Inspiring West Virginian is Inspired by Cosmos and Science Professor

Dec 20, 2016

One of the fastest growing fields in astrophysics is gravitational waves – what scientists call ripples in the fabric of space-time, first predicted by Albert Einstein in 1915. 

A hundred years later, in September 2015, they were actually detected by ultra-sensitive lasers.

But others are searching for gravitational waves with pulsars - the dead relics of massive stars. Astronomers detect pulsars by the radio pulses they emit at regular intervals.

Justin Ellis of Jefferson County is an Einstein Fellow in search of gravitational waves.
Credit Jean Snedegar

Enter Justin Ellis, just 30 years old, from a rural area outside of Charles Town in Jefferson County, WV.

“I work on gravitational waves and pulsar timing,” said Ellis at his lab. “Gravitational waves are a major prediction of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and many other theories of relativity other than Einstein.”

Ellis is one of only a small group of scientists worldwide looking for gravitational waves using pulsars. Once detected, gravitational waves will lead to a revolution in astrophysics and astronomy – rather than looking at the universe, scientists will also be listening to it. 

As an Einstein Fellow, Ellis is working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The 3-year post-doctoral fellowship is among the world’s most prestigious fellowships in astrophysics. He also has an appointment at the California Institute of Technology. 

“He’s smart, he’s tenacious when he gets a problem, he’s happiest when he’s doing academic detective work,” said astrophysicist and colleague, Stephen Taylor.

“When a new problem or a new interesting topic arises, he really goes at it with gusto,” said Taylor. “He likes to get to the bottom of things, and he’s an incredibly smart guy.” 

The millennial is an unlikely science star.  Until Ellis went to college, his main interest in life was racing dirt bikes, which he did a lot - and won numerous Motocross competitions.

Then while attending Shepherd University Ellis was inspired by science professor Dr. Jason Best, who has since watched his former student’s amazing career, the potential impact of which he doesn’t underestimate.

“I hope that Justin will continue to not only find joy in studying the universe, but will be able to bring to others that joy of the universe, that respect for our cosmos, and to keep helping others find the deeper understandings, the deeper meanings that he has been able to find,” said Best. 

Ellis is one of 3 national leaders profiled in West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inspiring West Virginians program airing Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 8pm, with encore broadcasts Dec. 30 and Jan. 2 at 1pm.