Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell smiling at the camera.

My greatest desire is not to be the only woman on a committee or a slate of speakers as so often happens just now. I know this won’t go on forever, so I’m making the most of it while I can!

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Growing up in Northern Ireland, my parents promised me I could study science when I went to secondary school. When I came home in the first week to tell them that I had been sent to cookery class because I was a girl and only boys were allowed to study science, they hit the roof and called the school. In the next lesson, three girls joined the science class and that term I came top of the class.

I went on to study Physics at Glasgow University where I was the only woman alongside 49 men in the honours year. Although I am now well retired, I have a visiting position at Oxford University and keep
in touch with the major developments in those parts of astrophysics that particularly interest me. I do lots of public outreach astronomy talks, speaking to all sorts of bodies – schools, college students, university departments, professional bodies and astronomical societies. I enjoy it and am flattered to be asked! I like meeting people and explaining science to both the interested and the terrified. I particularly welcome the opportunity to visit other countries and speak there.

I’m involved with a lot of committee work for my professional bodies and write references, judge applications and recommend funding. I hope my visibility demonstrates that women can be good scientists – particularly the physical sciences – and effective members of the scientific community. I also hope my presence reminds those who judge applications that unconscious bias can skew their judgement, and to take the trouble to be fair.

Jocelyn co-discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967 whilst at the University of Cambridge and was credited with “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century”. The discovery was recognised by the award of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics. Despite the fact that she was the first to observe the pulsars, this was not recognised by her male colleagues and she was not one of the recipients of the prize. Jocelyn was the first woman to be President of the RSE from 2014 to 2018. In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. She donated the whole of the £2.3 million prize money to help fund research by women in physics, those in ethnic minorities and refugee students who do not have the same privileges that many who wish to prosper in physics hold. 

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