Women in STEM: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

This is the second installment of a series focusing on women in STEM fields. We hope you enjoy learning about this week’s star: a well-known woman physicist of the 21st century. 

Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell was the first female president of the Institute of Physics, a charity organization created to further physics research, education, and applications and have a huge impact on the physics community. The huge reach of this institution makes Burnell’s accomplishment that much better because she is breaking the glass ceiling and opening up more opportunities for women in STEM everywhere.

Burnell was born on July 15,1943 in Northern Ireland. When she was young, she discovered her father’s books on astronomy, and she later went to Lurgan College with the desire to study science. intoct08p5-jocelyn1However, at this time, the college didn’t allow women to study science. With the help from their families, all the women protested until the school allowed them into the science program. Her journey into the STEM program was not easy though. She failed the placement exam, and because of that, her parents sent her to an all girls’ boarding school in York, where her interest in physics really began. She graduated with a B.S. in physics from the University of Glasgow and later went to get her PhD  from the University of Cambridge.

After receiving her degrees, she worked closely in education. She began by tutoring and lecturing at the Open University where she later became a professor. She furthered her career as a professor at Princeton University and continued at many other Universities. These really opened her up to the position of president at the Institute of Physics because of the passion and drive she had for education in physics.

However, even though Burnell has broken the glass ceiling and opened up so many opportunities for women in STEM everywhere, she did struggle a lot. In 1974, she did not receive recognition for the Nobel Peace Prize in physics. She had worked so hard to help someone build a four-acre radio telescope, but he did not give her the recognition or the credit she deserved. This is something that many women in STEM can relate to. Even after succeeding so much in your career field, it’s often difficult for male colleagues to treat women with the respect and recognition they deserve, but this won’t be fixed by ignoring their ignorance. Women need to demand respect in their career field because they work just as hard as their male counterparts, if not harder, and they will continue to get walked on if they don’t stand up for themselves.

So, learn from Burnell, and don’t allow society to dictate what opportunities you can have and fight for what you really want to do. If Bell hadn’t fought to be allowed into the STEM program at her university all those years ago, the women following her footsteps would have also been denied the opportunity.

-Roselin Bains


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