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JJ Eldridge

JJ is a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Auckland who explores how to make computer models of stars more realistic by comparing them to living and dead stars.

JJ speaking at an eventWhat do you do on an average work day?

It depends on whether we're in or out of semester. During semester a lot of my time is taken up with teaching, especially preparing and giving lectures. But there is also a lot of extra work that goes on around that, marking students' work, answering questions and admin around teaching.

In addition over the past few years the physics department at University of Auckland has undertaken a review and redesign of our teaching so that has been an interesting extra thing to work on. Then at the same time over the past year and a bit I've been taking a tertiary teaching course myself to learn how to become a better teacher.

When I'm not teaching the rest of the time I do my research. My research involves stars and I try to constrain computer models of stars by comparing them to many different observations of living and dead stars. As a theorist, my research really involves lots of thinking, coding, paper writing, data-mining observations and theoretical results, teleconferences and writing emails.

Research also includes working with my PhD students, which is always great fun as they have some of the most interesting ideas that I don't have time to think about any more.

I also spend a lot of time working on equity and inclusivity in academia and astrophysics. At the University this involves being on the Faculty of Science Equity committee as well as being a member of the University's LGBTI network, Rainbow Science and Trans On Campus groups.

While it takes time away from research I really think trying to change culture and practices in academia is important. I've been working on the Australian Society of Astronomy's Inclusive, Diverse, Equitable Astronomy (IDEA) group for over a year too, trying to share what I've learnt within Auckland to a wide community.

What did you study at school? And after high school?

At school I always loved maths and science and they are the subjects I always did well in. Of course I had to take other subjects but never really scored too highly in those, especially history, English and French. I just wish I knew the importance of those subjects now having worked in French and having to do so much writing.

So my final subjects at school were Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Then at University I again studied maths, physics, chemistry and geology. I really enjoyed Geology but I was terrible at writing essays so switch to physics and maths in later years.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

Yes! I'm still studying physics, just in stars across the Universe.

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?

Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do what you want to. And don't look at a career pathway and think there isn't anyone like you there so you won't fit in. There are and you will.

JJ EldridgeWhat are some of your career highlights so far?

This is a very tough question!

Scientifically, making my BPASS code and having other people use the results in their own work is very rewarding. BPASS stands for Binary Population and Spectral Synthesis; it's a code that uses 250,000 computer models of stars to predict what the Universe "looks" like. It can be used to understand lots of things in the Universe like individual stars, star clusters, galaxies and supernovae (exploding stars!).

I started BPASS with Assoc. Prof Elizabeth Stanway from the University of Warwick. We were friends during our undergraduate and postgraduate study and decided working on science together would be a great way to stay in contact. Just knowing that we've made something useful to many astronomers makes all the effort worthwhile.

Two other things also stand out as highlights. First receiving an email from the Nature scientific journal editors saying I had been one of their outstanding referees of 2016. That means a lot, I put in a lot of effort into being a referee, as do many people without reward but this was again a good recognition that I'm refereeing.

The other has being able to be out as a transperson within my scientific community. While I've been quite open on Twitter about being transgender it's taken time to feel comfortable about being myself at scientific meetings and at work. In 2016 I began presenting as my femaleself at meetings. I've also been invited to talk about being a trans academic. The biggest point was when I came out to my entire community at the large (177 attendee) meeting I organized last year in Auckland.
It is fantastic to be able to be me.

Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?

We live in an ever more complex world. And the key to understanding how something works normally relies on maths and science. Having a knowledge of science, and how science works allows us to evalulate different evidences we hear and whether we should believe it or not. It also helps us to find out accurate sources of information.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?

I've really noticed the difference in working in many groups of people that teams with more different voices and backgrounds generally have the better and more interesting ideas. It's also important that groups work well together so people feel like they can talk too. It's a lot harder to find solutions or find something new when everything thinks the same.

JJ Eldridge is a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Auckland and explores how to make computer models of stars more realistic by comparing them to many different observations of living and dead stars. Follow JJ on Twitter: @astro_jje

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.

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