Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Address by the Public Orator, Mr Nigel Siesage, to be given on 19 July 2018

What is the trigger for a successful person’s career? It’s a constantly fascinating question.

In Maggie Aderin-Pocock’s case, a crucial factor was a children’s television programme featuring some soft toys who lived on a distant planet and communicated with each other in high pitched fluting sounds. The Clangers captured her imagination at the age of three, and this was reinforced by Star Trek as she grew older. Mesmerised by the moon (as she puts it), by the age of 15 she was making her own telescope, grinding the lens herself because a shop-bought one was inadequate.

All true – but of course, this is not the whole story. Maggie’s considerable achievements as a scientist and communicator, and an inspirer in her own right, have more sophisticated origins.

Maggie was born in London in 1968. Her parents had recently migrated from Nigeria and her childhood could hardly be described as smooth. She encountered racism, which in her positive way she describes as ‘teasing’, rather than ‘bullying’; she was dyslexic, which held back her progress at school; she was a girl, and so seen by her teachers as better suited to a nursing than a scientific career; and the break-up of her parents’ marriage when she was very young resulted in her attending 13 schools in the course of 14 years. Maggie is not a person to be defeated by such challenges, or to be resentful. On the contrary, she says the experiences have made her adaptable, and she has addressed racial, gender and social stereotypes with a determination to prove herself, and to support others in addressing them, with resilience and good humour.

Despite a disrupted schooling, and encouraged in her studies by her father, she won a place to read Physics at Imperial College, followed by a PhD in Mechanical Engineering involving the development of an ultra-thin film measurement system using spectroscopy and interferometry. And she met her husband, Martin, in the process.

Her research led to a job at the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, where she worked first as a systems scientist on aircraft missile warning systems, and then as a project manager developing hand-held instruments to detect landmines.

In 1999 she returned to Imperial College to work with the group developing a high-resolution spectrograph for the Gemini telescope in Chile. It was a far cry from that modest homemade lens 16 years earlier to the sophisticated 8.1 metre mirror lens high up in the lonely Chilean Andes, but the dream was the same - to get the best possible vision of the entire sky (including, of course, the moon).

This was followed by posts with Surrey Satellites and with Astrium, where she led the team responsible for developing optical systems for use on satellites.

A successful career in research and in the UK space industry has, however, not been the whole story. With Martin, she set up Science Innovations Ltd, and that has been the vehicle for giving imaginative presentations, including simulated space journeys, to many thousands of school pupils, with the aim of inspiring new generations of scientists and engineers – and in the process correcting those assumptions about what black girls can achieve. The worthy but unimaginatively named UK-DMC 2 earth imaging satellite was turned, under Maggie’s guidance, into Blue Peter 1, in a project which enabled children to see the satellite being made, its launch into orbit, and the images it takes, giving them an insight into how our planet is changing.

So it was only natural that, as an outstandingly lucid and likeable interpreter of science, Maggie was chosen in 2014 as one of the co-presenters of The Sky at Night. She is a worthy successor to Sir Patrick Moore, a close friend of this University, who himself stood on this stage to receive an honorary degree in 1996 and a Distinguished Honorary Fellowship in 2008.

Maggie lists stargazing as one of her main recreations. Her childhood ambition to get to the moon may now have dimmed – but she has a daughter who may yet have that opportunity. Meanwhile her contributions and achievements are widely recognised. She was appointed MBE in 2009 for services to science education; she has been listed as one of the UK’s 10 most influential black people; her work has been recognised by the Yale University Centre for Dyslexia; and she is an honorary fellow of the British Science Association – to select only a few examples.

This is not the first honorary degree that Maggie has received; but I venture to suggest that no university is better qualified to award one to her. As the founders of the National Space Centre, we share Maggie’s commitment to inspiring interest in science through the wonders of space. As developers of Space Park Leicester, we have a common interest in space research and the development of the UK space industry; and as leading academic participants in the HeforShe initiative, we are united in our commitment to equality of opportunity.

Rarely, therefore, can it have been more appropriate to welcome a new honorary graduate among us.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Margaret Ebunoluwa Aderin-Pocock, that you may confer upon her the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.

Share this page: