Woman Scientist of the Month: Jocelyn Bell Burnell (02/2019)

In regular intervals, EPWS interviews a distinguished woman scientist in 10 questions.

In this section, we are interviewing European women of various ages and disciplines, recognized by the scientific community for their achievements, who are also concerned by the gender-equality goals of EPWS. They are true role models and a source of inspiration for the future for other women scientists.

Read all the Interviews here

This month EPWS is proud to give the floor to Prof. Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Professor Bell Burnell is an outstanding British astrophysicist.

Professor Bell Burnell is an outstanding British astrophysicist. She was awarded the “Special Breakthrough Prize In Fundamental Physics” in September 2018 for her discovery of pulsars. She gave the whole of the £2.3m prize money to help women, ethnic minority, and refugee students become physics researchers.


Oxford University website: www.ox.ac.uk


EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature etc.)?

When I entered secondary school (age 12) my parents promised me I’d get to do science. So I was disappointed that, without discussion, the boys went to science class but the girls were sent to cookery and needlework! My parents told the school I had to do science, and indeed ultimately there were three girls as well as all the boys in my science class. We did physics in the first term and I came top of the class; next term was chemistry which was OK and the third term we did biology which I found boring. I continued to be good at physics (and maths) throughout my school career and since it looked as if I would do a physics degree I began to think what kind of physics I would do ultimately. My father brought home some astronomy books from the public library and I read those and decided I would be an astronomer. Then I realized that doing astronomy involved working all night, and I knew that I needed my sleep so could not do that. Ultimately I heard about radio astronomy (which is done day and night) and decided that would be my aim. So I left school knowing I wanted to be a radio astronomer.


EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?

I am now age 75, (supposed to be) retired, and no longer research active. However through being a Visiting Professor in Oxford I keep up (I believe) with developments in the field of pulsars and of transients. Since I do a lot of public outreach lectures and afterwards can get questions on any branch of astrophysics, I have to broadly keep up with the whole field.


EPWS: What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of?

The discovery of the first four pulsars.


Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?

Later I worked in X-ray astronomy and, on behalf of my lab, was in charge of the observing programme and the data from the Ariel V satellite. It was a hugely successful satellite, with many new discoveries (many of which came in on a Friday afternoon, I recall!).


EPWS: In which country/countries have you been doing research?

The UK, with a short period in Princeton, USA.


EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?

To survive the tidal wave of emails, requests and invitations that have come in the wake of the Breakthrough Prize.


EPWS: Did you meet barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?

No mentors, no mentoring.

Yes, many, many barriers, obstructions, steep hills! Starting with heckling as the lone female in the undergraduate physics class, through to issues with organisations which hadn’t considered married women or mothers in setting up their structures, to those which considered the male career the norm and couldn’t envisage any other career pattern.


EPWS: What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects? What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?

Women are seriously underrepresented in my field. I am too old to have experienced gender equality policies, but I did help create some, through founding the Athena SWAN programme with a few other senior women in science. This is now a big programme in the UK, has extended beyond the Sciences to Arts, Humanities etc. and been exported to Ireland, Australia and Canada.


EPWS: Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?

I created networking opportunities for other (often younger) women scientists.


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