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This British Astronomer Just Donated £2.3M Prize Winnings to Help Minorities Become Scientists


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All around the world, women just like Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell have proved that they can achieve great things when they’re given a place at the table. But still, girls and women face a disproportionate struggle in accessing education and employment opportunities. You can join us by taking action here to achieve the UN’s Global Goal for gender equality. 

One of Britain’s top astronomers — who also happens to be a woman — has just won £2.3 million for a major science prize. 

And she’s giving it all away again. 

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was announced as the winner of the Breakthrough Prize on Thursday, for the discovery of what’s known now as radio pulsars. 

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“I have to admit I was speechless,” she said. “This had never entered my wildest dreams. I was totally taken aback.”

But rather than keep the winnings for herself, she’s using them to help fund women, ethnic minorities, and refugee students — to support them on the road to becoming physics researchers. 

“I don’t want or need the money myself and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put it to,” Prof. Bell Burnell told BBC News

This isn’t the first award that the discovery of radio pulsars — a type of neutron star that gives out a beam of radiation — has received either. 

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The discovery was also awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1974, but the award went to Bell Burnell’s male collaborators. 

That’s despite the fact she was actually the first to observe and analyse the pulsars, according to the BBC

Bell Burnell was a research student at Cambridge University when the pulsars were discovered more than 50 years ago. And she noticed them while trawling through data from a radio telescope she’d helped to build

But she now contributes her success to the fact she was a minority — and what’s described as “imposter syndrome.” 

Because she didn’t feel that she belonged and doubted that her achievements were good enough, Bell Burnell was working “really careful, really thoroughly,” which is why she spotted the “very, very small signal.” 

“I found pulsars because I was a minority person and feeling a bit overawed at Cambridge,” she told the BBC. “I was both female, but also from the north-west of the country, and I think everybody else around me was southern English.” 

“So I have this hunch that minority folk bring a fresh angle on things and that is often a very productive thing,” she added. “In general, a lot of breakthroughs come from left field.” 

She hopes that the new funding, as a result of her winnings, will help to tackle the “unconscious bias” that she says is still present in physics research jobs. 

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And, believe it or not, she’s actually kind of fine with not having received the Nobel. 

“I feel I’ve done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize,” she said. “If you get a Nobel prize you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives you anything else. If you don’t get a Nobel prize you get everything that moves. Almost every year there’s been some sort of party because I’ve got another award.”

“That’s much more fun,” she added. 

Bell Burnell has had an extraordinary career — becoming the first female president of both the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and also helping launch the Athena Swan programme, which works to improve the lives of women in academia.

Professor Dame Julia Higgins, current president of the Institute of Physics, said: “This is an excellent and hugely appropriate acknowledgement of Jocelyn’s work. Her discovery of pulsars still stands as one of the most significant discoveries in physics and inspires scientists the world over.” 

“Alongside her scientific achievement, Jocelyn has become a hugely respected leader in the scientific community,” she added. “She has been instrumental in making sure the issue of access to science by people from under-represented groups is at the very top of the science community’s agenda.”