The Beauty in Belonging: Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Fight for Equality

Discovery is largely by accident and never by design. Astrophysicist Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell can attest to this, being responsible for one of the greatest discoveries in astrophysics in the past century. Dr. Bell Burnell discovered the existence of pulsars, a type of star made from the core of an elderly star after supernova that emits radio waves from two poles, during her postgraduate studies at Cambridge University and she was invited to share her experience with Kohawks on Tuesday, January 29, during the Contemporary Issues Forum.

Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell disscussing how the signal of the first known pulsar (referred to as CP 1919) caught her attention. Credit Natalie Milke and Lacey Jacobs/Coe College Marketing Department

Dr. Bell Burnell was studying charts produced by a radio telescope array, charts that have an appearance similar to seismographs, but instead of measuring the shifting of the earth, these charts measure radio waves produced by distant celestial objects. During her postgraduate studies she became quite adept at differentiating what was noise and what was a structure, but starting in the summer of 1967 one very small signal caught her attention. It behaved like nothing she had encountered previously, and this little signal would become the first pulsar ever catalogued.
The discovery was recognized by the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, however, Dr. Bell Burnell was not one of the recipients of the award despite her direct involvement in the discovery. She never allowed this to dissuade her, continuing her work in radio astrophysics and working for the advancement of women and minorities in science, while bringing awareness to the problems of imposter syndrome and inequalities in science.
Before speaking at the Contemporary Issues Forum, Dr. Bell Burnell also interacted with students through an open house discussion through the physics department and at a dessert gala with WinSTEM. Dr. Bell Burnell took time to address the phenomenon known as imposter syndrome, a fairly common ‘mental game’ that plagues many professionals in many professions, at each event. Imposter syndrome is characterized by feelings of not belonging in a job, feeling as though you’re underqualified to perform or feelings of shame over perceived notions of not performing well enough in a position.
During her presentations, Dr. Bell Burnell emphasized that imposter syndrome is scarily prevalent. At the physics department open house, she spoke about how earlier in the month she presented at Penn State. One of the exercises in her talk was a quick examination of imposter syndrome. She requested that everyone in the lecture hall at Penn State raise their hands if they’ve ever doubted their ability. To her surprise, every hand went up. These feelings were common for Dr. Bell Burnell for a good chunk of her career.

Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell (center) with Professor Steve Feller (left) and Coe College President Dave McInally (right) before her Contemporary Issues Forum presentation Credit Natalie Milke and Lacey Jacobs/Coe College Marketing Department

“When I came to Cambridge, everyone was terribly suave, and it made me feel like a country yokel, being from the sticks,” said Dr. Bell Burnell. “It convinced me that they’d made a mistake admitting me, and that they were going to throw me out.”
These feelings were a drastic turn-about from her earlier education, where Dr. Bell Burnell fought administrative pushback to attend science classes as a high school student. But her attitude won out against these thoughts. “I said to myself: ‘They’ve made a mistake admitting me, they’re going to discover their mistake, and they’re going to throw me out,” said Dr. Bell Burnell. “But, until they discover their mistake, I’m going to work my very hardest, so when they throw me out, I’m not going to have a guilty conscious, I would have done my best, but I wasn’t ready.’”
She would go on to find the signals of four pulsars during her time at Cambridge, but these feelings would linger for several years. Imposter syndrome can be solved on its own, through a combination of repeated demonstration of ability, acknowledgement of that ability, and time. Institutions and workplaces play a large role in creating an environment that allow those that suffer from this self-doubt to understand they can move past it. During her career, Dr. Bell Burnell recognized the importance of this, and in 2005 teamed up with several other female scientists to create the Athena SWAN Charter.
Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) is a charter organization that seeks to promote the advancement of gender equality, representation, progression, and success for all members of academia and professions. Originally, the charter stood as a competition in the United Kingdom for universities and colleges to show how ‘female-friendly’ their respective STEM programs were compared to one another, but in 2015 the charter was expanded to the arts, humanities, social sciences, and law in both academia and the career world, and recognizes not only women’s equality, but gender equality. Athena SWAN also inspired several other countries to adopt it, Ireland, Australia, and Canada all can apply for the charter and receive it.
Even before the Athena SWAN charters, Dr. Bell Burnell was touring and lecturing about the importance of women’s equality in STEM fields. During her lifetime she has seen the number of women in the sciences increase drastically, but there are still worrying trends. During the discussion with students she cites membership numbers for an international organization she is part of, the International Astronomical Union. Countries that speak English seem to underperform, in her experience. Memberships for women is highest among more conservative European Catholic countries, like Italy. The United Kingdom, Canada, even we trail behind the national average. Dr. Bell Burnell believes that the question of representation is not a fight for women, by women, but one that everyone must believe in and champion.
“What you really have to do is change the attitudes of society,” said Dr. Bell Burnell. “Say a girl wants to do science, and her aunties, her mother, says ‘What do you want to do that for, it’s too hard.’”
There are unhealthy perceptions still alive today, about what a woman can or can’t do, but in her eyes, it takes acceptance and acknowledgement from everyone to break these barriers.

Article by Ariel Crego

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