Ada Lovelace Day, March 24th, 2010 – Maggie Aderin-Pocock, space scientist

If you missed the hullabaloo last year, the inaugural Ada Lovelace Day on 24th March, 2009, was created to celebrate the achievements of women in technology by pledging to write a about a favourite woman who has worked with technology, dead or alive – this could also be a mentor, role model or inspiration.

Last year I wrote about Delia Derbyshire, bobmother of electronica, this year I’m writing about space scientist, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, with whom I have share a love space and especially The Clangers and the Moon!

Born in Camden to Nigerian parents, Maggie has been fascinated by space since she was a child. The Clangers introduced her to the idea of ‘space’ and when she was six years-old she came across a book that inspired her ‘it had this astronaut on the cover floating in space with the Earth behind him and I thought wow, I really want to do that!’ Later, watching Star Trek and Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ on the television inspired her ambition to be an astronaut, but on mentioning this to her teacher the response was to suggest nursing instead. Aged 15 and disappointed by a telescope she brought from Argos, Maggie attended a telescope building class and built her own.

At school she was diagnosed with dyslexia and as was a common outcome at the time she was put into a remedial class. This was not the best start for a space scientist, but her father helped her nurture her ambitions and interests and as the internet had yet to evolve, Maggie spent a lot of her time in the library. This made her dreams of space travel seem more obtainable ‘thanks to his support it seemed entirely reasonable to me that with hard work, a black girl with learning difficulties would soon be travelling from inner London to outer space’. With this help Maggie did well in her exams and gained four A Levels in maths, physics, chemistry and biology and went on to study physics at Imperial College, enjoying her studies so much it led on to a PhD in mechanical engineering.

Since leaving university, Maggie has worked on many projects, her first was at the Ministry of Defence but being a pacifist she had qualms about working for the military, so she endeavored to work on projects which had positive goals in helping people, such as hand-held instruments to detect landmines. Still dreaming of space, Maggie moved on to Imperial College in 1999 to work on a high-resolution spectrograph for the Gemini telescope in Chile – it probes the heart of stars by converting the starlight gathered by huge telescopes into the component rainbow colours, and then analyses them to work out what’s happening billions of miles away. She is presently working at Astrium on observation instruments for the Aeolus satellite, which will measure wind speeds to help the investigation of climate change. Maggie is also helping to coordinate the development of the Mid-Infrared Instrument for the James Webb Space Telescope, the planned replacement for the Hubble, and working with Imperial College on other infrared instruments for monitoring climate change.

Maggie is committed to inspiring new generations of astronauts, engineers and scientists – she has spoken to about 25,000 children, many of them at inner-city schools telling them how and why she is a scientist, busting myths about careers, class and gender as she describes her journey from a dyslexic kid with dreams to respected space scientist. She holds a Science in Society Fellowship awarded in 2006 by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), as well as Honorary Doctor of Staffordshire University for her contributions to the field of science education and an MBE awarded in 2009.

She still wants to travel into space – her dream job to build a telescope on the moon. She says: ‘from the age of three, I wanted to get into space and I still do. It’s been the driving force of my life really, that desire to get out there one day.’ And for later plans ‘I want to retire to Mars, some people choose gardening; I choose Mars’. When Maggie was recently a guest on Radio4’s Desert Island Discs, her one luxury to take with her was a telescope.

List of articles that helped me glean info and quotes for this blog post:

Science Careers – Reaching for the Stars
Staffs University – profile on Maggie
Telegraph – Let’s inspire the next generation of scientists
Royal Institution of Great Britain – Maggie profile


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