How to be a pioneering woman in STEM | Interview with Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

How to be a pioneering woman in STEM | Interview with Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dr. Jed Macosko met with leading physicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell to talk about women in STEM and much more. Enjoy!

Noted physicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell discusses what it’s like to have been a pioneering woman in the STEM field of astrophysics, including how women have made great strides for equality in academic science. She also shares about her work with pulsars and X-ray astronomy. Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Mansfield College, Dame Jocelyn talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

A small group of senior women wondering how to make things better for women in science in academia, and we floundered around and then one of us, which quite a good psychologist said, "You know, heads of universities, they are competitive guys. They were all men at that stage. If we create a prize for the most woman-friendly university, they'll compete."” – Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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Interview with Physicist Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:29Discovering pulsars as a woman

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Jed Macosko at Academic Influence and Wake Forest University and today we have one of my heroes, Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell who’s gonna speak to us a little bit about her career, and I’m so excited. Thank you so much, Jocelyn, for coming on the show. It’s good to have you.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell: My pleasure, thank you.

Jed: Well, yeah, so I was just thinking about you in science. You’re one of our top influencers and you’re in a category that includes a lot of men and very few women.

So can you tell us a little bit about how your career has gone just in terms of being a woman in astronomy and physics and things like that. What kinds of things have you been through?

Jocelyn: There haven’t been many women of my generation. I think everywhere worked, I was the only one or the most senior woman in the place. I think that’s true. So it was a bit isolated in a sense. There were assumptions that things operated in a way that suited the male life pattern, which doesn’t always fit the female life pattern. I remember going to ask for maternity leave and my head of department said, "Maternity leave. Never heard of it." Well, he was right, the university didn’t have maternity leave at that time because there were so few women. So it’s been a bit like that most of the journey.

Jed: But you’ve enjoyed yourself from the very get-go when you first discovered pulsars. What was that like being the one who discovered it and turned out you were a woman? Did that give people jealousy? How did that go down?

Jocelyn: It produced some interesting interviews after the discovery. The press took quite an interest in the discovery, and lots of journalists came to interview us. And the interview would take a fairly standard pattern. There’d be my PhD supervisor, Tony Hewish and myself, and they’d ask Tony about the astrophysical significance of the discovery, which he duly told them, and then they turned to me for what they called the human interest. How tall was I? Was I taller than Princess Margaret or not quite so tall? How many boyfriends did I have? What were my bust, waist and hip measurements, please? Would I describe my hair as brunet or blonde? And the photographers were saying, could I undo some more buttons, please, at the front?

Jed: Wow. And you put up with all of that and you just kept a good attitude. How was that? How did you handle that?

Jocelyn: Well, as a grad student, you don’t have much power, and I’m a grad student who’s money is going to run out very soon, and I can’t afford to alienate the professors around me. So I couldn’t put up too much resistance, but I could just forget what my bust, waist and hip measurements were.

Jed: You could say, "Well, I just don’t remember." Well, good for you. Wow. And then from then, that was very early in your career, but it’s been like that ever since. You said that you’ve always been the only woman or the most senior woman. Has it gotten better or what...

Jocelyn: Oh, yes. Yes much better.

03:57Athena SWAN to SEA Change

Jed: Do you feel like you helped make things better just by being there and having a good attitude and gracious...

Jocelyn: I think being there, being visible also helps. One of the reasons I’ve done a number of interviews is to try and make known that there are women in the field and women enjoying the field, but I also was involved in setting up a scheme to try and help women in academia, academic science in general, which we called Athena SWAN which is coming to the USA is starting. And it’s not just for women now. It’s called SEA Change so you may get to hear of that.

Jed: That sounds like a wonderful program. Tell us a little bit how you got it started. Were there some partners in crime that you had to help you with that?

Jocelyn: Oh, yes.

Jed: Okay. Tell us more about it.

Jocelyn: A small group of senior women wondering how to make things better for women in science in academia, and we floundered around and then one of us, which quite a good psychologist said, "You know, heads of universities, they’re competitive guys. They were all men at that stage. If we create a prize for the most woman-friendly university, they’ll compete." Now, we were broke. The only thing we could afford was a glass rose bowl but we advertised this competition and this prize and they competed and we ran it...

Jed: For the bowl, did they compete for the rose bowl?

Jocelyn: For the glass bowl. Yep. We ran it for a number of years, and it got bigger and bigger, and then gradually we managed to attract some proper funding and it got more organized and so on. Yeah.

05:41X-ray astronomy

Jed: So you tapped into the male drive to always compete with one another to produce female-friendly universities. What a deal. Clever, very clever. Now back just to your career because I don’t wanna be guilty of the same thing that those interviewers were back then, just focusing on the human element of your career, although that was fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing it.

What would you say you are most well known for besides pulsars? Are there things you feel like you’ve really contributed?

Jocelyn: I’ve got quite a lot of papers in the field of x-ray astronomy, although never as the lead author. That particular job I started off on the technical support staff. X-ray astronomy is done with satellites and the lab I joined was about to launch a satellite to study x-ray emissions from stars, galaxies, whatever there is up there, and I was the person in charge with the observing program of the satellite and the data when it came back down.

And all the data came across my desk, and I would check that the object that we were meant to be observing was seen, and then I’d realize that there’s another uncataloged object in this frame. What’s going on?

And it turned out that it was what we call a transient object that flares up and dies away again, and we just hit it lucky. And then a week or two later, there’d be another instance like that with another transient and then another transient and another. And it was delightfully hectic. The transient always turned up on Friday afternoons, and frequently the Friday afternoon of a holiday break, you know?

Jed: Oh, gosh. Oh, goodness gracious.

Jocelyn: It was fun. It was fantastic.

Jed: Oh, good.

Jocelyn: We were right there at the cutting edge.

Jed: And these transient objects, did they... What were they, for people like me who don’t do... I do bio-physics, so I don’t do astrophysics. What were they?

Jocelyn: Well, quite a lot of objects in X-ray Astronomy are pairs of stars that are orbiting each other. One has more gravity than the other and pulls stuff down onto it, and as the stuff comes down onto it, it gets hot and shines in x-rays. And so the X-ray telescope sees this object and maybe some signs of this one, but maybe not.

Now, sometimes these systems can be quiet, doing nothing very much, and then suddenly this starts grabbing material and becomes an x-ray source and does that for 10 days and goes quite again. And that makes a transient version of that...

Jed: Wow, that’s funny. Interesting how it’s a little bit like seeing a pulsar going in and out in and out and the sort of same strangeness. Nobody had predicted a pulsar before you discovered it, so it was very strange that you found it. Did you ever think it was an alien signal when you first saw the pulsar signal?

Jocelyn: No, although we made a bit of a joke about it, but we did worry to begin with that it was locally generated interference. At that stage, automobiles were badly suppressed and some automobiles passing down the road could give a radio signal or people using arc welders, you know where there’s sparks. That can generate... So there’s a lot of terrestrial things that can make radio signals, so you have to be careful.

Jed: Okay, so you were worried about that. Were you worried about that with the transients that you saw in X-ray or since it was up in the space, you didn’t worry about man made of that.

Jocelyn: You only have to worry that the equipment was working properly, and we had enough voltage and current readings and things that we could check that out.

Jed: You could check that. So it was a really interesting discovery. And have they decided like why it flares up? Is it that the two stars get closer together or it’s just kind of...

Jocelyn: Yes.

Jed: Okay.

Jocelyn: Yeah. Get closer or more likely one swells. So in that sense, they get closer.

Jed: Do stars typically swell? Is that something that happens just from the nature of what’s going on inside of a star?

The sun's a relatively quiet star, tame star. There are others that do like that only much more so.” – Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn: Yeah. Stars are not very stable. You know that on the sun, there can be sun spots which can upset radio communications. There can be other activity on the sun that gives the northern lights, the aurora borealis. The sun’s a relatively quiet star, tame star. There are others that do like that only much more so.

10:29At the moment

Jed: Interesting, fascinating. Well, are you still actively involved in primary research or has your time been taken up with things like SEA Change and this Athena SWAN program that you got started.

Jocelyn: I am no longer actively researching myself, but I’m watching what goes on in the field, and being in Oxford University is fantastic for that because we have a lot of astrophysicists, a lot of talks, a lot of visitors, news and gossip going through the place. It’s very lively, it’s great.

Jed: And I’m sure people consult you because you’ve been around for so long and you’ve seen it all. So when a young astrophysicist comes up to you with some puzzling results, I’m sure you can give them some good advice.

Jocelyn: Yeah, but so can other people in Oxford as well.

11:20Sign off

Jed: That’s true, that’s very true. We’re just so pleased that you took the time to spend with us this morning, and I just feel so blessed to know that you’re out there doing wonderful things, and I look forward to seeing signs of SEA Change even here in the United States, because it’s very needed. And I’m really thankful that you got that started. So thank you for coming today. I really appreciate it.

Jocelyn: Thank you, Jed.

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