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

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links