“As I have grown older I have seen my minority position as an advantage – an ability to stand out from the crowd.”

As part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special, space scientist, author and The Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock gives insight into her journey from London to the stars.Tuesday, 5 November 2019

“I have spent nearly all of my career as a minority in terms of gender and race. When I was younger, I did feel some pressure to excel and prove the naysayers wrong.“ Maggie Aderin-Pocock.
“I have spent nearly all of my career as a minority in terms of gender and race. When I was younger, I did feel some pressure to excel and prove the naysayers wrong.“ Maggie Aderin-Pocock.
photo by Lovelight Photography
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE is a space scientist, author, inventor and TV presenter. Diagnosed with dyslexia, as a child she attended 13 different schools and was discouraged by teachers from following her ambition of becoming an astronaut. Growing up on a London council estate, she attended a telescope making class to improve a device she had saved up to buy, and later went on to study physics at Imperial College London, gaining a PhD in Mechanical Engineering.

Her books include Dr Maggie's Grand Tour of the Solar System and The Book of the Moon, she has designed optical equipment for the James Webb Space Telescope and is the presenter of the BBC's The Sky at Night. She was appointed an MBE in 2009 for services to science and education.

Growing up in London, as with any large city, my access to the night skies was limited by light pollution and cloud. But I did take the chance to look up whenever possible. I love to observe the moon. As a child I was always fascinated by space, I heard about people like Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong and I wanted to travel out there too. This was further fuelled by watching television – children’s programs like the Clangers, which feature some amazing creatures that live on a planet beyond our solar system. At the age of three, my dream was to travel to the moon and then out beyond, to the home of the Clangers. The Clangers also turned out to be a bit of a gateway that led to watching other science fiction programs like Star Trek. This was the program that pushed my dreams of space travel out further to the stars themselves.

As I grew up and learned more about space, I realised how very far away the stars are. We have an estimated 300 billion stars in our galaxy. Of all those stars our next-door neighbour star is called Proxima Centauri, and this sits around 40 trillion kilometres away from our local star, the sun. To travel there using current technology would take about 76,000 years. So my childhood dream of getting out there does seem a long way away.

For a while I reigned my interest in to our more local space, the solar system. But a recent project called Breakthrough Starshot is developing new tech that could enable us to send tiny probes to locations like Proxima Centauri in just 20 years. We may be able to travel interstellar within our lifetimes.

 

Commemorative Royal Mail stamp celebrating The Clangers in 1996. Created by animator Oliver Postgate, the programme features a family of creatures who lived on a small planet.Maggie Aderin Pocock: “At the age of three, my dream was to travel to the moon and then out beyond, to the home of the Clangers.“
Commemorative Royal Mail stamp celebrating The Clangers in 1996. Created by animator Oliver Postgate, the programme features a family of creatures who lived on a small planet.Maggie Aderin Pocock: “At the age of three, my dream was to travel to the moon and then out beyond, to the home of the Clangers.“
photo by Stan Pritchard / Alamy

Working in the physical sciences as a black female has been an interesting experience. I have spent nearly all of my career as a minority in terms of gender and race. When I was younger, I did feel some pressure to excel and prove the naysayers wrong. It was sometimes assumed that I was administrative staff rather than a PhD student or a cleaner rather then a project manager, and this put me under pressure to demonstrate my abilities. As I have grown older I have seen my minority position as an advantage – not through positive discrimination, but in an ability to stand out from the crowd.

I think it is very likely potential breakthroughs by women scientists may have been overlooked. I think that women were not expected to work in the field of science let alone shine in it. So for those that did make breakthroughs, I think that their work may have often been attributed to male associates – be it brothers, husbands or work colleagues.

“It was sometimes assumed that I was administrative staff rather than a PhD student or a cleaner rather then a project manager and this put me under pressure to demonstrate my abilities.”

Maggie Aderin-Pocock

What is your greatest strength?

I think that I have the ability to see things from a different point of view. Many people find science scary but I like to translate complex ideas into more easily accessible ones. This has proved to be a very useful skill as a science communicator.

What is the greatest hurdle you’ve overcome?

I have dyslexia and this caused me a few challenges especially when I was at school. Early school is mainly about reading and writing and these skills can be quite difficult for dyslexics. But although my spelling is still poor and I have difficulty reading long documents, there are many benefits that dyslexia gives me, such as logic, storytelling and seeing things from a different viewpoint.

What was your ‘breakthrough’ moment? 

Getting to know myself better and being aware of my strengths and weaknesses. This enabled me to design a career that relies on my strengths, and where my weaknesses are not a handicap. Over the past 14 years I have given talks to over 350,000 school children, mostly in the UK but some across the world, encouraging them to consider careers in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths], but generally just to have a big dream. I call it the ‘Desire to Aspire’. In 2009, I was awarded a medal from the Queen for services to science and education. There have been many other highlights too, such as having my portrait as part of the National Portrait Galleries collection and winning the 2019 Woman of the Year award in Innovation.

What is the most important challenge that women face today?

I think that many of the challenges that women face today have changed. In the past we were underestimated especially in the STEM arena. Today we still face a few of these challenges in terms of societal indoctrination but some of our barriers are also internal, where we embrace self-limiting beliefs. Breaking down these barriers is critical and I think that seeing the societal bias is the first step to solving the problem.

“I think that education transforms lives and there are still too many countries where girls are not being educated. So it would be wonderful if education was available to every child across the planet.“ Maggie Aderin Pocock – pictured with her daughter – upon winning the prize for New Talent at the Sky Women in Film and Television awards in 2011.
“I think that education transforms lives and there are still too many countries where girls are not being educated. So it would be wonderful if education was available to every child across the planet.“ Maggie Aderin Pocock – pictured with her daughter – upon winning the prize for New Talent at the Sky Women in Film and Television awards in 2011.
photo by WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy

What is the most important change that needs to happen for women in the next ten years?

I think that education transforms lives and there are still too many countries where girls are not being educated. So it would be wonderful if education was available to every child across the planet. Another challenge is still the gender pay gap, when many women get into work there are inequalities that limits them financially. On top of these challenges, getting better female representation in STEM across the board would lead to a marked improvement in the earning power of women. Some STEM subjects, like medicine and biology, have very good female representation, but in other subjects like physics, computing and engineering the representation of women is as low as 20%. As these subjects often lead to some of the higher paying roles in the job market, we need to ensure that these jobs are available to anyone who has an aptitude. Also, many of these jobs have a shortage of practitioners so encouraging a wider, more diverse gene pool could fulfil the shortfall. It makes good economic sense.

What advice would you give young women today?

To dream big and aim high, and have the confidence to know that they can achieve the dream. Or achieve much more than they otherwise would en route to the goal.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Explore National Geographic's Women of Impact articles – and get access to our landmark November 2019 issue here. 

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