University of Glasgow alumnus to donate winnings from major science prize to help students underrepresented in physics

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Silicon Republic

Isabel Thomas
News Editor

After being overlooked for a Nobel prize, Prof Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is to set up a fund to support female, ethnic minority, and refugee students

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has been awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize for her landmark work on the discovery of radio pulsars. The £2.3m she received in winnings will go on to help fund female, underrepresented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.

Bell Burnell graduated from Glasgow University in 1965 and went on to carry out postgraduate research at the University of Cambridge. It was at Cambridge in 1967 that Bell Burnell co-discovered the first radio pulsars. This discovery was awarded a Noble prize in 1974, however, despite being the first one to observe the radio pulsars, Bell Burnell was not included in the Nobel prize citation. Instead, the award went to her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish and the astronomer Martin Ryle.

Speaking to BBC News Bell Burnell said, “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.”

She believes that underrepresented minority groups will help bring new ideas to the field of physics research and hopes that her donation will help counter the “unconscious bias” that occurs in research.

Bell Burnell suggests that her own discovery happened in part due to her minority status.

Speaking on her own experience Bell Burnell stated, “I found pulsars because I was a minority person and feeling a bit overawed at Cambridge. I was both female but also from the north-west of the country and I think everybody else around me was southern English. 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.”