Thanks to the amazing grant of £1000 given to us by the Royal Astronomical Society, we’ve been able to hire writers for our blog posts on scientists of colour. This incredible article was written by the wonderful Charlotte Tomlinson!
Name: Dr Margaret Ebunoluwa Aderin-Pocock MBE
Born: 9th March 1968 (Islington, London)
B.Sc in Physics (Imperial College London)
Ph.D in Mechanical Engineering (Imperial College London)
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocok is first and foremost, a maverick. She is next a space scientist, mechanical engineer, educator and broadcaster – her career trajectory has seen her excel despite a racist glass ceiling, going beyond expectations for a scientist and a woman of colour. And at 58, she shows no sign of stopping.
Born in 1968 in London, Maggie was the third of four daughters (6). Her parents had emigrated from Nigeria, with her father emigrating over with the intention to study medicine. Though it never happened, she would state that it was because of him that she developed her enthusiasm for science (6).
From her early years, Dr. Aderin-Pocock was obsessed with the moon. Inspired by watching The Clangers and Star Trek, since the age of 3 she had always wanted to go to space, and was a self-described literal “luna”-tic (6).
Her passion for the moon continued into her teenage years, as she bought herself a telescope. Despite it being faulty (it suffered from chromatic apperation), she refused to let that stop her. She was determined enough to rebuild it herself, a repair which took six months during whichshe went so far as to grind the mirror herself (6). Though she did not know it at that young age, she would later go on to be on the team which built the James Webb telescope, which will replace the Hubble Space Telescope. She would also work at the Gemini observatory in Chile, analysing light through twin eight metre diameter mirror telescopes, the largest in the world (6).
However, her youth was also tumultuous. As a child, she was quickly confronted by racism. She referred to herself as Nigerian rather than British despite never having been there, because she was afraid that she would not be accepted as being British due to being black (6). Growing up, her love for Star Trek came from its multi-cultural cast. However, her favourite character was Spock, due to how emotionally distant he was (6). She was quoted to have said “Space appealed to me, because life seemed very challenging on Earth sometimes.” (6).
She also faced the problem of sexism throughout her career. She was discouraged from studying the sciences, and was recommended a path into nursing instead. Her father had told her that he wanted a son, to which she replied “I am going to be better than any boy” (6).
Academically, she initially struggled. Her parents split up when she was four, so because of the long ongoing custody battle, she went to an impressive thirteen schools in fourteen years (6). At first she hated school. She was held back a year when she was five due to not being considered academically capable, and was diagnosed with Dyslexia at the age of eight (6). She would often sit in the back of the classroom and skulk, due to her reading and writing not being very good. This was until her first science lesson, when after her being posed the simple question of ‘If you take a litre of water and 1 litre of water weighs 1 kg, how much will 1 cubic centimeter weigh?’, she was the only one who found the question simple and answered it. “I couldn’t believe that dumb Maggie in the remedial class sitting at the back could get the question right.” (7)
With the support from her father, studying the sciences became almost like a hobby, and as a result her grades excelled (6). She convinced her teachers to move her up a year, upon moving schools (6), and would later go on to study Physics at Imperial College London and purse a PhD in Mechanical Engineering there too (1). Whilst she was there, she would go on to build a spectrograph to analyse the light- which breaks starlight from billions of miles away into its components to work out what is happening in the heart of a star. (6).
Initially, her career began as a being an “instrumentationalist” (6), as she continued her love for being practical by working at the Ministry of Defence. Her knowledge of optics was utilised to build missile warning systems. She was also instrumental in the development of landmine detection, where upon a trip to Cambodia and she met child victims of landmines. After this sought to apply her scientific knowledge to something practical (6). Her specialism is now in satellites, particularly their use for disaster monitoring for previous incidences such as hurricane Katrina (6).
Her desire is for science to be both practical and accessible. Her work on the Blue Peter set allowed children to understand her work and let them know that they can access what satellites are looking at online. For example, they can look at the glaciers receding in Antarctica, or the rainforest being wiped out , which shows how space can help us understand what is happening on our planet (6). She has been nominated for a BAFTA, for her work presenting ‘Stargazing’ on CBeebies (the children’s programming network produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation)(5). She is also the founder of the company Science Innovation Ltd, which was made with intention of changing the demographics of scientists and science knowledge across Britain. Through her company, Maggie has given talks to half a million people around the world (4).
Maggie also made history as the first Black woman to win the 2020 William Thomson, Lord Kelvin Medal and Prize for her “exceptional services to science education and physics communication,” becoming the first Black woman to win a gold medal in the award’s history (8)
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE is therefore, beyond inspiring. She has an incredible career, that shows no sign of slowing in its influence both in her scientific endeavours and engagement in science communication with the public, particularly with youth. Hearing her talk about space, and communicate these facts about the planets and stars around us , fills you with her enthusiasm. She has grown up with the courage to study what she was passionate about and has made the world a more habitable, open place for all. She has gone on to do truly amazing things, and is a personal hero for my desire to go into scientific communication and journalism.
💻(1) GOV profile on Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock
💻(2) GOV website on Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities
💻(3) Letter to the minister for Equalities from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities
💻(4) Science and Technology Facilities Council’s profile on Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock
💻(5) 2016 BAFTA nomination
🔉(6) Dessert Island Discs interview Radio 4
💻(7) The Yale centre for Dyslexia and Creativity
💻(8) Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is the first woman to win gold medal in physics