On astrophysics and figuring out who you are by JJ Eldridge

JJ Eldridge in the Shenova Fashions Particle Physics Dress

JJ Eldridge in the Shenova Fashions Particle Physics Dress

Our wonderful Liza Bolton has recommended JJ Eldridge to be interviewed on Kia Ora. When I started doing my research about them, it absolutely fascinated me how active and honest and vulnerable JJ is. JJ has completed their PhD at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, undertook postdoctoral research in Paris and Belfast and has been lecturing Astrophysics at the University of Auckland since 2011. They are super active in the diversity space and recently were a finalist in the 2018 NZ LGBTI Hero of the Year award. It is such a pleasure to have JJ on Kia Ora!

How would you explain your research focus to someone who doesn’t know much about Astrophysics?

There are a couple of things to explain. One is how I do my astrophysics: first, I don’t observe the stars in the sky through telescopes. I make computer models of stars and galaxies, something like making a “synthetic Universe”. The reason behind it is so we can put all our knowledge of physics into the computer and observe this model to see if it matches the real one.

Then the other thing is the stars I enjoy studying most are those that aren’t single like our own Sun but are part of a binary system. A binary star is two stars orbiting around each other. The thing is stars grow as they get older so eventually the two stars might “get in each other's way” and exchange mass or even merge. This can lead to really quite exciting and spectacular events.

The reason I really like studying stars though is that stars make all the heavy elements in the Universe like oxygen, carbon and iron. These are needed for complex life like us. So understanding how the stars make everything is a way to understand where we come from.

You have given a lot of talks on sci-fi. Most of my astrophysics knowledge came from watching and reading everything I could find after I saw Interstellar. What are some of your favourite movies that people can actually learn from?

Most sci-fi movies are just another setting for a story, and science or technology are frequently created to enable this story to be told. This is especially true in movies. Interstellar was good as a lot was correct / accurate (except that black hole and quantum information stuff at the end… as far as we know) but that’s not the same as educating people.

Some of the best “education” moments happen in the TV series, in this format there is more time for plot points to be expanded up and discussed. For me this was during the Star Trek: The Next Generation when the latest science was included in the storylines, the same is of course true for Doctor Who too.

JJ lecturing on star clusters to first year students. Credit: Heloise Stevance

JJ lecturing on star clusters to first year students. Credit: Heloise Stevance

You make a point to talk about your transition and gender diversity. What has been some of the unexpectedly helpful people / things / events that has guided you through it? 

Well, many people have been supportive, and the fact that nearly everyone is supportive has been the greatest surprise. I’m worried about negative reactions but haven’t come across anyone yet. The group that helped me the most, however, were the students of the University’s Trans on Campus group. They came together to try and make changes within the University for trans and gender diverse students. I joined to use my privilege as a lecturer to help make those changes. In the end I ended up learning so much about gender diversity, I came to understand myself a lot more.

Did you find that cis-women and LGBT+ groups in the science community experience the same challenges as other communities or are there some striking differences? 

I think that there are similar obstacles to all underrepresented groups in science. In terms of the unconscious and conscious biases people will have when interacting with them. While the result will be the same, however, the reason for the bias will be for different reasons. But the solution to remove barriers is the same: realise that everyone is individual and everyone shouldn’t have to look the same to be accepted. Research suggests that more diverse teams tend to be more creative, how can we come up with novel ideas if everyone thinks the same thoughts?

How has the Auckland research community changed in terms of LGBT+ inclusion since you came here in 2011? 

It hasn’t as far as I can tell. People are more aware of the issue and more accepting I think but there aren’t any more open LGBT+ people in the faculty now than there were when I started and that’s an issue. Most of the out people I know are students not faculty members. NZ is behind other countries which have been organising events such as a one-day LGBT+ science conferences where people in the rainbow community come together to talk about their science. They’re able to because there are enough out scientists to do so, it’s tricky in NZ because we don’t have that many of us (yet!). 

JJ recording a short video on their research. Credit: Heloise Stevance

JJ recording a short video on their research. Credit: Heloise Stevance

Whenever you meet someone who is a real subject matter expert in their field, you wonder how they got there and why they chose this particular subject. Why Astrophysics for you? Did you ever consider or wanted to explore other fields? What made you stick with it? 

I really got into science because I read and watched (too much?) sci-fi when I was young. As I said above I used to watch old Doctor Who’s on the TV on Sunday mornings and Star Trek: The Next Generation after walking home from school before dinner. It made me wonder: why can’t I do that? But also, I wanted to understand the science that was often discussed in ST:TNG. I also really enjoyed maths and science at school. But I didn’t know the pathway to being a scientist until a school careers advisor told me about degrees and PhDs. In the end I was the first in my extended family to go to University. I did enjoy lots of science but especially physics and astrophysics. I did enjoy geology but turns out I can’t write essays so I didn’t do well in that exam compared to maths and physics. 

To expand on my previous question - when I was doing my Biomed degree, I met a lot of researches who specialised in very particular things (one that comes to me was my laboratory tutor who did her PhD in “dragonfly reproduction”). How does one dedicate so much of their life to a very particular topic? How did you choose yours? 

Well, I’m lucky because while I mostly study stars, stars make up a lot of the Universe. So I end up studying many different aspects including X-ray binaries, supernovae, star clusters, as well as galaxies from our own to those at the edge of the observable Universe. It makes it kind of exciting! The most fun thing is over the last few years we’ve started to detect merging black holes and neutron stars through the waves in spacetime they create, gravitational waves. I hadn’t looked at these before but after the first detection was made I started to study them and it was great as I had to learn so much new science. 

Tell us a bit more about teaching. What role does it play in your life right now? How does it compare with the research part? 

Teaching at a University comes in a few different forms. There are lectures where you have to be a “sage-on-the-stage”, delivering course content to students. Although I try to make this as interactive and exciting as I can. No one will learn if I just stand in front of them spouting facts for an hour.

Then we also have labs and tutorials where you get to work with students and help guide them to find their own answers. Then there are project students when you get to talk to students one-on-one. That can lead to a lot of fun science and learning for me and the students.

In some ways I would prefer to be doing research without having to teach so much. But teaching itself is fun and does allow me to express my creativity in a different way to help students learn as much as they can.

JJ lecturing students on quantum mechanics. Credit: Heloise Stevance

JJ lecturing students on quantum mechanics. Credit: Heloise Stevance

Very common advice for younger people is to pursue what they love but for a massive proportion even figuring out what they love is difficult. What would your advice be to someone who might be a bit lost? 

Don’t be in a rush to figure everything out and don’t be afraid to change your mind. I did my undergraduate degree in Cambridge and there you get to do several subjects in the first year before deciding and that was really useful. As I said above I nearly did geology. But in the second year while I knew what I wanted to do, several of my friends did chemistry and after a few weeks switched back to physics, despite being advised not to. They succeeded. So I guess try things and don’t worry if things go wrong?

What are some of your proudest moments (personal and professional)?

Tough question… I guess professionally one thing will be winning the Faculty of Science award for sustained excellence in teaching. It makes all the effort and care I put into teaching worthwhile. It’s at least equal to watching my first University of Auckland PhD student graduate. 

In terms of research, I think I’m very proud of the work I’ve done when other people use it to learn something new. It’s a fantastic feeling to enable other people to do science.

Personally getting my black-belt in Tae Kwon Do, even though it is over 15 years ago now, it was a moment I was proud of myself for achieving. Before that I’d never been really sporty. There are lots of other things in my life I’m proud of, although they’re personal so I won’t go into details.

JJ being quiz-mistress at the conference dinner for the "Massive Stars" meeting in 2016. Credit: Peter Kretschmar

JJ being quiz-mistress at the conference dinner for the "Massive Stars" meeting in 2016. Credit: Peter Kretschmar

When we read about others online, a lot of people get bogged down with comparison and feelings like “I am not good / smart / successful enough” or “I don’t have my life together”. What does success mean to you? What are some of the day to day thoughts / challenges that you experience that people might not know about just by following your fascinating journey online? 

I can guarantee I do not have my life together in the slightest. I am still really trying to work out who I am as I have no idea at times. I’m also trying to work out how who I am fits into the perspective of everyone who knows me and those who are most important to me. But there are reasons I don’t discuss that online. In some ways I really am quite scared of what my future will be because I can’t see who I will be. But at some level working in science and physics keeps me distracted and hopefully I’ll find out the answer eventually. 

So while it might seem that at work things are okay, sometimes I’m so busy it only just all holds together. I think the thing I have to learn is that I have to stop pushing myself to be perfect, and that’s tough, we all hold ourselves up to impossible standards. 

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?  

There are so many people I could add. The two I will say are: Dr Heloise Stevance, an amazing science communicator and artist who has just moved to Auckland to work on a project with me and Dr Rebecca Deed from the University of Auckland who is an amazing wine scientist. And I would love to hear about how the world of science mixes with the commercial importance of wine making. And many many more…

Elina Ashimbayeva