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Trailblazing astrophysicist and champion of women in science to deliver public lecture in Leicester

Two science superstars will converge at the University of Leicester for a special public lecture, next month.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who made one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the 20th century, has been invited to deliver a keynote public lecture by University Chancellor, and fellow scientist, Dame Maggie Aderin-Pocock.

Leicester Time: Trailblazing astrophysicist and champion of women in science to deliver public lecture in Leicester
Picture: University of Leicester

In 1967, Dame Jocelyn discovered a new type of star called a pulsar, but it was her male PhD supervisor who was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1974.

As well as inspiring a new generation of female scientists, Dame Jocelyn has worked hard pushing boundaries to make science a more diverse and inclusive industry.

The astrophysicist was, therefore, the perfect choice for the second edition of Dame Maggie’s Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series, which takes place on campus, on Tuesday 14 May.

“Her incredible career, plus her tireless championing of women in science, means Dame Jocelyn is the one person I was desperate to bring to Leicester for my lecture series,” said Dame Maggie.

“She has paved the way for women, including myself, to make their voices heard in what is still often seen as a male-dominated area. 

“But, things have been changing for the better, and that shift in attitude and the opening up of opportunities can be directly traced to Dame Maggie’s campaigning for diversity in science. The term role model, has never been more fitting.”

Dame Jocelyn’s public lecture, which is free to attend, will see her review the changes there have been in the last 50 years for women in science, especially in the UK, and reflect on how they have come about.

Dame Jocelyn has been awarded many prizes and honours during her long career as an astrophysicist, including being made a Dame of the British Empire, a Professor at the University of Oxford, and President of the Institute of Physics. She was also awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Leicester in 2009. But in her journey to the highest levels of physics achievement she has faced many challenges as a woman.

As a 1950s Northern Irish schoolgirl, Dame Jocelyn was subject to a ban on girls studying science, and had to attend cookery class, instead.

At university in Glasgow, she was the sole woman in her class of 50 undergraduates. It was there that Dame Jocelyn experienced the humiliation many females suffered when entering a lecture theatre, with men jeering and banging their desks.  

Studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge in the 1960s, where she discovered pulsars, Dame Jocelyn was one of very few women in the physics department.

“I had impostor syndrome,” she told the Institute for Physics. “I felt I didn’t really deserve to be there, so I worked very hard and very thoroughly, and spotted the pulsars even though they were not part of the research programme I was working on. I saw the signals produced by the pulsars, and they did not fit any current explanation we had, so needed attention.”

The discovery won the Nobel Prize in Physics – but the award went to Dame Jocelyn’s male supervisor. Later awarded a £2.3m US Breakthrough Prize, she used the money to set up the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund. She is convinced bringing people from a wider range of backgrounds into physics will improve research.

She said: “Diversity adds to the creativity of a team, it brings an extra openness, and scientific breakthroughs are about taking data and when you come across something new, examining it open-mindedly. People from non-traditional backgrounds will not necessarily make the traditional assumptions, and that’s how you get breakthroughs. That’s what I did: I saw the data and realised it did not fit and needed attention – it was an anomaly that did not fit, and so was I.”

Tickets for the lecture, which runs from 5.30pm to 8pm on Tuesday 14 May, can be reserved via the event website.