Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a physicist from Northern Ireland. In 1967 she co-discovered the first radio pulsars. This work won the Nobel prize for physics in 1974. Despite the fact she was the first to observe the phenomena she wasn't among the recipients.

In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Following the announcement of the award, she decided to give the whole of the £2.3 million prize money to help female, minority, and refugee students seeking to become physics researchers, the funds to be administered by the Institute of Physics.

The resulting bursary scheme is to be known as the "Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund".

Hi, could you introduce yourself?

Greetings!  I am Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astronomer (or 'astrophysicist' if I want to be more scary, based in the UK.

How did you get into your current field?

I knew before I left high school that I wanted to be an astronomer, specifically a radio astronomer.  This was then a new branch of astrophysics; observation of the universe with radio waves was just opening up, and you could do it the daytime as well as at night!

Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967
Jocelyn Bell Burnell in 1967 photo credit -Roger W Haworth / CC BY-SA 

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How to deal with setbacks?

Above all - keep trying.  Be flexible. As a married woman whose husband's job moves took us from one end of the country to the other, I started my academic life in radio astronomy, then had to switch to gamma ray astronomy, then X-ray, then infra-red and subsequently millimetre-wave astronomy. Be 100% committed to whatever you are doing, always do quality work.

Did you have a mentor or role model growing up?

A mentor or role model?  You're joking! I was the only female in a class of 50 senior physics undergraduates; when I became a full professor of physics I doubled the number of female full professors of physics in the UK; I was the first female President of the UK and Ireland's Institute of Physics, the first female President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (Scotland's National Academy) ...etc..etc.

How can we encourage more women and girls to get into STEM?

In academic circles the Athena-SWAN project (that I helped create) has made a huge difference - most especially since research-funders have required universities and their departments to hold an Athena-SWAN award as a condition of receiving research funding.  Something similar is already happening in Canada and Australia and in the USA it is coming in (where it is called SEAchange and will include other dimensions such as ethnicity as well as gender).  Better understanding of unconscious bias is also important - double-blind assessments seem to help more women win resources.

Jocelyn bell-burnell lecturing
"jocelyn-bell-burnell-lecture-1"by afternoon_sunlight is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What role do women have to play in the future of physics?

Diversity often aids academic work - it introduces a variety of viewpoints, a variety of experience, and a variety of of ways of approaching a question. It's creative! So women and other 'minorities' all have an important role to play.

You’ve been asked many times about the Nobel prize.

Are you sick of talking about it or do you think there are lessons to be learned from your experience?

Life is not always fair. How you handle such situations is what matters.


What are you goals for the future?

My immediate goal/wish is to get back to work! (This is written during the Corona virus 'lock-down'.) As a person in her 70's I risk being 'kept safe' when I have been operating like someone ten years younger, and don't wish to be 'retired'!

Main image credit:"File:Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.jpg"by Silicon Republic. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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