Saturday, 8 December 2018

JJ's 2018 in review...

So 2018… it wasn’t as busy nor as stressful as 2016 and 2017 were. I finally listened to what I was writing! I didn’t necessarily say no so many times to things but ran out of energy and motivation to do many things, which has had some negative impacts on the amount of stuff I’ve done. I’ve also just had many fewer requests for things this year. So, all in all I’ve got to the end of the year with a list of things I could/should have done but didn’t, but I’m not completely stressed out and exhausted. I’ve still got to improve my fitness and that will help with my productivity, but this is good and I can move forward for sure.

Also it’s worth nothing I’ve tried again this year to be a good parent and partner. This is always difficult as anything in life. Especially as I’m also trying to come to understand myself – which is also still difficult – think I’m starting to know who I am but working out how to fit that into life and not impact those I love most.

Anyway things I’ve done in research. First I’ve been on 9 articles this year:

Things I’ve done in Teaching
  • Had one student, Lin Xiao, go through their graduation ceremony!
  • Had another student, John Bray, pass his viava!
  • Only lectured on course, 1st year astronomy which went well, despite some administrative mistakes, but it’s important to learn from those.
  • Finished the text book on the structure and evolution of stars I’ve written with Chris Tout! (Link here: World Scientific Press).
  • Observing my 2nd year redesign from a few years ago really seems to be going well.
  • Taught 4 honors project students and 1 masters student.
  • Ended a student project.

Things I’ve done in Service & Leadership
  • Unfortunately, this year I’ve just had not enough energy to do enough in this space this year and that makes me sad. But I guess it balances with needing a break and trying to get research done. This is something I really see as a failure as there are so many things I should have done.
  • Trans on Campus, had some meetings and did some work with the University giving feedback on transition at work, trans and sporting and travelling guidelines. This needs more effort next year!
  • Rainbow science was also very quiet, but there are a few new interested people around, so we might be able to get it busy again.
  • Was nominated as NZ LGBTI Hero – a controversial event but a fun evening at least.
  • Public talks at continuing education groups in Te Awa Mutu and Thames. The latter was my first talk as myself. Also just about to give a talk at Stardome to the Auckland Astronomical Society. As well as talks at RASNZ annual meeting, Hidden perspectives seminars and for a trans group in London.
  • Curated the Real Scientists account for a week, wow that was fun and busy!

Thursday, 29 November 2018

School question time!

So I just had some questions on twitter and via email from school children about astronomy. So rather than just replying to the people in question I thought I'd put the answers in a blogpost so everyone can read them.

Set one:

Q1 "What would happen if two red giants collided?" - context is discussions about neutron stars colliding and forming a black hole

This happens sometimes in binary stars systems where two stars orbit around one another. If their masses are similar enough they can both become red giants at the same time, grow in radius and eventually touch. To work out what will happen we need to think about the structure of a red giant. In the center is the star's helium core, the remnants of it fusing hydrogen to helium over it's main sequence lifetime (i.e. the phase our Sun is in). The core is then surrounded by the hydrogen envelope that is the material that wasns't hot enough to burn during the main sequence. 

Then in a binary when the two red giants touch one of two things will happen, either they will merge, losing some of the hydrogen and making a supersized helium core. Or all the hydrogen will be removed and the two helium cores will orbit each other in a much shorter orbit. If these are close enough they may eventually merge as they emit gravitational radiation and explode in some way.

If the helium cores were big enough then supernovae might happen and the stars could eventually become neutron stars or black holes and then eventually also merge via gravitational radiation to cause a GW event. Especially in the case where the two stars touching results in the orbit shrinking so the stars are closer together. If they're closer together they'll merge more quickly.

It's also worth noting it's very rare for the two stars to both become red giants at the same time. More typically one star will become a red giant while the other in still a main sequence star. But we're pretty sure they must touch and interact strongly to get close enough to form GW events.

Finally two single stars might me moving around a star cluster and just bump into each other. The same two possible results apply but this would be even rarer as space is big and stars are small.

Q2 - " Is Betelgeuse the only red giant we can see in the night sky? How soon can we expect to see a supernova?"

There are many red giants/supergiants we can see in the sky, for example: Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, Antares and Arcturus. Also a star atlas will definitely contain many more. It's worth noting that many red giants won't go supernova, only those that were more massive than 8 times that of the Sun will explode. Betelgeuse is likely to be above that mass but we really can be sure about when it'll explode as we can't see inside it. It could explode tomorrow or in a few 100,000 years, so we just need to play a waiting game!

We do see many red supergiants explode in other nearby galaxies and they're 60% of all supernovae we see. It's just within our own Galaxy we can only expect 1 supernova every 50 to 100 years.

Q3 - Could the stuff thrown off a supernova go and form another star?

Yes, that's where all the iron in your blood game from as well as many (but not all) the elements in your body that aren't hydrogen came from. The iron comes mostly from a specific type of SN, type Ia which is from exploding white dwarf stars in a binary star. 

What happens is the material formed in the explosion gets through out to get mixed with the material surrounding the star making it richer in heavier elements. We can actually see in more and more distant galaxies that there are less and less heavy elements showing us in reverse how stars have built up all the elements over 13.7 billion years.

Set two:

1. Do you believe we will get to Mars by 2030?

We've been there since the 1960s with space probes so I guess you mean humans. My only answer is maybe. It depends on whether there is the political will to spend that large amount of money that such a large project will require. We could get there before 2030 if we wanted to. Also the other question is whether it is a one-way trip or a return journey. The latter is more tricky.

2. Do you believe there is currently life on Mars?

It's certainly possible but unlikely. Although life on Earth has been found in increasingly extreme environments. This is why it's key to go there and at least check whether there is or ever has been life there.

3. Do you believe we could possibly live on Mars in the future?

It would be hard, recent research has suggested it may be even more difficult to terraform Mars than we thought. There is only a very sparse atmosphere so people will need to use spacesuits and pressure domes to live in and will not be able to walk through the open air on Mars.

Then there is also the problem that the planet has no magnetic field so people would have to live underground rather than on the surface. This is to avoid the solar wind and cosmic rates that are dangerous to life.

So again it's certainly possible just really, really difficult. 

Monday, 8 October 2018

What the 13th Doctor means to me...

So I’ve been meaning to write a short blogpost about what it means as a trans person to see the Doctor change sex and gender. I mean it’s been on the cards for some time now with the Mistress/Master leading to the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor. My first reaction upon learning this months ago was “hey the Doctor is going to go through the same thing I’m kinda going through”.

As a quick aside it’s worth noting that I am not going to say the Doctor is trans, they’re not they are cisgender. Why? Well we’re talking about aliens here and I’ve got an entire set of blogposts that I need to write about gender and sci-fi but for Timelords we have to treat the fact that a regeneration is like a rebirth (based on this talk here: So while for cisgender humans their sex assigned at birth and gender align, the equivalent for Timelords is that their sex at regeneration and their gender align. This does of course reinforce the idea that sex and gender are both binary which they’re not, for humans at least, but anyway this is the topic for another blogpost not this one, also there are probably intersex regenerations but if it’s a rate of 1% as for humans then we probably have seen enough Timelord characters to know.

a few friends used to jokingly say I did remind people of the 10th Doctor and I may be listened to them too closely, also it was a time when I was still male. But then when the 10th Doctor left it was around the time of my move to New Zealand and that’s when I really began to change and come to understand myself. This has lead me to my journey reaching a moment of me moving over to being more female. It’s a funny coincidence for me to see a character I associate with so strongly reflect my own change.

It’s worth noting that I’m a theoretical astrophysicist which is as close to being a Timelord as possible on Earth. I mean there is the understanding the Universe from one side to the other and running around showing young people the wonders it contains (i.e. lecture undergraduates and teach project students). (Un)fortunately there is a lot less running and no daleks or cybermen.

To not give away any spoilers, the Doctor is still the Doctor. There is that regeneration confusion when she’s still working out who she is but then the moment everything clicks it is as clear as day and I can’t wait to watch more. There is one quote though that I need to share when the Doctor explains her regeneration to her new companions, there are so many aspects of the description that parallel experiences of trans people:

Doctor: “You should have seen me a few hours ago. My whole body’s changed. Every cell in my body burning. Some of them are still at it now, reordering, regenerating”.

Grace: “Sounds painful love.”

Doctor: “You have no idea… there is this moment when you’re sure you’re about to die and then... you’re born, it’s terrifying. Right now I’m a stranger to myself, the’s echos of who I was, and a sort of call towards who I am and I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts, shape myself towards them. I’ll be fine. In the end… hopefully… but I have to be cos you guys need help and if there’s one thing I’m certain of, when people need help I never refuse. Right! This is going to be fun.

Trans people when they transition in some ways do die, that’s why previous names are referred to as “deadnames”. We have to become reborn but then we have our previous lives still with us and we do have to move forwards and reinvent ourselves. There is so much to unlearn, so many habits we have to break that we've had to fit in and go undiscovered. To move forwards and reinvent ourselves we really have to trust instincts and thoughts that for so long we have suppressed to become the person we are.

Also personally I think the wanting to help people in trouble is what the Doctor is all about and it’s one of the things I like most.

So for me at least, and may be other transgender people seeing this change and seeing a popular character go through similar changes to us inspires us a little, who knows, to me at least it’s a big deal.
Anyway personally it’s strange to see past photos of me and remember times from so long ago. I don't hate them and there are aspects of my oldself that I hate but there is a lot I love about my oldself too. Now though I still don’t know where I’m going or who I’m going to be. I really hope it’ll be okay in the end.

Right, time to get on, think I’ll leave you with two last quotes, “Allons-y!” and I just hope my adventure is going to be “Brilliant!”
(And yes sorry this was a rush job but was just toooooooo excited).

Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Holdo Maneuver

So first, ***SPOILERS***, do not read on if you don't want to read a major spoiler about Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Okay, it's been out for several weeks now but better to be safe than sorry!

Also quick disclaimer before going on, these are just my thoughts around the issue, I've got a PhD in astrophysics and have written about this stuff before (e.g. read and watched more sci-fi than I probably should have and completed X-wing, TIE fighter and X-wing alliance, again, more times than I should have. So I do love Star Wars and really like thinking not of the problems with science fiction but with "how could they possibly happen".

Anyway, one of the main scenes in the movie is when Admiral Holdo takes the Mon Calamari cruiser "Raddus" and rams into Supreme Leader Snoke's ship by sending it to hyperdrive. The second I saw this I thought that it tells us something interesting about how this fictional hyperdrive works. After some thought and googling I found out many people were having similar thoughts, e.g. 

In case you're wondering what the aftermath looks like here's a link:*fNvQQ4vnLNY6M_pnBsEEHw.png

But over doing the washing up I realised something, we've seen starship/starship collisions before. For example in Rogue One, where the collision between two Star Destroyers was "bad" for those ships.

Then even in Return of the Jedi there was the collision of a tiny little A-wing with a super-Star Destroyer (

In both these cases the velocities weren't at "hyperspeed" but the collisions were still bad. In the latter case mainly because of the collision hitting the bridge of the Executor.

A lot of people seem to have latched onto the fact that the Holdo Maneuver is the first to occur at light speed. However when you look at the damage to the mega-ship, it doesn't look so bad. The ship didn't suddenly explode it was just cut through. This looks quite similar to the star destroyer-star destroyer collision but at higher speed.

So here is the sciency bit - why did Admirial Holdo go to lightspeed? It was to make the collision happen quickly rather than allowing time for the First Order to move out the way. The energy of the collision wasn't enhanced due to the lightspeed it was just the time of the collision changed. This fact suggests the hyperdrive in the Star Wars Universe doesn't warp space but time? Or both maybe? So how it allows an object to travel the same distance that would take minutes at sub-light speed in a fraction of a second. Thus when the cruiser collides with the First Order ship rather than taking minutes or seconds as we've seen before it takes fractions of a micro-second. The trailing wake of material from the explosion is then what hits the other destroys behind the mega-ship.

If you want an analogy: think along the lines of someone punching a watermelon (=sublight collision) compared to a sword being slashed at speed through a watermelon and cutting it in half (=hyperdrive speed collision). Same energy (as a person throws the punch or turns the sword) but the speed is different. Actually, thinking on this more, a lot of martial art breaking techniques are more about speed than strength... but that's another post....

Another sciency thing her is that it means by the way that the hyperdrive doesn't remove a ship from spacetime like say the TARDIS does in Dr Who. But it means that there must be a similar solution, that we don't know of, that is how to "disconnect" one bit of spacetime from another, change the passage of time in someway and then "reconnect" them later without problems (this is impossible in our current understanding of the Universe).

Anyway the good news is this removes some of the problems what people have pointed out about the collision, namely "why did no one think of doing this before?". Well first, they have, just not with the hyperdrive engaged. Also let's think about this, a cruiser is an expensive ship, even if it's really old and ready for scrap, using one up as a weapon wouldn't be cost effective. There are many better (more cost effective) weapons that could be deployed.

Also let's think about mass. A tiny little fighter is maybe, 10 or 20 tonnes? A modern aircraft carrier on the Earth is about 100,000 tonnes, lets guesstimate that the Mon Calamari cruise is 1,000,000 tonnes. That's why the collision is so destructive, it's got 500,000 times more mass in that collision than a tiny little fighter would have. And its going to be more often that a person in a fighter would ram another ship in desperation than having a large carrier ship with only one person on board to decide their own fate

Summary: the hyperdrive didn't add destructive power, it just meant the collision (which we know already to be destructive) to just happen much more quickly.

There are other things to bear in mind here why no one developed "hyperdrive suicide robot ships". I think this comes down to cost and how difficult it is to build hyperdrives. The original TIE fighters didn't have hyperdrives or even shields. Even in the prequels the jedi starfighters needed to hook up to a special hyperdrive attachment. Hyperdrives are probably either expensive or difficult to make, if they don't add any destructive power it is probably more cost effective to put your money into making a bigger bang for your bomb.

Also then there are the safe guards that hyperdrives have which stop you if there is a large mass nearby. (I've played X-Wing, TIE Fighter and X-wing Alliance and have died in a mission many times when a star destroyer has blocked my exit vector, grrrrr). But you can always override them because as the article above points out, and suggestions in cannon dialogue gives you a "bad feeling" about collisions in hyperdrive.

One last thought though, if the hyperdrive does change time somehow, it means there might be some equivalence between distance and time taken to travel that distance, there might only be one speed of hyperdrive. This means that when in "A New Hope" Han Solo talks about doing the Kessel run in 12 parsecs, that has some direct meaning to time, not necessarily time, although that's still a complex and loaded statemtent.

Anyway, don't panic, we didn't see any new destructive tactic in "The Last Jedi", just a way of speeding things up.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

JJ's 2017 in review.

After writing a review like this last year I thought it'd be interesting to write another one!

Looking back to last year's review it was clear that in 2016 I thought I was working at my limit. This year I know I've gone way beyond that limit. Towards the end of the year I was almost unable to keep going. I was finding it impossible to find energy to start anything new and trouble keeping all the different streams of projects going through my mind. I don't think anything I did on it's own was too difficult but just the combination of multiple different projects was tough. Especially things way outside my comfort zone away from science research and teaching.

I could tell this work load did effect my family life too much. Being stressed and not having energy was a bad thing. Part of the issue was changes at home meaning that I needed to be home earlier than before which meant I had to try to be more efficient with my time and trying to juggle too many things.

Anyway, I survived and a number of things have been completed which means I don't need to worry about them any more. On the big plus side I did also get promoted to "Senior Lecturer above the bar" which is reward for doing so much work. While I still need to do more to get my next promotion in a few years it's good to already have a number of acomplishments. I just need to make sure I don't fill up my to-do list with more things that get in the way of research so much. Especially as I have a sabbatical second semester next year.

So anyway here is a (probably incomplete) list of everything I've done this year....

Service (astronomy):
  • Edited and published the proceedings for the IAU Symposium, #NZstars2016 which was run in 2016.
  • Took part in continuing discussions to set up Astro Aotearoa of research astronomers in NZ group. This led to the running of the first PhD summer school at Auckland run by myself with support from Nick Rattenbury and Richard Easther. Also the first science meeting which was also a success.
  • Won the Bronze Pleiades award for Auckland Physics Department in collaboration with the department’s equity working group. 
  • More public outreach talks at Stardome and Thames.
  • Curated @astrotweeps for a week again.
  • Refereed lots and lots of papers again and was named one of Nature's referees of 2016.

Service (University, Academia and wider):

  • Oversaw the redesign and teaching of second year courses in department of physics. This year we concentrated on lectures and examples classes. It will take a few more years to get perfect but we definitely improved all the courses and the students did enjoy the courses and seems to have done better (we still need to look in detail). Next year we'll be restructuring and organizing the labs....
  • Taught 5 courses: 2x 1st year astro (36 lectures), 2nd year classical mechanics (24 lectures, 8 example classes), 3rd year astrophysics (11 lectures) and course coordinated 2nd year electromagnetism. Considering the 2nd yr mechanics and 3rd yr astro meant I had to write two new courses in the same semester it wasn't easy and was quite stressful, especially when I wasn't able to keep so many things in my head at the same time but I made is somehow.
  • Finished of the course in Academic Practice, scoring A- grade overall. Again having to do this on top of everything else was difficult. Especially since my project work concerned trans and gender diverse people in academia which meant a serious amount of challenging self-reflection that made me quite uncomfortable, but I did learn a lot about myself at least. I still need to submit one of these projects to an education journal for publication maybe....
  • My 1st University of Auckland PhD student, Dr Lin Xiao, submitted her thesis, and passed. She has now moved back to China to take up a post-doc and she is finishing papers on the unpublished work in her thesis.
  • I still have 2 other PhD students who are close to finishing and submitting their theses early next year. I also now have a MSc student who is progressing through her project well and she should finish early 2019.
  • I did also apply for a University teaching award, I was unsuccessful in this but I did have to put together a teaching portfolio that allowed me to look at my teaching in detail. It allowed me to being to try to understand what it is I do when teaching that seems to be successful. I'll work out what "it" is one day I hope.

Monday, 16 October 2017

We are all made of stardust but gold, silver and platinum are neutron stardust!

GW170817/GRB170817A/SSS17a was the event many astrophysicists have been waiting for since LIGO made the first detection of gravitational waves in 2015. This time we didn’t just detect the gravitational waves from two merging neutron stars, but have also seen the associated gamma-rays, optical light and radio emission from the possible black hole and from the two exploding stars.

This new discovery shows again the importance of LIGO and VIRGO’s work over decades. The refinement of their highly sensitive work allows us to be able to detect these gravitational waves.

In addition, there have been a large number of dedicated astronomers that have been following up the fading afterglow of the merger. Again showing their practice over many years of following up transient events as quickly as possible have payed off. I offer huge congratulations to everyone that contributed to this stunning discovery. Especially to everyone who wrote and published those papers in the two months since discovery!

Neutron stars are quite different to the black holes that have been detected merging before. They are made of “stuff” so there is material we can see when they do collide. Neutron stars are formed when massive stars (that about 8 times more massive than our Sun) die, in their last gasp these stars crush all the material in their core down into a sphere 10km in radius. This releases a large amount of energy that makes a star explode in a supernova.

If the star was in a binary, and the binary wasn’t destroyed in the two supernovae that much have occurred to make the two neutron stars, then these two neutron stars will slowly orbit closer and closer together as they emit gravitational waves. This can take billions of years until they touch, merge and possibly form a black hole as we’ve seen in GW170817.

We don’t even know the full story yet. The observations are ongoing and only in the coming months and years will we really begin to fully understand how exciting this object is. The fact that we have so much information from so many different sources will allow us to piece together in a way we have never been able to before. It’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort!

This event alone has already answered questions on the nature and structure or neutron stars and confirms that merging neutron stars look like we’ve always expected them to, as a short gamma-ray burst and a type of explosion called a “kilonova”.

A short gamma-ray burst is a highly energetic burst of gamma-rays that have the same apparent energy as entire exploding star but spaced over a few seconds. While a kilonova is the explosion powered by the collision, making new heavy elements that are ejected extremely fast, some maybe at close to the speed of light!

The observations of the kilonova, the explosive afterglow, also confirms something else. In the explosion we have seen evidence for large amount of heavy elements. These events mostly create elements such as gold, silver and platinum. In this event it’s likely that 100s or 1000s of Earth masses of gold and other elements were made. If the rate of neutron stars mergers is as high as we now think, these dying stars are now the source of most of these elements in the Universe.
We’re all made of stardust, but gold, silver and platinum are made of neutron stardust!

One funny thought is that in a Doctor Who story called “Revenge of the Cybermen”, there was a planet called “Voga” that was made entirely of gold. Since this is the one element that is lethal to the Cybermen they attempted to destroy the planet. Now after the observations around this event we know that solid-gold planets are not as unlikely as we might have thought before!

Researchers in NZ have not played a role in the detection of this event but we are highly interested in gravitational waves. For example, at the University of Auckland Assoc. Prof. Renate Meyer has worked on the problem of extracting the faint gravitational waves signals from the much larger terrestrial signals that jostle the instrument, a problem that is like trying to hear a whispered conversation in a noisy room.

While in my own group two students PhD student John Bray and MSc student Petra Tang are both working to predict from models what the rate of these events should be, this event is showing that our models need to be improved to match the high rate of such mergers we now expect in the Universe.
The problem comes down to this, for two neutron stars to merge, the binary must have survived two supernovae, these are extremely destructive events. The stars musts also have remained close enough that the two stars only took a few days to orbit around one another. Otherwise the Universe is not old enough for the stars to merge via gravitational radiation. Modelling these in population synthesis depends on many uncertain bits of physics, but now merging neutron stars and black holes will give us a new tool to constrain the evolution of stars. That’s what makes me most excited!

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Moving gender beyond the binary in academia: Improving academia for trans and gender diverse people and the positive benefits to all

Transgender and gender diverse (T&GD) people over the past few years have had an increasing profile in the public consciousness. In tertiary education it has become apparent that to give all students an equal chance to succeed in their studies, education providers must make changes to include T&GD students. Being transgender myself I have been working with staff and students at the University of Auckland with this aim. In this article I point out some of the common misconceptions concerning T&GD people. I then describe what it is like to be trans faculty before discussing obstacles in academia for T&GD persons and how these could be removed. I also highlight how making these changes bring benefits to all in academia.

Who am I? That’s a question everyone asks themselves at some point in their lives. The depth of the question varies. At one level it might be asking: am I a person who prefers tea or coffee? Another might be choosing career direction: am I a scientist or an orchestral composer? And at a foundational level, some people ask themselves whether they are male, female, neither, some combination or another gender entirely.

I am a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland and I am transgender. I identify as genderfluid, meaning that sometimes I both present and self-identify as male, at other times as female or somewhere inbetween. In recent years I have become increasingly open regarding my gender diversity and increasingly aware of the problems encountered by trans and gender diverse (T&GD) people at all levels of academia. This awareness has been gained by personal interaction and experience with T&GD students and by being openly trans and interacting with other T&GD faculty on social media, particularly Twitter.

In this article I aim to provide an overview of the issues and obstacles that exist within academia for T&GD staff and students. I will illustrate these through using both the current literature and an autoethnographical discussion via the use of a specific Twitter thread in which I asked ~1950 followers the following question: "what do you find useful in me being open/out on twitter? What is the most useful thing you've learnt? Why is it important?" The advantage of doing this was to gain exterior views on what being openly trans has meant to others.

The vast majority of the population never give their gender a second thought. They are happy to align gender with the sex they were assigned at birth, referred to as being cisgender. Yet between 1.2 to 3.7% (Clark et al., 2014) of the population ask this question of themselves, sometimes multiple times every day. Their gender does not simply align with the sex they were assigned at birth or does not fit into the male and female gender binary. One way to visualize this is to consider the “Genderbread Person” created by Sam Killermann as shown in Figure 1. Gender identity and expression do not always directly link to that assigned by society based on sex at birth. Some T&GD people attempt to live as the gender that links to their sex. Many take steps to align their gender expression and sometimes their sex with their gender identity. This is commonly referred to as transitioning. It is important to understand that this does not have to include medical transitioning and does not have to include any surgical procedures.

Social expectations can feel to be savagely demanding of those who don’t fit them. In all cases, a person whose sex, gender identity and expression are not aligned are likely to face obstacles in their daily lives that most others do not experience. These include not being called by their preferred pronouns (e.g. he/she/they), not being able to use a public bathroom without harassment, inability to compete in sports or experiencing harassment while obtaining medical care and support. These can lead to an increased risk of suicide. Research shows that 20 to 50% of transgender and gender diverse people attempt suicide (Haas et al., 2014). Rates of self-harm are also high among this group (Clark et al., 2014; Miller & Grollman, 2015). However it is positive to note that those who are supported through successful transition have a greatly improved quality of life, similar to that of the general population (Gomez-Gil et al., 2012;Gorin-Lazard, 2012; Durwood, McLaughlin & Olson, 2017).

Over the past few years awareness of these problems has risen, owing to an increasing profile of T&GD people, with examples in the media of high profile celebrities “coming-out” and T&GD characters being included in TV serials such as Transparent, Sense8 and Shortland Street. Research into how to include T&GD students in academia has started to grow in step with the increasing public profile. Studies range from explaining and covering some of the simple steps (Spade, 2011) to more detailed studies of the obstacles T&GD students encounter in tertiary education (Valentine, Wood & Plummer, 2009; Powell, 2016). These provide some idea of changes we should make in academia to become more inclusive. Studies undertaken in New Zealand are relatively recent. Powell (2016) looked in detail about T&GD student experiences in New Zealand tertiary education.

The status of research about LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) people in higher education was recently summarized by Renn (2010). A key point she made was that  T&GD students are included by some researchers into LGBT without acknowledging the differences between T and LGB. As suggested by the “Genderbread Person”, sexual orientation is unrelated and very different to gender identity, which can be simply described as who you are attracted to and who you are, respectively.

The issue that affect T&GD students can be overlooked and lost within the LGBT banner with the assumption that all problems these groups experience are similar and that it is enough to “queer” the academy. An example is that, in the recent “queering the academy” special issue in Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), T&GD people were not discussed separately, ignoring much of the discussion from Renn (2010) about how important the distinction is. The major difference is that, while LGBT people primarily encounter social problems, T&GD people also find practical problems and discrimination that LGB people do not. Thus these groups should be considered separately.
The structure of this article is as follows. I first further clarify terms and facts concerning trans and gender diverse people. I then give an autoethnographical insight into what it is like to be T&GD in academia. After this I describe in depth the obstacles that limit the inclusion of T&GD students and staff, detail the best practice for academic institutions to deconstruct these obstacles and highlight the broader benefits to all in the academic community from these changes.

Mythbusting T&GD people
While the publicity of trans issues might make it appear that we’re being accepted in society – and increasingly, we are – there is still an extraordinary amount of harassment directed towards T&GD persons. Transphobia (less commonly known as transprejudice) is very real, and examples of it are everywhere (e.g. Human Rights Commision, 2008). Many transphobic actions are based on lack of knowledge or misunderstanding. It is thus vital to define and clarify the terms and facts concerning T&GD people.

It is important to understand that sex and gender are quite different. At birth, your sex is determined by a doctor looking at your body and categorising your biological reproductive ability as male, female or intersex. Somewhere between 0.1% and 1.7% of births don’t fit the typical male or female definition and are intersex. The natural variation in sexual development is an active area of research, and we’re really only beginning to understand how bodies develop differently (Ainsworth, 2015; Fausto-Sterling, 2015).

Separate to a person’s sex is that person’s gender. This is the social construct by which we categorise people as a “man” or a “woman”. In short, sex is about your body; gender is about how you present and how you wish to be seen. It is becoming clear that gender arises from both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ working together (Fausto-Sterling A., 2000 & 2012). Here it becomes useful to separate out gender identity and gender expression as in the “Genderbread Person” in Figure 1. Sex, gender identity and expression are separate and take on different values independently. Within each axis there is a huge variation of level allowed and these can vary with time. For most people their sex, gender identity and expression align, with man to male or woman to female, being cisgender. The opposite alignment of sex and gender is to be transgender.

For some people gender is more beyond the female/male binary. It is possible to be a mix of genders or be outside the binary genders. There are multiple other cultures (for example: Maori, Samoan, Tongan, North American, Mexican, Indian and older European cultures) where a third gender (or more) are recognised and celebrated; the idea of gender being more than just male or female has been around for millennia (Nanda, 1999). The fact that so many cultures have developed the idea of a third gender indicates that T&GD persons have been around for a very long time, even though T&GD people have at times been ignored, marginalised or victimised by the dominant culture. Today terms such agender, androgynous, gender diverse, genderqueer, gender nonconforming or non-binary have evolved. Finally for most T&GD people the gender identity is stable, if it is not some use the term genderfluid.

Figure 1 – The Genderbread person, retrived from

For T&GD people, being able to live in their gender identity and to access appropriate medical treatments if desired lead to vastly improved health outcomes and quality of life (Gomez-Gil et al., 2012; Gorin-Lazard, 2012; Durwood, McLaughlin & Olson, 2017). Therefore, it is inadvisable to force those who struggle with their assigned gender on a daily basis to just “accept it”. For some T&GD people, medical transition is very important. This may include surgery to align their body with their gender identity. A more common step is for trans people to take hormones, which significantly influence various sex characteristics in bodies. However many people transition only socially, where expression and identity are aligned through performance of gender.

An excellent resource for those who wish to learn more about T&GD people I recommend the book “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community” (Erickson-Schroth, 2014). That covers every aspect concerning T&GD people.

A personal story of being a trans academic

 Figure 2 - The various tweets in which I’ve came out on Twitter. Chronologically ordered from left to right.

Stories exist concerning trans academics but they tend to be as blogposts rather than refereed articles (e.g., McKinnon, 2014; Grollman, 2016; Eldridge, 2016; Mink, 2016; Cremin, 2017). Telling our stories can be problematic because individual T&GD people cannot be expected to speak for all T&GD people. We must consider carefully how to encompass the full range of T&GD people if we’re invited to tell our story (Rands, 2009).

While I came out to close friends during my student days, it was some years before I came out more publically as an academic. This was prompted in part by having joined Twitter four years ago. Twenty years ago I was isolated as a student but today the internet and social media makes it possible to contact and interact with other trans people, especially other trans academics and students. This made me realize that I was not alone. Twitter also gave me a chance to come to understand myself and develop strategies about how to be myself. It also led to an interesting way to come out myself to work colleagues without having to have awkward conversations as shown by my tweets in Figure 2.

After outing myself publicly through Twitter, it took some time before I began to present as a woman at University regularly. It is still a balance I’m working on but support from colleagues, my Head of Department and students has played a big part in my social transitioning. To date I have experienced little negativity that others in my situation have (Valentine et al., 2009). This may have something to do with the New Zealand setting with local culture including diverse genders. Or due to the huge privilege I already have as a popular and successful lecturer. This is because I came out only after having a permanent lectureship having benefitted from a large amount of cisgender male white privilege to reach this position.

I am uncertain whether I would have achieved my past success if I had come out earlier. It is likely that the more junior an academic is the more obstacles they would face in their career progression.  In general many T&GD faculty encounter problems in finding employment, receiving negative student evaluations and higher rates of discrimination and harassment than LGB faculty (Valentine et al., 2009; Dualitea, 2014; Hanna, 2016)

There is some debate on whether LGB teachers should out themselves or not. Generally there is known to be a danger that this will negatively affect an academic’s career (Russ, Simonds & Hunt, 2002). For T&GD academics this question is whether they should be the person they know they are or not. It is tricky as for more junior academics they put their future career at risk. Although I know from personal experience that, without carrying around a weight of secrecy, I free up more energy for research and teaching.
I am aware that being out I have raised awareness of T&GD people within academia. To understand what impact I have had I asked on Twitter for feedback from people about what they have learnt from my Twitter feed and what they think is most important. The link to the twitter thread is ( I was surprised about the number of comments, even from people I haven’t interacted with before who were male, female and T&GD. They also pointed out aspects that I hadn’t even begun to consider, especially indicating benefits to the broader community beyond T&GD people. The following quotation sums up the general tone of comments:

“Okay, several people have given similar responses to mine, but let me chime in. I learn a ton from your tweets because you are so honest about how being trans affects your life and your work. That  helps me understand better the gender-related biases and limitations that exist in our field and in society. Like how the question of what to wear for giving a talk takes on a whole new dimension of significance for you than it does for me. Or how traveling is an extra source of stress for you bc of concerns about how you present.  But beyond that, it's also really cool to get a sense for how you experience the world in a different way than I do.  It's clear that your non-binary identity enriches your research and teaching, and I think that's exciting! “
Jennifer L. Hoffman, @astroprofhoff

What I hadn’t thought about is the broader aspects of my “moving gender beyond the binary” for all genders in STEM. It is shown in this quotation:

“You being open in Twitter is important to me for several reasons: 1) giving exposure to trans people and the trans experience to help the community empathise with it and understand it better. Only by exposure to diversity can you reduce sexism and tackle gender roles 2) the main issue with sexism in STEM is not just aversion to women but aversion to femininity. Being very feminine I am scared I might be taken less seriously. You embrace your femininity and/or your masculinity in different ways everyday but you are still you and are still a scientist. Science is beyond gender, gender roles and gender expression. That is what you represent to me.”  
Héloïse Stevance, @sydonahi

It is important to note that not only women responded. Men also follow me and learn from my stories on Twitter. One respondent highlighted the practical issues that affect T&GD people. It is making people aware that many simple things become more difficult for T&GD people, just so that we can be who we are:

From my perspective, just being visible -- constant reminder that some awesome scientists are trans/genderfluid -- is already valuable. On top of that, as others have said, specific things you experience that others take for granted -- broadening our sense of the possible. Example in your timeline:  I hadn't thought seriously about how one might wake up experiencing a different gender than they did yesterday... And how that might affect talk invites, and business trips, and interviews, dude.  Realizing that could even be a thing plants a seed.  Long story short, thanks so much for sharing your experiences -- if you do write things we can pay/tip you for (unlike Nature) let us know!
Richard Scalzo,‏ @scalzonova

While I am aware of these broader benefits, the one I care about most strongly is that I’ve been a more visible role model for other T&GD students and staff. By being me as an academic, I enable T&GD students to “see” themselves in academia and have some sense of belonging. This is key as many elements of academia make them feel unwelcome and question whether they should be studying at all. Also I hope I can break down some of the barriers that may stand in the way of T&GD students who aim to progress through the academic hierarchy. By being a successful trans faculty I will hopefully reduce any academics’ unconscious bias against T&GD people. These following three quotations from T&GD students show this quite eloquently:

“As for why it's important: role models! Knowing that there are successful academics out there who are trans & that I can be successful too in astronomy w/o hiding my identity ?️‍?”
A Zovaro, @photonhandler

“helps me feel like i DO belong in STEM even with all the binary talk, and even beyond sci that i'm no less valid than a binary person  i have even, in a particularly stinging instance of being deadnamed/misgendered, perused your tweets to help myself overcome the involuntary queasiness of it. in a phrase, makes me feel represented and less isolated which is super important  i haven't thanked you properly. so thank you for existing and putting yourself out there. it means a lot to me and, i'm sure, others.”
Lemon Beckham, @ecolemonology

“as a trans person who is out to basically everyone at school, it's important to see that there are other people like me and also understanding how your experience differs from cis people's, whose perspective is the only one we tend to see”
Kate Mraz, @frostykate

Being active on Twitter can be considered as part of my workload beyond teaching and research. It is one problem with there being so few T&GD faculty that we may be expected to take on a large amount of extra mentoring and service. For example T&GD students come to talk to me for support and advice. Also colleagues see me as a resource to explain best practice when working with T&GD people.

This began in 2014 when I discovered the students had set up an informal support group named Trans on Campus. After joining I used my academic privilege by amplifying their voices to help them gain normalization within the University. Such a role goes largely unaccounted for in formal time allocation processes despite the significant extra load on my time and the hidden emotional and mental load of having to think and explain these issues. It reduces the time and energy I have for teaching and research. This negates some of the gains from being out. However I know the work has been worthwhile and rewarding. It seemed upon first joining Trans on Campus, every few weeks there was an issue to work to drive change at the University of Auckland. However the intensive work has been done and serious problems to resolve occur less frequently. Based on my experience gained in the last three years and combining it with the current literature, I am able to outline the main obstacles for T&GD students and suggest how to remove them.

Obstacles, solutions and benefits for all for T&GD people in academia
The obstacles for a T&GD person in society are constant discrimination and harassment (Human Rights Commission, 2008). While many people are accepting of T&GD people, a few are actively hostile and many may be unconsciously biased. Inside universities and tertiary education environments there is possibly less discrimination and harassment but they still exist. There are also obstacles unique to the tertiary environment (Valentine, Wood & Plummer, 2009; Powell, 2016). Typically they concern changing personal details on institutional records or being asked not to use toilets or changing facilities. The severity of problems depend on a T&GD person’s stage of transition. A person who transitions before University will meet fewer issues. More significant problems are encountered by T&GD people who find that the university environment is the first time they can begin to explore their gender identity away from strong parental influence.
While studies have been undertaken around the world on the experiences of LGB and T&GD people in academia (e.g. Valentine et al., 2009) the local culture of a country can change the nature of the experiences of minority groups (e.g. Suen, 2015). It is interesting then to explore how the experience of T&GD students in NZ is different to those from the UK interviewed by Valentine et al., (2008).

The first detailed NZ study was performed by Powell (2016) who undertook a pioneering investigation into the experience of T&GD students in tertiary education in New Zealand. The work revealed that discrimination was not, except for one out of seven students interviewed, overt or intended but pervasive in minor events that led to repeated microaggressions. Examples include, every time a class list is handed around or a roll is called the student might be outed or challenged with the “oh but that was a male name”. Perhaps the worst case is when the student needs to visit the toilet. Most people don’t have to stand in front of two doors and decide whether they should go in one and run the risk of being verbally abused or the other where they might get physically abused. Even if they opt for the all gender accessible toilets they might be challenged with a “why are you going in there?”. This leads to the students experiencing a state of hypervigilance, always being on guard and having to plan out their day, for example how to avoid certain groups of people or to use a bathroom at a quiet time of day. It is a significant extra mental load in comparison to cisgender students.

In addition to the challenges from interacting with other members of academia, there is also discrimination at an institutional level. Administrative processes and course curriculums typically assume only binary gender. This can range from only discussion of only men and women in gender studies courses, or courses that include ‘gender’ in the title, e.g. history, literature or art history courses. But this can extend to gender options on forms and surveys for administrative purposes or gender segregation of student groups, societies and sports teams. Or in the planning and design of new buildings, including only male or female toilets and changing rooms when including all gender facilities would be easiest at this point. In the wider world T&GD encounter many of the same problems but many businesses are becoming more inclusive and Universities are in some ways being left behind (e.g. Weiss, 2007).

In the past, students and staff members had to develop their own personal strategies to overcome these issues. The most important is getting in contact with one another and sharing their knowledge and strategies about how to cope or get around these issues. Also my experience, having discussed this with colleagues and T&GD students themselves, endorses Powell (2016), who found how significant personal interactions were to the comfort or discomfort of T&GD students. A well-educated, understanding and proactive person can make an enormous impact on making T&GD students feel welcome. Making them feel welcome in a class is as easy as remembering their name and taking care with pronouns without requiring them to explain themselves (see Spade, 2011 for a list of simple steps). If universities and tertiary education establishments undertake some simple steps to normalize inclusion of T&GD students, they can achieve what a few individuals already have across their institution and improve the experience and achievements of these student.

Powell (2016) made recommendations of how universities can achieve this (here we have changed inclusion to normalisation as discussed in a recent presentation):
  1. Tertiary education providers should recognise the impact of binary gender norms on T&GD people.
  2. Providers should begin education programmes for staff that support the active creation of environments that normalise T&GD people.
  3. Providers should investigate policies, processes and curricula where T&GD people require inclusion.
  4. Establishment of research scholarships to support increased research within the community and to create events where findings relating to T&GD studies can be shared.

Upon considering these recommendations and using my own experience from dealing with T&GD people in academia, there are three broad themes to tackle these issues: identity, environment and culture.

The major issue in identity concerns how a person interacts with the administration of an institution. For example, can a person identify as a gender other than male or female within the University computer systems or when filling out applications and surveys? Can they change it by specifying a gender not currently considered? Recently NZ Statistics have undertaken a significant review to determine how best to include options beyond the gender binary. Other studies have been performed to determine best practice to include transgender people in such surveys (Statistics NZ, 2014; Staples et al., 2017).

How easy is it for a student to change their name? Can they get their degree certificates reprinted with a new name due a gender change? These questions each highlight very simple change that can be made. Their simplicity can make them seem unimportant but they are vital in acknowledging that a student has the right to say who they are and for an institution to recognize them. They also ensure a student’s safety as all these simple steps remove the accidental outing of a student which may place them at risk.

Specific examples at the University of Auckland include a grant that was set up for T&GD students to be able to change their name legally to avoid problems with being outed by use of the legal name that does not match their gender. Unitec has also created a similar grant for T&GD students to aid their transition. These are positive and simple action. For people who transition after graduating the University of Auckland will reprint their degree certificates without charge. Students can also now change their unique ID used to access the University IT system.

This achievement is one example where a gain for T&GD students has broader consequences. In working and debating with University IT services on how and why people can change their unique IDs, the process is clarified for all. Thus others at the University also clearly know if, when and how this identifier can be changed. For example if the ID contains offensive words or needs to be changed for the safety of an individual. Clarifying how to change the unique ID and the processes of when this can be done makes it easier for all.

Environment concerns the buildings and physical infrastructure of an institution. For T&GD people these cover four physical needs: toilets, changing rooms, a safe space where LGBT students can meet and work in peace and access to healthcare. These issues in essence boil down to ensuring T&GD student safety. All the evidence points towards the fact that discrimination and harassment commonly occur in toilets against T&GD persons (Powell 2016, Spade, 2011;  Valentine et al. 2009). This makes the simple act of using the toilet a major event that requires planning or a good deal of travelling to find a safe toilet. This places unnecessary strain on T&GD persons. I myself have stopped using a gendered toilets when I can and felt reluctance using gendered toilet when there is no other option.

A tertiary institution should tackle this problem from two directions. First to change culture so it is clear that everyone can use the toilet or changing room that matches their gender identity without harassment. Second to endeavour to create all gender toilets and changing rooms available on many locations on campus so students do not have to go on a long journey to find one. There is some debate as to whether it is the best practice to use accessible toilets for this. In fact the best solution is for all toilets to be for all genders. This also have benefits for others in the University environment, for example for students with carers or who are carers of someone with a different gender to themselves. Improving toilet access has been difficult at the University of Auckland although there are now more all gender toilets near to large lecture theatres. Auckland University of Technology has led the way here with 165 toilets now assigned as all gender.

One physical resource that is more difficult to supply is a safe space for T&GD students to study. Setting up on campus’ a “Queer Space” for all LGBTI students can have a positive impact on the academic achievement of students, providing a place for them to be themselves and study in peace. At the University of Auckland a Queer Space was setup in 2013 (Joule, 2015).

The final issue around environmental concerns is the access to medical care and counselling at University health services. T&GD people rely on these services for support of their transition as well as general health care. Some health services can be fantastic while others refuse care of T&GD people (Human Rights Commission, 2008; Giffort & Underman, 2016). This is true in the society and within academia. Steps can be taken within universities to make sure that services are compliant with policy on inclusion. This solution is to raise awareness of T&GD people to all staff members, not just doctors, on how to interact with T&GD students. This links into our next topic of changing the culture of the institution.

The culture concerns the attitude of the institution and specifically the people within it. This is the most difficult to change as it involves getting everyone, staff and students, to treat T&GD people with respect despite their backgrounds, beliefs and points of view. This can be achieved by getting everyone working together as shown by Case et al. (2012), where staff and students worked together to include transgender students in University Nondiscrimination statements.

Changing the culture involves making people aware of the above issues in identity and environment for T&GD people. For example, with the class roll try to make sure that a list of names isn’t passed around or called out. Try not to create situations that might out people. Try not to use sexist or misogynistic binary gender examples, or treat T&GD persons as examples where they are portrayed as something that could be ridiculed. Schools are already taking steps to educate students and the benefits of such education appear clear (Burford et al., 2013; InsideOUT, 2016).

Don’t wait for students to ask for options beyond the gender binary. If something is setup for a gender binary someone should always say, “but gender isn’t binary, what’s the best thing to do?”. One good example is sometimes teams have gender quotas, rather than saying “must have so many male or female”, perhaps say no group can be dominated by “more than 60% of one gender”. The advantage here is that it works in both a male, female or diverse gender dominated group.

While a general education in diversity is useful, a specific introduction to T&GD issues is important. A way to achieve this is to use the fact that universities are there to educate. A key step is to change the way gender is taught within courses, modifying the teaching and curriculum to teach gender as a more complex issue. This is difficult but much research has been done into how to achieve this (Rands, 2009; Malatino, 2015). The primary role of universities is to teach. If they teach gender as we understand it today that understanding will ripple out into society. It must also extend into research processes and methods. For example the University of Auckland ethics panel has now started to request this to be included for any such surveys they are asked to endorse. This is a simple way to bring awareness of T&GD people into the minds of many within the University.

Other steps that have been taken at the University of Auckland is to set up a LGBTI staff & student network to begin some activism for positive change within the University. In addition the Trans on Campus group was setup, initially by students, for T&GD people at the University. This has been a positive group that has achieved significant changes to the University policies and procedures. The group also created education documents that are included on the University website as well as gave some training sessions. AUT has recently set up a similar group for their own students. Our most recent work concerns the inclusion of T&GD people in university sports teams, this involves working with other Universities. The current inclusion policy in place for inter-University sport (UTSNZ, 2017) is problematic and does presents obstacles to inclusion of T&GD students in sport.

The benefits of this work for the broader academic community are many. Raising the discussion of equity and inclusion within an institution can only be positive, especially if people just start to think about the experiences of others. Also challenging all aspects of the gender binary of male and female in expression, identity and roles can lead to greater thought and consideration of gender equity. For example as pointed out by comments to my Twitter question, my own exploration of my masculinity and femininity encourage other people to express themselves as they want to. There is sometimes in STEM subjects a pervasive atmosphere that women should perform like men to succeed. By to some degree exploring and expressing my own femininity I normalize in some way that you can be feminine and be successful in a STEM subject and more broadly in academia.

There are many other aspects to equity and inclusion that are outstanding in academia beyond gender such as race, ethnicity, disability and socioeconomic status and these issues can all intersect (e.g. Traxler et al., 2016; Prescod-Weinstein, 2017). These aspects also intersect strongly. Raising awareness that academia is unequal, even for one group, is important because by bringing these issues out into the open and driving education and discussion the result can only be positive. When asking questions about gender and seeing the problems with the binary system, it leads to a broader understanding and acceptance for all.

Looking forward
In this article we have argued that tertiary education institutions need to change to normalise T&GD people, including how they deal with the identity of members of academia, how the environment is shaped and culture of the institution. The required changes at the core involve seeing gender as more complex than the antiquated pervasive binary. It is also important to note that changes will also have a broader benefit to all members of academia, not just those requiring them to ensure their safety and ability to succeed in academia.

I thank my supervisors Susan Carter and Alistair Kwan for continuous support, advice and encouragement to take my work as far as possible. Fellow Trans on Campus members for continuing support and education. Trudie McNaughton and Terry O’Neill for help dealing with T&GD issues at the University of Auckland. Elizabeth Stanway, Nicholas Rattenbury and Dr Wife for constructive comments and proofreading.

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