Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s male Ph.D. supervisor at the University of Cambridge won a Nobel Prize back in 1974 for a discovery that she was the first to notice. The 75-year-old acclaimed astrophysicist won a coveted science prize of her own on Thursday, which was the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.
Instead of keeping the hefty $3 million away that comes with the distinction, however, Bell Burnell will use it to help women, refugees, and other minority students to follow her footsteps and become physics researchers themselves.
She will donate her prize money to the Institute of Physics in order to create scholarships for people from underrepresented groups, according to a statement issued by the Institute.
Burnell claims that she doesn’t need to have an extravagant lifestyle:
“I don’t want or need the money myself and it seemed to me that this was perhaps the best use I could put to it,”
The award honors Burnell for her discovery of pulsars: neutron stars that emit electromagnetic radiation from their poles. It also recognizes her “inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades”, according to the press release.
She first noticed pulsars during a routine data collection back in 1967, but her supervisor, Antony Hewish, ended up winning the Nobel Prize for that discovery.
Society functioned under the belief that scientific advancements were driven by men back then, says Bell Burnell. Women were expected to study cookery and needlework.
“It was such a firm assumption that it wasn’t even discussed, so there was no choice in the matter,” – she said.
Bell Burnell has spent many years as the only female scientist in a field dominated by men. She was born in Northern Ireland in 1943, and she says that she had to fight to take science classes after the age of 12. She was the only female student in her honors physics class at the University of Glasgow.
“There was a tradition among the students that when a female walked into a lecture theatre all the guys stamped and whistled and called and banged the desk. And I faced that for every class I walked into for my last two years.” – she told the Belfast Telegraph back in 2007.
She was apparently plagued by imposter syndrome when she was accepted to Cambridge, and her colleagues assumed she would drop out of the program after she got engaged. It was very atypical for married women to work back then.
Bell Burnell said that she wasn’t bothered when her Ph.D. supervisor received a Nobel Prize for his work on the pulsars, which she had first noticed, because professors got all the credit in those days.
“At that stage, the image people had of science was of a senior man, and it always was a man, with a fleet of younger people working for him. And if the project went well, the man got praise. If the project went badly, the man got the blame.
The younger people working under him were isolated from all of that. It seemed to me to be part of that pattern of doing things,” – she added.
Bell Burnell went on to become one of the U.K.’s leading astronomers, and she is a true role model for female scientists. She was the first female president of the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She went on to become a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2007, and she currently teaches astronomy at Oxford University.