Oh, the places you'll go - with a physics degree

Jun 28th, 2013

Kelly Foss

Dr. Cristina Tollefsen
Oh, the places you'll go - with a physics degree

A degree in physics can take you to some unexpected places. Just ask Memorial alum, Dr. Cristina Tollefsen.

She currently works for Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), an agency of Canada’s Department of National Defence, and the national leader in defence and security science and technology. She has previously worked with Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the country’s national cryptologic agency.

So how does a physicist end up doing highly classified work for the Canadian government, and then switch over to doing scientific research for the Navy?

“My background is in oceanography and acoustics, something I use a lot in my work for DRDC,” she says. “It’s very important we are able to communicate our results to our partners in the Canadian Armed Forces, so the job requires great writing skills. As for CSEC, once I understood the nature of the data and the sorts of results we were looking for, I was able to adapt analytical techniques to the unique problems encountered in analyzing large datasets.”

Dr. Tollefsen says she owes those analytical and writing skills to her university studies in science. Originally from Winnipeg, Dr. Cristina Tollefsen completed a B.Sc. (Hons) in physics at the University of Manitoba, followed by a master’s degree in medical physics.

“I think it is a common story among grad students, of not quite knowing what to do after their undergrad, so they do another degree,” she says with a laugh. “My M. Sc. degree meant I could work in a hospital, typically doing treatment plans for radiation therapy. But I couldn’t see myself working in a clinical setting for the rest of my life.”

That’s when she decided to continue her studies in physical oceanography.

“There are only a few places in Canada where this program is offered and Memorial is one. I applied to a few and then went to visit to see what research they did there.

“As soon as I landed in St. John’s and my supervisor and his wife met me at the airport at 10:30 p.m. at night, I knew right away that it had the right feeling about the place.”

She finished her degree requirements in 2005, just before the economy started to take off in Newfoundland and Labrador. Not seeing an immediate future for herself in the province, Dr. Tollefsen and her husband moved to Halifax where she took a job with a private company doing consulting for the Navy and oil and gas companies. But that wasn’t a good fit either.

That’s when she moved on to working for the federal government, first in Ottawa with CSEC and later with DRDC back in the east. She’s now been at DRDC for over four years and is very happy, something she was afraid she might never be back in the days when she was moving from one side of the country to the other trying to figure out what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

“One thing I tell our co-op students, they’re always in a tizzy about choosing the perfect right path that will set them on their career to greatness, I always tell them I went through all these different things trying to figure out what I wanted to do and it’s okay,” she said. “You don’t have to know right away what you want to do and choose it and never deviate from that path. There are lots of ways of getting where you need to be.

“It’s not always obvious what you are going to do with your degree. We try and let them see the possibilities.”



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