Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland astrophysicist donating £2.3m prize to drive for diversity

By David Hughes

An astrophysicist from Northern Ireland will donate a $3m (£2.3m) prize in an effort to increase diversity in science.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was awarded the lucrative Breakthrough Prize for her work on the discovery of pulsars and a lifetime of scientific achievement.

She was overlooked for the Nobel Prize, but male colleagues involved in the work were awarded the honour in 1974.

Dame Jocelyn told BBC Radio 4's Today programme she did not need the "shocking" financial reward from the Breakthrough Prize, and hoped the money would instead be used to support female and ethnic minority physicists.

The prize will go to the Institute of Physics to establish research studentships for people from under-represented groups.

"I think diversity is very important, and I hope this might increase the diversity a bit," Dame Jocelyn, who is from Lurgan, said. "One of the under-represented groups in physics is women, so that is one that interests me.

"But groups with various ethnicities could well be included. It would be wonderful if we could find a refugee or two."

Dame Jocelyn said her background had pushed her to work harder at university studies, which included the discovery of pulsars, a form of rotating neutron star that emits pulses of electromagnetic radiation as it spins.

"In the late Sixties, early Seventies, when all this was happening, science was very male-dominated, and in Britain white male-dominated. I came in as a female and came into Cambridge from the north and west of the UK - I had never been that far south before.

"I was really scared. I thought they had made a mistake admitting me. I reckoned they were going to throw me out in due course, but I decided to work my very hardest so that when they threw me out I wouldn't have a guilty conscience. I was being incredibly thorough."

Asked if she felt she should have been awarded the Nobel, she said "they don't often give it to students" and "it's perceived as a senior man's prize".

Dame Jocelyn, born in 1943, was originally educated at the Lurgan College Preparatory Department. She failed her 11-plus and went on to a Quaker boarding school in York in England, where her flair for physics grew, encouraged by her "really good" physics teacher, Mr Tillott.

She went on to study physics at Glasgow University before getting her PhD from Cambridge. She is a former President of the Royal Astronomical Association and of the Institute of Physics.

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