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70
Interview
PowerList 2010
inner city to
outer space
when Maggie Aderin-Pocock was six she built her own telescope.
Now she inspires children to do similar. Orantes Moore meets a
scientist who is boldly going where few women have gone before
r Maggie Aderin-Pocock describes herself as a mad many who would never previously have considered science as a
D
scientist who likes Big Brother, Missy elliott and believes career. she remembers: “As a kid i hated school, mainly because of
alien life exists on other planets. Maggie, 38, is one of my dyslexia. But it became easier and a lot more interesting when i
the UK’s top space scientists. she has built telescopes, started doing science.”
has helped create instruments to test missile warning systems and the children’s tV show the Clangers, and later star trek,
detect landmines and has had a hand in the invention of satellites sparked her interest in space. she built her first telescope when
that monitor climate change. she was six and told herself she was going to be an astronaut. Her
she holds a degree in physics and a PhD in mechanical teacher had other ideas and suggested she pursue a career in
engineering. For her PhD project, she developed an instrument nursing instead “because that’s scientific too”, but Aderin-Pocock
for the oil industry that is still used today to test engine oils and was not one to be fobbed off. Fortunately for her she had a father
additives. who nurtured her dreams. trips to the library with him sustained
we meet at a small coffee shop close to University College her appetite for information. Now she is on a mission to find the
London, where she holds a fellowship. Maggie is disarming and next generation of scientists.
flashes a broad grin regularly throughout our conversation. she Her services are often oversubscribed and most days she is
is passionate and clearly loves her job at space firm Astrium in rushed off her feet. “it’s hard sometimes because a school might
Portsmouth, where she heads their optical instrumentation unit. Yet phone up at short notice and say, ‘Can you come?’ And i think about
she is quick to admit that it is her work with inner-city kids that can the report i’ve got to write and say to myself: ‘sod it, who needs
be more rewarding. sleep anyway?’”
‘As a kid i hated school because of my dyslexia, but
it became easier when i started doing science’
“in my day job, i work in a team of thousands of scientists “i can go into a school and a child will come up to me afterwards
tackling climate change. Although it all helps, my contribution is and say, ‘i thought i was going to work on a checkout at sainsbury’s,
small,” she says modestly. “i make more of an impact with the kids. i but now i’m going to study’. Making that difference to just a few
go to inner-city schools and speak to young people, especially girls, people’s lives is phenomenal; quite scary in some ways, but wonderful
and try to get them fired up about science.” at the same time.”
over the past four years, she has spoken to more than 45,000 Maggie uses movies and computers to engage young people
schoolchildren and through science innovations, her stevenage- in her specialist subjects. tour of the Universe, one of her most
based company, has developed a series of initiatives aimed at popular tools, is a computer programme that takes users on a
getting more young people interested in space, an industry worth virtual intergalactic trip across the cosmos. Maggie suspects there
about £7bn to the economy. indeed, it is largely for these efforts that may be life on some planets. Her explanation is logical. “there are
she has made the Powerlist. 200bn stars in our galaxy the Milky way and around 100bn galaxies
Aderin-Pocock grew up in a single-parent London household in the whole universe. if each star is a sun like ours with planets
after her parents split up when she was four. ensuing custody going around it – how many planets are there?
battles meant that she attended 13 different schools between the “then you start asking yourself, ‘is there life in our galaxy?’
ages of four and 18. she was also diagnosed as dyslexic. A lot of scientists today would say an absolute ‘Yes’ because with so
the students she mentors are growing up in similar circumstances many planets there’s bound to be.
and, possibly because she can empathise with them, she inspires “As a child i wanted to travel to the stars, but using current
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