Cambridge astrophysicist overlooked for Nobel prize inspiring new generation of female scientists

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Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking all studied at the University of Cambridge and all made remarkable contributions to science. The same is true of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell but as a woman she has had to fight for the respect and recognition she deserves.

In 1967 Dame Jocelyn discovered a new type of star called a pulsar, one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the 20th century, but it was her male PhD supervisor who was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1974.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell Credit: Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

My parents had to fight to allow me into the science class which was for boys only...  I reckon that one of the reasons that I made that discovery early on was because I was in a minority and I was working very, very hard to justify my position.... so it was because of my diversity that the discovery got made.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Jocelyn is a trailblazing promoter for women in science, in 2018 she won the £2.3m Breakthrough Prize and gave the money to the Institute of Physics to encourage greater diversity.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell winning the 2018 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics Credit: Breakthrough Prize

She is set to inspire a new generation of female scientists with a free public lecture called ‘We are made of Star Stuff’ hosted by the University of Bedfordshire. 

She's like a role model for all of us because she's gone through so much in her life and look at what she's achieved... there are setbacks, you might feel mentally as if - do I have the potential that others are naturally being given? - but as long as you're staying true to yourself and knowing that this is what I love, this is what I want to pursue you'll get into it.

Rumana Hussain, biomedical science graduate, University of Bedfordshire.

The pandemic has pushed science to the fore with the race to develop a vaccine and women have played a pivotal role but females still make up less than a quarter of the UK's core-STEM workforce and only 17 percent of technology roles.

Most of the Asian parents think, OK go do medicine, but when I did the research I found the background work is always done by scientists like we can see in the Covid situation... Oxford vaccine by Sarah Gilbert... I want to go and I want to do research so I can have a name hopefully in the future.

Zahra Tanweer, biochemistry student, University of Bedfordshire.
Zahra Tanweer, biochemistry student at the University of Bedfordshire Credit: ITV News Anglia

The best ideas from the brightest minds from all backgrounds will be needed for the post-Covid recovery, that means greater diversity in science, technology, engineering and maths. 

It's a superb area to work in, I'd say especially astronomy but I might be prejudiced in that respect but I've found working in science huge fun, absolutely fascinating, lots of interesting developments...  there is a huge amount going to happen in the near future so come and join in please.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The free public lecture 'An evening With... Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell' takes place on Wednesday 24 March at 4pm. If you would like to register for the University of Bedfordshire event click here.