Occupation: Theoretical astrophysicist
Research Areas: Numerical Modelling, Stellar Evolution, Binary Stars
"While we try our best to make our best models with our current understanding of physics, the most exciting time is when a new exploding star or merging gravitational wave source is seen which we didn't expect."
Source: New Zealand Herald
Jan read and watched lots of science fiction when they were a child. She liked how the science was a part of the story. However, she didn't think about going to university until a career advisor suggested it.
Jan went to the University of Cambridge, UK, and to start with, studied maths, physics, chemistry and geology. After a year, she realised she really wanted to study physics and was awarded her first degree in science in 2001. Jan continued to study at Cambridge and in 2005, completed a PhD in astrophysics. She then spent time as a scientific researcher in Paris, France and Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Jan is a Professor and Head of the Physics Department at The University of Auckland in New Zealand. Her research focuses on the lives and deaths of stars in binary star systems. A binary star system contains two stars which orbit each other. This kind of star system is common in our galaxy. In fact, our Sun is one of the rare ones - over 75% of stars in the Milky Way are binary! The stars in these systems can get in each other's way. This makes it much harder for scientists to predict what the stars will do when they run out of fuel.
Jan uses numerical models to study how the stars in binary systems evolve and change over time. A numerical model represents something in the real world using maths. Large, complicated models need powerful computers to run them. Jan created a unique computer code to help her model her area of research. The code is called Binary Population and Spectral Synthesis code. Scientists all over the world can use this code to study what happens when two stars interact with each other over time. Jan uses the code to model what will happen to binary star systems. She then compares the model to observations of stars in our own galaxy and in the wider Universe.
Jan is also keen to increase the public's knowledge of and interest in science. She gives talks to the public on topics from her research. In 2019, Jan and astronomer, Christopher Adam Tout, published a book called “The Structure and Evolution of Stars”.
Jan is a non-binary trans woman. She works to make science and academia more diverse and more inclusive for LGBTQ+ people. In 2019, New Zealand's LGBTI Awards shortlisted Jan for the Hero of the Year Award. In 2021, she was named a New Zealand 'Woman of Worth' by MiNDFOOD and L’Oréal.
Jan is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in the UK. She is also a member of the Astronomical Society of Australia and won their Anne Green Prize for a mid-career astronomer. She has also won an award for sustained excellence in teaching from the Faculty of Science at the University of Auckland.
Jan reads and watches sci-fi but has also given public talks on how accurate science fiction is! She likes to relax by cooking or playing computer games. She keeps fit by running, cycling and practising Tae Kwon Do.