Maggie Aderin-Pocock: A woman on a mission, proving science isn't just for rich, white men

Maggie Aderin-Pocock is the BBC's new face of space – and she's come a long way from a council estate. She tells Steve Connor why inner-city kids should build a hi-tech economy

Maggie Aderin-Pocock breezes into the newly refurbished Royal Institution in London, where Michael Faraday and a long line of eminent scientists have communicated science to the public, and mentions that at some point in the interview she may have to breastfeed her baby daughter, Lauren.

On the walls of the Space and Time Cafe, staring down at us, are the photographic portraits of some of those eminent Royal Institution scientists. They are overwhelmingly male, unanimously white and almost invariably stern. Aderin-Pocock is none of these.

She was born in Britain to Nigerian parents who separated when she was four. She grew up in a council flat in Camden, north London, and was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of eight.

Despite this difficult background, she still managed to get to university, earn a PhD in physics from Imperial College London, and embark on a second career as a television science presenter – her programme on satellites was on BBC2 last night.

Aderin-Pocock is on a mission to explain science to the sort of kids she mixed with as a child in inner-city London. Faraday would have approved. He was, after all, the son of a blacksmith and tried to introduce science to the young and disadvantaged with his Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution in the early 19th century, when electricity and magnetism were still novel concepts.

Today's politicians are telling us the economy needs "rebalancing" away from financial services towards the knowledge economy of science and technology. Instead of the brightest physics graduates becoming hedge-fund managers, the Government wants them to be scientists and hi-tech entrepreneurs.

What Aderin-Pocock wants to do is tap into the great pool of potential talent within the state school system. She says she wants inner-city kids to aim for outer space.

"Science is a wonder. It's like poetry and music and yet people don't see it that way. In the heyday of the Royal Institution people were queuing up outside to get in, but now science has become bit remote," she says.

"I was working as a space scientist and it was really hard to recruit people. It was very odd because we travel the world, we make a difference and it's really fun. So I decided to do something about it," she says. Her infectious enthusiasm for science, and physics in particular, have made her a hit with the ordinary children who flock to her talks and who might otherwise think that science is not for them.

After finishing her PhD she won a research council grant to "tour the universe", as she puts it, and decided to go out and proselytise her subject in some of the most disadvantaged schools in the country.

"I said I would do a tour of the universe, meaning I'd talk to young kids and older kids taking their GCSEs. I said I don't want to talk to them about the science, but about the people behind the science," Aderin-Pocock says. "I try to answer three questions: why I became a scientist, how I became a scientist and, most important, what I do as a scientist. One of the problems is that physics careers are not very visible. If you do medicine or accountancy you know what people do. I try to show them what you can do with a degree in physics."

From an early age, Aderin-Pocock wanted to go into space and still remembers a hurtful rebuff from one of her teachers who suggested a career in nursing instead. With this in mind she urges her audiences of schoolchildren to reach for the stars, no matter how far away they seem.

"I talk about the power of dreams because many kids don't actually aspire, which I think is dangerous ... Perhaps they do aspire, but they aspire to be the next person on The X-Factor or something like that.

"My passion was that I wanted to go into space and the manifestation of that now is that I want to be a space scientist. So although I'm advocating science, I'm advocating anything that someone has a passion for."

As for her own success, she puts that down largely to "lucky parenting" and in particular an ambitious father.

"Nigerian parents have a strong educational ethic. Education is seen as critical, so right from when I was not much older than Lauren my father would say, 'So which university are you going to? Have you considered Oxford or Cambridge?'"

At this point in the interview Lauren, who is nearly two, decides that the chips on her mother's plate look more appetising than what she's been sucking on for the past few minutes. Lauren takes one, dips it in tomato ketchup and fixes me with a smile. It's clear she's used to strangers.

"She loves flying. She's travelled everywhere with me, to Japan and she's been to the States three times," Aderin-Pocock says.

"When we first started flying she was only five months. The most difficult time is take-off and landing because of the pressure change, which is one of the reasons why she's still breast fed – it's like sucking a boiled sweet," she explains.

Having a small child in tow does not seem to dent Aderin-Pocock's unbounded energy and enthusiasm, but she admits it has been difficult. "I've been a working scientist since I got my PhD and juggling that with science communication was hard, but juggling daughter, work and science communication is even harder," she says.

Her ability to communicate science with an enthusiastic sense of fun was soon spotted by media professionals. One memorable moment on Newsnight had her demonstrating when the Moon turns blood red during a lunar eclipse. "I asked Jeremy Paxman to be the Sun by holding a torch. He got quite into it," she says.

Her first television programme, on the Moon, was deemed a success, and now she has followed it up with last night's programme on satellites. The subject is close to home, given that she works as a private consultant to satellite companies.

She still has difficulty with reading and spelling but has largely overcome the drawbacks of dyslexia with her incredible energy and evident ability at working with her hands as well as her brain.

"I point out that Albert Einstein allegedly suffered from dyslexia and didn't start speaking until he was four years old, so his parents probably thought he was quite slow. You don't need a big brain the size of a planet, or mad hair. You need a passion to understand things," she says.

As for her overriding ambition, she still hasn't given up on her dream of space travel.

"My plan now is to retire to Mars. After Lauren has grown up, I could live out the rest of my days there. Because it's very expensive to come back it would be a one-way ticket. That's my retirement plan," she says.

In Orbit: How Satellites Rule Our World will be repeated on BBC2 tonight at 11.20pm and again tomorrow at 12.20am.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born 1968, in London to Nigerian parents, who divorced when she was four. Has one daughter, Lauren, with her husband, Martin.

Education Attended La Sainte Union convent school in Camden and despite having dyslexia studied for a degree in physics, followed by a PhD in mechanical engineering at Imperial College London.

Career Worked for the Ministry of Defence before taking a job at University College London, in 1999. Moved on to become a project manager at Surrey Satellites. In 2006, a grant from the Science and Technology Facilities Council allowed her to move into science communication, touring schools to spread her enthusiasm for science. Made an MBE in 2009 for services to science and education.

Next generation TV scientists

Professor Brian Cox

The supergiant star of the science-on-TV scene. Earned a PhD in physics before appearing on the BBC's Horizon programme. His breakout hit was Wonders of the Solar System.

 

Dr Adam Rutherford

With a degree in evolutionary biology and a PhD in the genetics of the eye, he has worked on programmes across BBC radio and television.

 

Liz Bonnin

After a TV career that included a stint on Top of the Pops, she made the switch to science and has been fronting the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory since 2009.

 

Dr Helen Czerski

A relatively new face, Dr Czerski is currently presenting Orbit: Earth's Extraordinary Journey on the BBC.

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