Space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock: ‘I was underestimated as a child. I want to tell kids to reach for the stars’ | Life and style

Maggie Aderin-Pocock in 1975 and 2024
Maggie Aderin-Pocock in 1975 and 2024. Later photograph: Pål Hansen. Styling: Andie Redman. Hair and makeup: Sadaf Ahmad. Archive photograph: courtesy of Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Born in London in 1968 to Nigerian parents, Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a scientist and presenter of The Sky at Night. She trained as a physicist – graduating from Imperial College London with a PhD in 1994, and working for the Ministry of Defence on landmine detection and missile warning systems. She has since designed a host of space instruments, become the first Black woman to win a gold medal in the Physics News Award and in 2013 took over from Patrick Moore as a co-host of the BBC’s long-running astronomy show. Aderin-Pocock is one of the panellists for the National Trust’s Time + Space Award, a new initiative to give 16- to 25-year-olds the resources to explore ideas.

This was my Nigerian passport photo. I was quite excited to have my picture taken and my sister was, too. We were wearing Ladybird dresses from Woolworths. Mine was green with a collar and hers was red. I remember I was quite envious of hers.

At a first glance my expression is quite innocent, but when I look closer it’s not quite as sweet. There’s a determination in those eyes that surprises me. I didn’t think I had much of that at this age, but I must have done.

Getting a Nigerian passport made me feel I had more of an identity, because, generally speaking, I didn’t feel as if I belonged anywhere. I didn’t speak any Nigerian language and I had never been there, but at the same time I didn’t fit in in the UK. I was Black and living in Camden so, at school, students would say things like, “Go home.”

Thankfully, my passion for space came along. I was born a year before the moon landings. Throughout my childhood, space was infused everywhere. I realised that when you look at Earth from space, you don’t see barriers or division – you just see the planet. That was really appealing to me as a child. As were the Clangers, of course, and Star Trek. Star Trek was about people from all over the world, including aliens, like Spock, going on adventures and working together in harmony. The United Federation of Planets sounded fantastic and inspired me. When you are spacefaring none of the things that divide us matter: we are all just humanity.

I’d describe my childhood as turbulent, and that’s with rose-tinted glasses! I went to 13 different schools. My parents split up when I was little, so sometimes I was with my mum and sometimes I was with my dad. The transfers from school to school weren’t always smooth, but that level of change made me adaptable; a great life skill. As an adult, I’m comfortable walking into any space and thinking, “OK, how am I going to blend in here?”

After that picture was taken, my younger sister was sent to live in Nigeria. My father had four daughters and was working at the same time, so he was juggling too many balls and needed help from his family. That was a real wrench for me. I always looked after my sister as if I were her mini-mum. I was so sad when she left. I think there was a plan at one point to take me there, too, which is why we got those Nigerian passports. In the end, I was sent to boarding school. It was hard being away from home, but I loved learning and going somewhere new.

My first boarding school was in the New Forest, Hampshire, which was quite the culture shock from London. Generally, people at the schools thought of me as nice but dim; partly because I was dyslexic, but, of course, nobody was diagnosing that back then. That level of underestimation didn’t bother me – it just gave me the opportunity to prove them wrong. So I worked hard. Right from the get-go my father prioritised education. He’d always ask me: “So what Oxford college are you going to go to?” He had moved to the UK in the 1950s when the message was: no Blacks, no dogs, no Irish. He was bringing up daughters in a fairly hostile environment and believed the great leveller was education.

When I was working for the Ministry of Defence, I used to have to write reports. I’d procrastinate a lot. Everything would be last minute. I’d think: why is everyone else able to write reports so easily, and come up with sentences that are succinct? Why is it so hard for me? I would beat myself up and thought I must be lazy, but actually I was just dyslexic, and I probably have ADHD, too.

Those setbacks didn’t deter me from my ambition, however. All my studies were a means to an end and every step, no matter how hard, got me closer to my crazy goal of getting into space so I could learn what’s out there. I might not have had role models in the science world who looked like me, but I had strong, larger-than-life people like my sisters and my mum, who always lifted me up and drove me forward. During my PhD, I was in a cohort of 200 people at Imperial doing physics. There were five women, and one other Black person. I became used to entering a room and thinking: “Oh, I’m the only Black person or woman here.” When you have a common cause – space – that sense of difference often goes away. As my career progressed and I became a project manager, I was able to demonstrate that I am capable. I am not an alien.

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Assimilating in this industry hasn’t always been easy. There have been times where I have walked into a room and someone has given me a set of keys and said: “Here you go, you can clean the offices.” Because I am a Black woman, they assume I must be a cleaner. There’s nothing wrong with that profession, but the assumption that I wasn’t there because I was a scientist was painful. I now consider it my role to try to help people overcome their assumptions, so they don’t make those mistakes again, but it is sometimes hard and trying to take that on.

The only time I’ve properly wavered about my desire to get into space was when my daughter was born. I was 42 and I had worried I was never going to be able to have children. When she arrived, I was amazed. I thought: “I’ve got to stay here and look after this new vulnerable being!” I realised that I had a job here on Earth.

For a while she harboured the same dream as me: she told people that she wanted to be a scientist and travel to space with her mother. She’s since moved on from that dream, but I haven’t. If anything, I have become even more adventurous as I’ve got older. I’m still an absolute lunatic when it comes to space. If I have had a hard day, I look at the moon and it makes me feel better. I get quite frustrated when it’s cloudy, because I can’t see the moon properly. Space really puts things into perspective. It’s vast and wide and glorious. It’s not as if you just look up and all your problems go away, but it’s important to realise that we are all part of something amazing.

I remember being underestimated as a child. I wish I could go back to that little Maggie and say: “You can do it. You have the biggest dream and you have the potential.” That’s what I tell kids today whenever I meet them. Reach for the stars, have a crazy dream and let’s see where it takes you.


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