Jan J. Eldridge is a theoretical astrophysicist and associate professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. She obtained her bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Cambridge. Afterwards, she completed post-doctorates at Queen’s University Belfast and the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris and started working at the University of Auckland in 2011. Her main research areas are stellar evolution, supernovae, and gravitational waves. As a leading scientist and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Dr Eldridge has been instrumental in making academia more inclusive. You can learn more about her work here or follow her twitter page here.
- Why and when did you decide to study astrophysics? And more specifically, why did you decide to pursue research on the evolution of stars?
When I was growing up I watched and read a lot of science fiction and really liked how in Star Trek: The Next Generation cutting edge research would be used to come up with stories in the series. It wasn’t until a careers advisor at school told me about how to go to university and study to become a scientist that I really knew what I wanted to do. Although in my first year at university I was able to study Maths, Physics, Chemistry, and Geology, it wasn’t until I had spent a full year at university that I realised I wanted to do physics and eventually, after more study, astrophysics.
Then when it came to picking what to research, again I was lucky that I had some choice of PhD supervisor. In the end, I settled on Dr Christopher Tout as he had been quite inspiring in teaching “the structure and evolution of stars” which I took the year earlier as an undergrad. It’s quite exciting to think that as a postdoc I also got to teach that course and now we’ve written the textbook of the course together.
- How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your research?
In some ways, as a theoretician, the impact has been relatively minor because my students and I can still work from home on our laptops. However, for myself, it’s been difficult to juggle child care and to keep motivated. The experience of having online Zoom meetings has been really good and it has been much easier to help others with problems as we can share our screens so easily. The one aspect that has been difficult is not being able to draw quick plots or sketches to explain things. So it’s been a mixed bag really. The lack of international travel to conferences is one unfortunate problem as lots of ideas are created there, but again, I’m also happy that I’m not flying and travelling so much.
- What is your opinion on the future of gravitational wave astronomy?
This is difficult to predict as the field is only 5 years old! Well, it’s much older than that but we actually have sources and detections now, which has really changed things. What I’m pretty sure is going to happen is the detectors will get ever more sensitive and we’re going to find many more sources like those we’ve already detected. We’re going to detect more sources than we expect to find but the most exciting findings will be those that are weird or we don’t expect.
One other aspect of GW astronomy is that the physics and engineering that goes into building detectors is also pushing the boundaries of what we can do with light. It will be also interesting to see how that knowledge spreads out into other uses and applications. That’s as exciting as learning more about the Universe.
- Which unanswered questions in stellar evolution intrigue you the most?
What happens when a star dies? Big questions at the moment are: when do stars form black holes and when do they form neutrons, and, if they do form a black hole, does the star explode or slowly fade away… These questions are related and the evidence here is far from settled. We have to look at the problem from many angles to understand what is really going on.
- What is your advice to youth (especially those a part of the LGBTQ+ community) who would like to pursue a career in STEM?
This is tough. I’m very privileged and have only been open about being a member of the rainbow community since having a permanent position at the University of Auckland. I do now think, however, that there are fewer obstacles to being yourself but I do worry that many in academia and STEM careers are biased. It’s part of why I do interviews like this and try to be open about being transgender to normalize it in science, academia and society. The most important thing for any person in the LGBTQ+ community is to consider their safety and tackle everything with safety first. Is it safe to travel to a country? Does this institute I want to study at have a good record of being inclusive?
- Before becoming a professional scientist, who were your role models and why?
This is a difficult question to answer as there are many people I looked up to, but looking back there was no one really like me. There were certainly lots of interesting characters in sci-fi shows, scientists on TV programs, and inspiring lecturers but I’ve only just begun to understand how this led me to believe that l I had to fit a certain stereotype to be successful. Breaking that idea has enabled me to be myself and be more successful.
- How has your experience as an astrophysicist differed in the various countries in which you have lived and worked?
I’ve enjoyed most places I’ve worked in although my most difficult time was when I worked in Paris, France. While I tried to learn French and was reasonably successful, the atmosphere and experience of the institute I worked at was very different from what I was used to. It was much less friendly and social than I was used to, which led to me being unhappy most of the time. Even though the work was interesting and I learnt and achieved a lot, I was quite lonely most of the time. Having now visited many places, it’s the more friendly and welcoming places that I think are better to work at and visit.
- Which sci-fi books/movies are your favourites and why? Which would you say portrays science most accurately?
Oh, lots! My favourite novel is “Songs of Distant Earth” by Arthur C. Clarke, not because of the science, although it’s an interesting setting, but because it’s an unusual and moving love story set in space. Recently I’ve been reading more different novels by many authors. Growing up, the authors tended to be men but now I’ve been reading stories by Ursula le Guin, Ann Leckie, and Yoon Ha Lee. I really wish I had started reading more diverse stories earlier! Then I always love Doctor Who. And Star Wars and Star Trek are also both fun.
As for portraying science most accurately, that is a big enough question to write several books on! I’ve also given many talks and lectures on this and written some blog posts. The best way I’ll answer here is not to say what is accurate or not but recommend it’s more fun to think about how things could work from sci-fi stories. Somethings really can’t work but it’s fun to work out how things could work. :o)
- Would you say being a part of the LGBTQ+ community has impacted how you do science? If so, how?
Again this is difficult to decide. What I can say is that when I used to hide who I was there was always a significant load upon me to keep a part of me hidden. When I stopped hiding, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted and I’ve really been so much happier and been so much more productive. However, I know there are places I can now not travel to as it would be unsafe to do so and that makes me sad.
When J.J. Eldridge was born not that long ago, the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals were greatly limited. Though human rights for LGBTQ+ individuals in some countries have greatly improved through the 21st century, these issues are still rampant across the globe. Marriage equality was passed for the first time in 2001 in the Netherlands and, though many countries have since followed suit, there are many countries in which marriage equality is not even on the table. Binary trans and non-binary people have faced discrimination both by not being able to legally transition and by not being accepted for the gender they are.
The LGBTQ+ community has also largely been excluded from academia and STEM fields. Science used to be even more predominantly white, straight, and cis-male. Recently, thanks to many POC, women, and LGBTQ+ scientists, science has started to become a much more diverse area of study – although there is still much progress to be made. I hope that through the activism of scientists such as J.J. Eldridge, I will be able to meet and interact with a broad range of people during my future career as a scientist.
About the Author
Hazal Kara is a rising junior at Hisar School in Istanbul, Turkey and a physics, math, and astrophysics editor at the Young Scientists Journal. She is especially passionate science communication and literature. She also finds pharmacology interesting. Her hobbies include game development, solving (or trying to solve) math problems, and creative writing.