After studying at Edinburgh, astronomer Anneila Sargent forged a remarkable career, and today advises US President Barack Obama as a member of the National Science Board. Having delivered this year’s International Women’s Day Lecture, she spoke to Edit about Edinburgh, feminism and hanging in there.

You grew up in Fife and speak fondly of your time at Kirkcaldy High School. How important were your teachers in encouraging your interest in science?

We had a relatively big school, which attracted lots of great teachers. I realise now it was a small miracle that I was taught physics by a physics graduate, chemistry by a chemistry graduate, and so on. I was also taught by a number of women who were far from stereotypical “school ma’ams” in the sense that they were unusually vibrant – interested in life as well as their vocations. It dawned on me later that they would probably have married had it not been for the Second World War. I had particularly inspiring physics and maths teachers as well as these impressive women. And that did make a difference, yes.

What made you decide to study at Edinburgh?

Because I didn’t want to go to St Andrews – it’s in Fife and was too close to home.

Being back in Scotland must bring back many memories – which ones stand out from your student days?

I think the degree to which we had freedom to get up to things I would rather not discuss! But I loved my time in Edinburgh and remember it as almost a party school; you worked hard and you got to play hard. We have a study abroad programme at Caltech University [Professor Sargent is currently Vice-President for Student Affairs] and I am always telling students that Edinburgh is a fantastic place to go. And their reports always show that my advice was right.

Where were your favourite places in Edinburgh to spend time – whether working or playing?

I was incredibly fortunate as I lived in Masson Hall, which was in George Square and pretty central. We could study in the square or on the Meadows during the summer and it was easy to walk everywhere. I do remember a Hungarian restaurant in Toll Cross we used to like going to on a Saturday night.

“I am always telling students that Edinburgh is a fantastic place to go. And their reports always show that my advice was right.”

What took you to the United States?

It was at the point when I wanted to go to graduate school. At that time I realised I might get married, and in those days marriage was a reason for the government to terminate funding to women graduate students. It was expected that your husband would support you. Instead, I took a research job at the Royal Greenwich Observatory where I met my husband [the late astronomer Wallace Sargent]. By that time he was receiving offers of assistant professorships in the US and he encouraged me to apply for a place in graduate schools at the same universities.

Do you think opportunities for female scientists have improved in recent years?

I think in the UK there are more young women coming through the pipeline, but like the United States, we are still losing quite a lot and we’re not quite sure why. Studies show that if someone is auditioning for an orchestra or writing a scientific paper, blind auditions or peer reviews give very different results from those reached when adjudicators know they are reading a paper written by a man or listening to a woman playing the viola. Women do better when gender is not explicitly known.

And it’s not just men who make judgments like that; women do it too. A long time ago I heard a slogan from the French feminist movement — “successful women are our worst enemies” — and I’ve seen that can be true. These women know what they fought through, and sometimes think those following them should do the same. We need to push back and try to help younger women advance.

“Dr Mary Brück: she was a real inspiration. I remember thinking, this is good – you can do everything.”

During your time at Edinburgh were there any inspirational people who encouraged you to continue your studies?

I took an astrophysics course in my final year and was taught by Dr Mary Brück: she was a real inspiration. She was married to Professor Hermann Brück, who was Astronomer Royal for Scotland and Director of the Royal Observatory at that time. As final-year students we were invited to their home on Blackford Hill and, while I knew Mary did her own research as well as instructing us and keeping us entertained about astronomy, to see her at home looking after their young children as well was eye opening. I remember thinking, this is good – you can do everything.

What would you say you are most proud of?

I am most proud of my honorary degree from Edinburgh – I really am! [Professor Sargent received her honorary doctorate in 2008, shown in the photo above.] There’s no question in my mind. I almost wept when I received that, and I love the gown. I was also delighted to be Alumna of the Year in 2002.

Do you keep in touch with any of your student friends from Edinburgh?

Oh yes, I stay in touch with a number of girls I was very friendly with in Masson Hall, as well as my one woman classmate in Physics, and of course high school friends in Edinburgh and Fife. We’re close enough that one or two have come to the US for my daughters’ weddings, and I’ve managed attend a few weddings among their children. These are very important contacts for me and through them I hear of an even wider circle.

What are your ambitions now?

I don’t think I’ve ever had explicit ambitions. When I look back, my career looks as if it was going somewhere, but it never felt like that. But I do have a strong conviction that something will always turn up. I expect to step down as Vice-President very soon so I am wondering a bit about what’s next. When I was Director of Caltech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory, we built a telescope array in California, which was part of the inspiration for the new international millimetre array, ALMA, in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It’s a tremendously exciting project and a lot of my former students and postdocs are involved, so I am thinking of spending more time on research in that area.

What advice would you give to graduates from Edinburgh looking to begin a career in science?

Hang in there! And be aware of opportunities. If a door closes, try to see the other one. Be confident of your work. Believe in your abilities – you really can live your dreams.

Professor Anneila Sargent gives the 2015 International Women’s Day Lecture at Edinburgh, entitled 'Make it Happen: Women into Science'. Introduced by Professor Lesley Yellowlees, Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Science & Engineering.

Comments on “‘Believe in your abilities’”

Discuss this article