Vesna Milosevic-Zdjelar is such a huge fan of Harry Potter she keeps a Sorting Hat on her desk.
Among the globes, pulleys, sci-fi memorabilia and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves (packed with tomes on astronomy and physics) in her office, sits a woman who’s fled a war-torn country to teach at the University of Winnipeg (U of W).
Harry Potter resonates so much with her because it’s like a metaphor for her own life, trying to escape dark forces, she says.
“In 1998, we came here to Canada to get away from bombing of my former country (the former republic of Yugoslavia) by NATO. So it was really an escape route to some peaceful place and we ended up here and then didn’t know really what to do with my astrophysics (degree), for which I didn’t have any employability,” Milosevic-Zdjelar says.
She and her husband, a professional musician, obtained teaching degrees and she started as a guest lecturer in physics at the U of W.
When the physics department recognized how well she communicated with students, they offered her a full-time job.
“You really have to understand concepts well in order to explain it in a very everyday matter,” she says. “I encountered a wide variety of audiences, (like) students that are arts students that are interested in space. So they take my astronomy class and they get it. It’s supposed to be an inspirational course.”
Milosevic-Zdjelar says she also sees a vast majority of students who are stressed out – including her daughter, a third-year student at the U of W.
She tries to remind students about how puny their problems are in the grand scheme of the universe by showing them a slide of the Earth from the moon’s perspective.
“I try to do my job in at least my classes to just make them think about higher order stuff, not deadlines and due dates,” she says.
“When you see the Earth from the International Space Station or you see it from the moon, there are no political boundaries. There’s nothing there – just us on a little pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan called it. We have to work together to keep it going. So no F’s in transcripts will stop us from doing that. Who cares?”
AREA OF RESEARCH: Astrophysics.
NUMBER OF PEER-REVIEWED ARTICLES PUBLISHED: I don’t know! Maybe 10-15.
LOWEST GRADE IN UNIVERSITY: Definitely an F. I failed something that my mom helped me study. That was her profession and she was an excellent instructor. I just hated electronics.
FAVOURITE THING ABOUT YOURSELF: I think a sense of humour – that makes me a survivor in this world. I really see the funny in everything. The minute it becomes too heavy to bear, I see all the comedy. Maybe my parents are to thank for that because they brought me up on Monty Python skits.
WHAT’S YOUR SUPERPOWER: I know from what other people say it’s actually energy and enthusiasm. Students always say that. But I also think it’s humour. It’s (taking) the worst thing (and asking) ‘how can we make it even more hilarious?’
BOOK RECOMMENDATION: Harry Potter. That’s a must read.