Her childhood passion for space exploration led Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock to a stellar career in science and a role inspiring the next generation as an educator and communicator. She talks to Julie Nightingale.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock was obsessed with space as a child and the sense of wonder about the universe has been the driving force behind her career as an academic, engineer and science communicator. She has a PhD in mechanical engineering and is a TV star, hosting the BBC’s The Sky at Night but also cheerfully sparring with comedians like Lee Mack and Jimmy Carr on comedy panel shows. Nominated for a BAFTA as a presenter of children’s show CBeebies Stargazing, she was awarded an MBE in 2009 for services to science communication, recognising her work to nurture a passion for the subject in young people.
And yet, though science was her first love, a stellar career trajectory was not obviously written in the stars: at school she struggled, unknowingly, with dyslexia, and was labelled ‘not very bright’ by teachers.
“I was undiagnosed until quite late on in school, so I wasn’t really aware that I had it,” Maggie says. “When you start off in school, it’s all about reading and writing and that’s the thing that I find most challenging – my spelling even today is quite awful.
“I was often put in ‘remedial’ classes with the safety scissors and the glue, not so much to be educated as to keep me out of harm’s way.”
By contrast, in her own time, Maggie was falling in love with space.
“I wanted to get out there and learn more about it but being in the remedial class, that didn’t seem like a likely prospect. So, for quite a while, I didn’t like school much.”
Looking back now, her take on that period is that being dismissed as a slow learner and having to deal with dyslexia once diagnosed can make someone more resilient later.
“You can go on and do other things because you’ve learnt from the school of hard knocks.”
She now works with Made By Dyslexia, a group that campaigns to expand dyslexia testing in schools, hoping to catch those slipping through the net and unaware that they have it.
“It’s hereditary and my daughter has it, so people will often say to her, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I will speak slowly’ so totally misunderstanding what it is! But there are positive things from dyslexia too, such as improving your awareness of how to communicate.”
Maggie’s parents came to the UK from Nigeria, and she was born in London in 1968, the year before the first Apollo Moon landings and in a period when space exploration was pushing science and interest in it to new heights.
“I got the space bug, big-time. I saw that science got people into space and that helped discover what was out there, so that’s what drove my interest in it,” she says, adding that she was also a big fan of TV shows Star Trek and particularly The Clangers.
Today, the chances of more of us making the journey into space can only grow, she thinks, and now that commercial space travel is a reality with billionaires at the helm, it will ultimately become affordable to more than just a super-wealthy elite. She would love the opportunity herself.
“I think it will happen and if [ Star Trek actor] William Shatner can do it at 90, I have a bit of time! I’d like to spend time on the International Space Station or even go to Mars – that’s a retirement plan at the moment!”
(Reassuringly, she points out that wearing a spacesuit is like being in one’s own little spaceship where the internal temperature automatically adjusts as body heat rises. Good to know, for women like her in their mid-50s who might feel that space is too far to boldly go during a hot flush.)
After her PhD at Imperial College London, Maggie went on to work for the Ministry of Defence and in industry where she deployed her engineering skills to innovative effect, creating devices including a handheld landmine detector. She founded the company Space Innovation to help broaden the talent pool of scientists in the UK from gender, ethnicity and neurodiversity perspectives, and hosts Tours of the Universe to illuminate the wonders of space for children and adults worldwide.
Today, she is president of the British Science Association – the first Black woman in that role – and a supporter of the National Science + Engineering Competition and Big Bang Fair, which encourage and celebrate young people’s interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
The pandemic, for all its problems, has energised the public’s interest in science. Will it last as Covid recedes?
“I’m hoping so,” Maggie says. “The pandemic has shown the power of science and also technology. Tech has been at the forefront of keeping us communicating, keeping us ticking over through home schooling and lockdowns, so I’m hoping that we will see the impact of that in terms of subjects that kids take up in the future.”
Look behind the technology
School science lessons could exploit young people’s enthusiasm for their devices and tech in positive ways, she thinks.
“The problem with tech now is that, while I’m speaking to you on my phone, it’s a black box and not many people know what goes on inside the phone to enable it to do what it does. Looking behind the technology is an interesting exercise. By exploring the tech around us, and looking at not just the nice design but how it works, could be a good way to show the science behind the magic.”
As a high achiever in her field, the pressure to honour the title of role model both for women and people of colour, who remain vastly under-represented in science’s higher echelons, must be great.
She says: “When someone described me as a role model, I thought it wasn’t right because I know what I’m like – pathologically late, untidy. I thought I couldn’t be a role model because I’m not perfect. What I’ve learned over the years is that we all can be, and all should be role models by having something to share.
“I like to talk about my imperfections, that I can’t spell, I’m untidy and so on but I also like to say I love science, I’m passionate about it and that’s what I want to communicate.
“I think people should understand role models better. It isn’t about perfect; it’s about having something to share so that other people say, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?’”
The pandemic has shown the power of science and also technology... So I'm hoping that we will see the impact of that in terms of subjects that kids take up in the future.
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock was a speaker at ASCL Annual Conference 2022 www.ascl.org.uk/annualconference
Made by Dyslexia charity www.madebydyslexia.org
British Science Association www.britishscience association.org
National Science and Engineering competition and Big Bang Fair www.thebigbang.org.uk
Freelance Education Writer