Interview with Jan Eldridge

Theoretical astrophysicist explains how early home computers nurtured a fascination with the universe, and busts the myth that most stars are single

May 13, 2021
Jan Eldridge University of Auckland

Jan Eldridge is head of the physics department and lectures in astrophysics at the University of Auckland, where she, a non-binary trans woman, uses computer models to study the evolution of stars – particularly binary stars.

When and where were you born?
In 1977 in Kent, England.

How has it shaped who you are?
When I was five or six, my dad brought home a computer – a ZX Spectrum. When you turned it on, you had to code, so you started understanding about programming. At school, I made a home anti-burglar system by programming the computer to turn lights on and off. I can apply for jobs and say, “I have over 30 years of programming experience.”

Why did you apply these skills to astronomy?
I grew up when science fiction was really hitting its stride – 2001, 2010, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Plot devices were based on current research. My interest in physics and space was kindled by science fiction at the same time as I was learning about computers. At university [in Cambridge], we had this computational assignment to make a model of two colliding galaxies using the computer programming language Fortran. I decided to take it further. I knew QuickBASIC, and I made a movie. It didn’t get me a better mark, but I saw how you could solve interesting problems in astrophysics using computers. It’s as close as I can get to exploring space.

How common are binary stars?
When you look at stars like our sun, maybe 20 or 40 per cent are binary. If you look at stars much more massive than our sun, basically all of them are in binaries. They could even be in triples, quadruples or higher order systems. For some reason, people always seemed to think they were single. Observations over the past decade or so really pointed towards binary stars being important. The detection of gravitational waves caused by the merger of two black holes really drove the point home, because the most common way binary black holes are formed is through binary star evolution.

Why do binary stars matter to us as humans?
The iron and the haemoglobin in your blood mostly comes from exploding black holes that were stars like our sun, but in binary stars.

Do you see galaxies as dynamic places?
A galaxy is very dynamic on a timescale of millions and billions of years. We would expect 10,000 supernovae in our galaxy every million years. The elements they produce get thrown out into the galaxy and mix with the gas of other dying stars. It’s like the ecosystem on Earth with things being recycled – the same is true for the stars, but at a very different timescale.

You deal with galactic time frames, and then you clock off and return to a time frame of hours, days and weeks. Does that mess with your mind?
Probably. It’s bad for work-life balance. As head of department, you’ve got to think about people’s careers and your staff. That’s a very human timescale.

You have undergone gender transition since joining Auckland. How did your colleagues react?
I’m working at Auckland at a fortunate time because the university is keen to be equitable and inclusive. You have students paying large amounts of money to study. If they don’t feel safe or they’re distracted, they’re not going to be able to achieve. Nor are your staff. Everyone’s very aware of these issues, not just about trans and gender diverse people. You have Maori and Pacifica people; you have refugees; you have people with disabilities. I am different, and the students see that and, perhaps, think, “There’s that lecturer being themselves; I can be myself, too.” And perhaps it changes the minds of staff: “My colleague is successful being themselves, so maybe I shouldn’t judge students just because they’re not like me.”

Do you think it would have been as positive an experience if you had transitioned before you had a tenured position?
This worries me a lot. I did this after getting a permanent position, which gives me a huge amount of privilege. I am successful – a good lecturer, a good teacher and good at research, which all sort of helps. If I’d transitioned earlier, would I have got that level of success? We’ll find out when more trans people come through and get permanent positions. But then, we may not know because they might not want to tell anyone. You’ve got to hope that the system has changed. I can see that it has been changing from conversations I have with colleagues around the world.

How has the change affected your productivity?
When you’re trans, just trying to work yourself out takes so much effort. Also, you’re hiding – is someone going to guess? That takes a huge amount of effort. When you sort of throw that away, you become less stressed and you end up sleeping better. Thoughts still come along and take up time, but not as much as they used to. Time that used to be wasted is available to get on with work and life.

What do you like about being an academic?
As an astrophysicist, you get to explore the universe and take people around with you. Some of them get hooked and want to understand how it works, and that’s really quite exciting. And because of my equity work, I’ve been able to get insights into how complex people are. The universe is very complicated, but people are complicated, too.

What don’t you like?
It seems impossible to juggle everything you need to do. I could spend all my days coding and trying to work out how things work. You end up doing all this administration as well. Deciding who teaches which course will make a huge impact on the students taking the course, and also on your colleagues. I understand the worth, but it’s not as much fun as working out how stars work.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Karen Holford has been named Cranfield University’s next vice-chancellor. Currently deputy vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, she will join Cranfield in August after Sir Peter Gregson retires. A professor of mechanical engineering, she was also founding pro vice-chancellor of Cardiff’s College of Physical Sciences and Engineering. Professor Holford said she wanted to “build on [Cranfield’s] strengths in postgraduate education and research” and was “passionate about working in partnership, building industrial collaborations in research and teaching and championing equality, diversity and inclusion”.

Lionel Ni Ming-Shuan has been appointed president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s new Guangzhou campus, which is set to open in September 2022. The computer scientist is currently provost of HKUST, where he has spent much of his career, apart from a spell as vice-rector (academic affairs) at the University of Macau between 2015 and 2019. Andrew Liao Cheung-Sing, chair of HKUST’s council, said he was confident that Professor Ni would steer the new campus “in nurturing global innovative talents in the Greater Bay Area and contribute to the technological development and advancement in the region and beyond”.

Ben Calvert will be the next vice-chancellor of the University of South Wales. Currently deputy vice-chancellor, he will take on the top job after Julie Lydon’s retirement this summer.

Greg Walker has been appointed pro vice-chancellor for academic strategy at the University of Bolton. He is currently the chief executive of the MillionPlus group of modern universities.

Lee Newman has been appointed dean of Spain’s IE Business School. He is currently dean of IE University’s School of Human Sciences and Technology.

Iyiola Solanke and Louise Bryant have been named deans for equality, diversity and inclusion at the University of Leeds. They are currently chair of European Union law and social justice and professor in psychological and social medicine, respectively.

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