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Anneila Sargent: The woman from Fife who advises the White House

The astronomer tells Paul Gallagher why the US science world offers so much more to women, and how the hidebound UK needs to change
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Professor Anneila Sargent has had a remarkable career. Born and raised in Fife, Scotland, she now sits on the United States National Science Board, the team of academics advising Congress and US President Obama.

It is a long way from her roots in Burntisland, and she has no hesitation in putting her huge success down to the fact that she abandoned the UK's science community, after graduating in physics from the University of Edinburgh. She emigrated to the US, taking up a postgraduate position at the University of California. A move to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) led to the post as professor of astronomy in 1998. That in turn led to a phone call from the White House two years ago inviting her to serve a six-year term, making her one of six women on the 25-strong NSB.

The equal opportunities offered by American science stand in stark contrast to the hidebound approach of British science, which has been dubbed "institutionally sexist" by critics such as Baroness Susan Greenfield, who believes the glass ceiling for women, the unpopularity of science among schoolgirls and a lack of childcare continue to inhibit progress.

"I would never have had my career if I had stayed in the UK, I'm pretty certain of that," Professor Sargent says. "If you married in the UK your career path was different. I was taught by rather attractive, unmarried women nothing like the 'old sticks' people imagine at school. At least four... didn't marry; their fiancés were killed in the Second World War."

A chance encounter led to a summer astronomy course at the Royal Greenwich Observatory before she returned to work there, meeting her future husband. Wallace Sargent, who died last October, was assistant professor at the University of California before being lured to Caltech. "He encouraged me to apply for graduate school in the US. I think it was a marriage proposal of sorts," she jokes.

After taking time out to raise her daughters, Lindsay and Alison, she built up an exceptionally strong reputation, with interests in the fields of star formation, and the possibility of other life forms beyond the solar system. She credits her early progress to Bill Ritchie, a physics teacher at Kirkcaldy High School. "It was a great school; the physics teacher had a physics degree and so on. Bill's approach was that he wanted to make physics as relevant to girls as to boys."

Today, roughly four in five physics teachers do not have a degree in the subject, but the most shocking aspect Professor Sargent witnessed in the UK was academic attitudes to women. She sat for several years on the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and, in 2007, was appointed to the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. "I was very disappointed with attitudes I found," she says. "People said they had women working in their labs and I felt like asking 'yes, but how many of them are leading the labs?'

"I was made director of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory in California in 1998 [until 2007], a position I would never have reached in the UK. I used to return to the US after STFC meetings and tell colleagues about the attitudes [there]. They said it sounded like the US 30 years previously."

In 1998 Professor Sargent was presented with the Nasa Public Service Medal and the Caltech Woman of the Year award. She returned to Edinburgh in 2001 as a guest speaker at the International Science Festival and was presented with the University's Alumnus of the Year Award in 2002 and awarded an honorary doctorate in 2008. She has nothing but praise for her alma mater.

She believes women have advanced much further in science in the US largely because of central strategies carried out "at the highest levels". "Funding agencies in the US have to follow strict criteria. Federal money is not given if an institution is failing in equal opportunities ... I'm conscious of all under-represented minorities, geographically, economically, whether it's a kid from a small town in Iowa who dreams of going to Caltech, I want to support them."

Now 69, she is determined to help younger female scientists achieve their dreams. "It's vital that women of my age make themselves available for young women and talk to them. I've made it and I want to tell those young women they can do the same."

Career problems

With six female scientists in a chemistry department of seven, King's College London is bucking the trend of discouraging women scientists.

Dr Rivka Isaacson, 37, has nothing but praise for the university where she works as a lecturer in chemical biology, her first permanent academic position. "I have never felt discriminated against being female and King's is rightly proud of its workforce but there seems to be a big undercurrent of different attitudes around."

Dr Isaacson obtained a BSc in biochemistry from the University of Manchester in 1997 and a PhD in chemistry from the University of Cambridge in 2001. "When I studied at Cambridge, there was only one female lecturer and I think it's a similar situation now."

Dr Isaacson became pregnant after she applied for her job and admitted being worried at how her future employer would react. "I was wearing a 'baby on board' badge for the Tube and bumped into one of the people on the hiring committee, so telling them was an accident but they were very nice and supportive."

Shonagh MacRae said she had a "horrifying experience" at her university four years ago. "A male professor asked me to join his lab and asked me if I planned to get pregnant while working with him. The message was he didn't want a pregnant grad student because his insurance would have to cover the costs."

Dr Isaacson said she returned to work after only four and a half months' maternity leave. "If I stayed away for longer, I'm conscious that my career may not be the same. You need to have work published fairly regularly, so taking a proper break when you begin a family can result in a step down on the career ladder."

Dr Isaacson said offering staff flexibility is key. "Women are often very scared to say they are pregnant. I know I was. There are definitely women in science who have chosen not to have a family and have progressed further as a result."

Paul Gallagher