Jocelyn Bell Burnell delivering a keynote speech at the Women in STEM festivalMurray Edwards College with permission for Varsity

When someone mentions Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the first thing most people think of is her contribution to astrophysics – she was part of the otherwise all-male team who here, in Cambridge, discovered slight variations in her data, which were later named “pulsars” (the colloquial term for pulsating radio stars). Bell Burnell explains: “When I think of what pulsars mean to me, it’s kind of the whole experience of being a female grad student in Physics in Cambridge.” She tells me that despite “being a very small minority” the New Hall College (now Murray Edwards) postgraduate community pulled together and supported one another.

When Bell Burnell came to Cambridge following her undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow, it was one of only two places in the UK that offered the Astrophysics course she embarked on. “I’d been told by other students not to apply to a place called Jodrell Bank, for they’d never take a woman. I applied anyway, and they never responded. So I thought, this is them not taking a woman.” Bell Burnell reflects how she was plagued by imposter syndrome throughout her academic life, but particularly as a postgraduate student at Cambridge: “I thought I’d never get in. I put an application into Cambridge just in case and hugely to my surprise, and somewhat to my alarm, got it.”

“She was plagued by imposter syndrome throughout her academic life, but particularly as a postgraduate student at Cambridge”

When asked about her proudest achievement, she answers modestly: “Discovering pulsars was quite important,” and “I’ve actually done quite a bit of work about women in science.” In 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough prize –“it was $3 million [...] And if you get a large sum of money, you need to have a scheme for what you’re going to do with it very, very quickly.” After talking with her son and his wife, both professors, “we came up with this scheme that would give the money to the physicist professional body to fund grad students from different backgrounds.” Supporting female physicists was at the top of her agenda: “There’s a lot of very inspiring young women out there who do amazing things and, in spite of all sorts of things, get to do a PhD in physics,” she remarks.

The inequality surrounding women’s chances of receiving prizes, especially the Nobel prize, for the work they have contributed, is no secret today. It’s why Rosalind Franklin’s name has recently been added onto the bottom of the plaque by the Eagle – this being, according to Bell Burnell, “extremely powerful”, as it shows how passionate the public are about changing the the historical narrative to include women. It’s also why there’s widespread controversy over whether Bell Burnell should have been awarded the Nobel prize for physics for the discovery of pulsars alongside her male supervisors. But Bell Burnell is not bitter. “I think, looking back, I have probably done better than if I had won a Nobel prize and then nothing else.” She goes recalls meeting a fellow female physicist who subsequently won a Nobel prize, who “was scared that I’d be angry. Because she’d got it and I hadn’t. And I wasn’t!”

“It is important to retain the idea that all women are connected by shared experience”

For Bell Burnell, it is important to retain the idea that all women are connected by shared experience. When she was being interviewed after the Nobel prize was given, she recounts how “there was a persistent pattern in that they talked science with my supervisor, and wanted to know my hair colour, or, you know, my bust, waist and hip measurements.” There is clear frustration in her voice as she tells me, powerfully, that “however hard I tried to be a scientist, the press were always going to feature me as a young woman.” Despite having an all-female fellowship at her college – “all women who had probably struggled professionally to get to be a Cambridge don” – the physics professors were male, as well as the majority of the physics department. This came at quite a personal expense: “When you have to stand up to male physicists, there’s a temptation to wilt.” It was therefore crucial to meet other women: “It’s good to find other people who have the same kind of mindset as you have.”


Mountain View

Inspiring the next generation of women in STEM

The struggles faced now by women at Cambridge are not too different from when Bell Burnell was a student. When I mention that many students still struggle with imposter syndrome, she seems disappointed, and recounts how “my attitude was that I was not fit to be here, that they made a mistake, and they are going to throw me out.” In terms of advice, Bell Burnell notes how “if the imposter syndrome is not crippling, it’s a good dynamic between you and your work because it keeps you trying.” For all women in STEM and beyond, take it from an extremely accoladed astrophysicist: “If you get this sort of opportunity, you may as well make the best of it.”