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Leading NI-born astrophysicist donates £2.3, prize to fund more women in science

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland, is to donate her £2.3m winnings from a major science prize to fund women, under-represented ethnic minorities and refugee students to help them become physics researchers. Picture by Institute of Physics
Marie Louise McConville

AN astrophysicist from Northern Ireland is to donate her £2.3m winnings from a major science prize to fund women, under-represented ethnic minorities and refugee students to help them become physics researchers.

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was born in Belfast but grew up in Lurgan, Co Armagh, has been awarded a Breakthrough Prize for the discovery of radio pulsars.

The prize recognises Prof Bell Burnell's scientific leadership.

The win comes more than 40 years after, Ms Bell Burnell, one of the UK's leading female astronomers, found herself left off a Nobel Prize citation in 1974.

Despite having played a key role and having been the first to observe and analyse pulsars, it was her male collaborators who received the award.

The leading scientist now wants to use her prize money to counter an "unconscious bias" she believes still occurs in physics research jobs.

"I found pulsars because I was a minority person and feeling a bit overawed at Cambridge," she said.

"I was both female but also from the north-west of the country and I think everybody else around me was southern English," she said.

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

Professor Dame Julia Higgins, 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".

"Her example of using insight and tenacity to make a discovery that rings through the ages stands her alongside the greatest of scientists".

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