Anneila Sargent

Anneila Sargent is Professor of Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology and currently serves on the National Science Board as well as being Chair of NASA’s Space Science Advisory Committee and Director of the Combined Array for Research in Millimeterwave Astronomy.

Anneila Sargent

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 the person I wanted to marry [the late astronomer Wallace Sargent] also wanted to go to graduate school. In those days the government terminated women graduate student’s funding if they got married. They said your husband could keep you. For me, staying at home was not an option, so my husband encouraged me to apply for a place in the US with him.

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 when adjudicators know they are reading a paper written by a man or listening to a woman playing the viola. And it’s not just men; women do it to other women as well.

I once heard a slogan from the French feminism movement: “successful women are our worst enemies”, and I’ve seen that to be true. Women know what they fought through, and they think others should do the same. We need to push against this.

Back to your time in 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, and 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 in Blackford Hill and, while I knew Mary did her own research as well as instructing us and telling us great things, to see her at home looking after their young children was eye-opening. I remember thinking, this is good – you can do everything.

Read a tribute to Mary Brück on the Scotsman website