Once a physicist: Eline van der Velden

Taken from the July 2018 issue of Physics World

Eline van der Velden is the two-time award-winning actor, writer and director of the new BBC Three series Miss Holland and founder of Particle6 Productions

Eline van der VeldenWhat sparked your initial interest in physics?

I’ve always been interested in nature and why things are the way they are. My mother told me that I used to perform experiments as a child, endlessly letting a toy car come down a ramp and studying it as it crashed over and over again, never tiring of seeing the effect of gravity, for hours on end. I attended a performing arts school, ArtsEd Tring, during my A-levels, and decided to pursue physics and maths A-level alongside the musical-theatre course. Fortunately, our maths and physics teachers were both female, and very inspiring, so it never crossed my mind that they may not be “cool” or “girly” subjects to study. I thought it was completely normal until I counted the number of girls in the lecture theatre at university in first year.

You did a Master’s degree in physics at Imperial College – what was it that you studied specifically?

I always thought it was important to contribute something to the world. Considering energy is currently finite, I hoped to help in the field of nuclear fusion. I did the MSci course at Imperial, which includes a year in Europe – my project was on the statistical properties of ion flows in a toroidal plasma and I spent my third year at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Matlab and I had a serious love/hate relationship.

Did you ever consider a permanent academic career in physics?

I did, but I also had a strong desire to fulfill my performing and writing ambitions as well. After graduating I went on to act professionally while supporting myself financially by tutoring in maths and physics, an ideal combination really. Alongside acting in a few TV series, I made a lot of silly comedy videos online, but after a good decade of acting and comedy, I’m being pulled back towards scientific content. There is still part of me that misses the academic side of things. The perfect balance for me is writing and creating content that includes science.

How did your interest in comedy and acting emerge?

From a young age I was writing and performing my own plays, and singing and dancing for my parents’ friends at every opportunity. Not much has changed there. I like to do both my straight comedy, like the BBC Three iPlayer series Miss Holland, as well as my online comedy-with-science series Putting It Out There. With both comedy and science, you’re always trying to educate people. And in the end education is everything. It’s the best thing to empower people. The production company I started, Particle6 Productions, aims to educate and entertain with every video.

What was it like moving from academia to writing, directing and producing TV shows?

I was living in Los Angeles when I first started writing, directing and producing. I did a lot of improv at the UCB theatre, which really helped develop my writing and creativity for making great content. However, when I moved back to the UK, it took a long time to get started. I had no contacts or friends in the TV industry, and everything is about who you know. Very few people from Imperial end up working in the media, so my alumni network didn’t help much. Over the years you make your connections and people start to know your work, but until then it’s all about knocking down doors. It’s amazing to see Alex Mahon at the helm of Channel4 right now. It’s always great to see a physicist in a position like that in media.

What projects and shows are you working on now, both as a producer and as an actor?

I always have at least 10 projects on the go. Very few come off each year. Miss Holland took five years before it got commissioned. It’s always good to keep some projects in your back pocket for when the time is right. I’m currently working more in the science–comedy space again, and hope to make some very cool science series in the coming years, both scripted and non-scripted. My passion for science hasn’t gone away, I’m just pursuing it in a different medium.

How has your physics background been helpful in your work, if at all?

I am continuously underestimated by people, and the physics degree is like a golden ticket. Once people know I studied physics it’s like they see me as a completely different person. This is why I often encourage women to study science. I get taken seriously. It also gives me permission to make content about science, which I love.

Any advice for today’s students?

I’ve only recently delved into the philosophy of science. I wish I had done that earlier. Getting a physics degree was the best decision I ever made, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.