrees: “Physics will be essential to help future generations answer the big questions, as it will be the gateway to solutions that are delivered through technology or mechanisation.”
Attracting and supporting world-leading researchers such as Michele is part of what she hopes to achieve through her future gift: “I really am very interested in education itself, having spent my life in education. It’s very important to me that we have a leading university here in Melbourne.”
While Ann’s personal affiliation with the University runs through her veins, Michele reminds us how that interconnected nature extends even deeper through time and space: “My atoms, your atoms, they were once part of the stars that enriched, chemically, the universe, and allowed the formation of the elements that are necessary for human life,” he says. “So we are all children of the stars.”
Though Michele and Ann grew up under different blankets of stars, they share a common passion for learning and knowledge – a passion that, thanks to Ann’s generosity, will continue to shine for many others.
For further information about including a gift to the University in your Will, or making a living bequest in your lifetime, please call the Gifts in Wills team on +61 3 9035 3489 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo by Bec Walton: Associate Professor Michele Trenti and Ann Rusden