British astrophysicist Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell – who is credited with one of the most significant astronomical discoveries of the 20th century – recently opened a new science block at St Margaret’s School for Girls in Aberdeen.
Professor Dame Jocelyn, who is currently visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University and President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was a postgraduate student at Cambridge University in the late 1960s when she discovered the first radio pulsars.
She addressed pupils and staff at a special assembly in the school before taking part in a question and answer session with senior pupils in the new science laboratories, which were completed last year as part of the largest estate development St Margaret’s has undertaken in almost 20 years.
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Dame Jocelyn DBE FRS FRSE FRAS graduated from the University of Glasgow with a BSc in Natural Philosophy in 1965, and went on to complete her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 1969. It was during her postgraduate studies, using a radio telescope designed by her advisor Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle – both of whom later shared a Nobel prize for their work – that Dame Jocelyn found strange radio pulses coming from a single point in the sky.
After a period of confusion about what was causing the pulses, she and her colleagues confirmed that pulsars, as the pulses came to be known, are emitted by rapidly spinning neutron stars that emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation.
Dame Jocelyn has had a long and illustrious career, during which she continued to break new ground for women and she has campaigned to improve the status and number of women in professional and academic posts in the fields of physics and astronomy.
She also served as President of the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as the Institute of Physics, and was awarded a CBE in 1999, which was elevated to a DBE in 2007.
Anna Tomlinson, Head of St Margaret’s, said: “Dame Jocelyn has had a long and distinguished career, and she is an inspirational role model for girls and women everywhere. We are very excited to be welcoming her to St Margaret’s.
“Encouraging girls to pursue the STEM subjects can be a challenge, particularly as science subjects and science-related jobs are still very much viewed as being male-dominated. However, we continually nurture the individual talents of our girls in an environment which is free from stereotype and rich with challenge and support. Our success in this area is very much reflected in the high number who go on to pursue STEM subjects at university.