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Elena Maria Rossi continues her search for the origins of the largest black holes, but now as a professor

Elena Maria Rossi is fascinated by black holes. Her appointment as a professor was a long-held wish, partly because there are so few female professors in her field. ‘My appointment is also a milestone for the Leiden Observatory.’

For Elena Maria Rossi, a long-held wish came true when she was appointed professor of theoretical astrophysics in September. 'I wanted to become a professor for a long time and I am delighted that my efforts are being rewarded,' she says. Rossi says recognition for her academic achievements is important. The gender imbalance in her field also motivated her. ‘When I was hired in 2011, I was one of the only two female academic staff members in the department and I was the first one to give birth. Now I am the first woman who has been appointed full professor  going through the whole system in this department: from assistant, to associate to full professor. I see my appointment also as a milestone for the Leiden Observatory.’

Fascination for black holes of unknown origin

Rossi previously worked at Colorado University in Boulder, USA and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. Her fascination lies far beyond Earth. 'I want to understand the cosmic life cycle of black holes. Especially the most massive ones that are still of unknown origin. How, when and where in the history of the Universe do they form? How do their mass and rotation rates change during their cosmic life through interactions with surrounding gas and stars?'

To answer these questions, Rossi develops theoretical and computer models. 'With these, we aim to make the best use of data from current and future advanced observing facilities. This involves data on both electromagnetic and gravitational waves emitted by black holes interacting with their surroundings. I am actively involved in the development of the first mission that will detect gravitational waves from space: the ESA mission LISA.’

Passion for travelling

Rossi feels very fortunate that her work has enabled her to follow  her passions for both astronomy and travelling. ‘Living in three different continents has broadened my view of human nature. And I feel it has made me a better teacher, supervisor and colleague because I can understand and adapt to cultural differences and the differences in views they bring along. For example, South European students feel more comfortable learning the theoretical framework first, while Dutch and Anglo-saxon students prefer “learning by doing”. I can effectively supervise student project in both ways.’

Stargazing in the Italian Alps

Rossi lives with her two daughters in Leiden. Are her daughters also passionate about astronomy? ‘My daughters are proud of me, but not particularly interested in astronomy at the moment. I also wasn’t at their age. My passion started much later at university, when a group of friends took me to a stargazing evening in the Italian Alps. There I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.’

Text: Rianne Lindhout

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