April 21, 2024

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

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

It was my Nigerian passport photo. I was very excited to have my photo taken and so was my sister. We wore Ladybird dresses from Woolworths. Mine was green with a collar and hers was red. I remember being quite jealous of her.

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

Getting a Nigerian passport made me feel like I had more of an identity because overall I didn’t feel like 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 lived in Camden, so at school students would say things like, “Go home.”

Fortunately, my passion for space came. I was born a year before the moon landings. Throughout my childhood, space was filled everywhere. I realized that when you look at the Earth from space, you don’t see barriers or divisions – you just see the planet. It was really appealing to me as a kid. Like was 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’re in space, none of the things that divide us matter: we’re all just humanity.

I would describe my childhood as turbulent, and that’s with rose colored glasses! I went to 13 different schools. My parents split up when I was little, so sometimes I was with my mom and sometimes I was with my dad. The transfers from school to school were not 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 fit in here?”

After that photo was taken, my younger sister was sent to live in Nigeria. My father had four daughters and worked at the same time, so he juggled too many balls and needed help from his family. It was a real wrench for me. I always looked after my sister as if I were her mini-mom. I was so sad when she left. I think at some point there was a plan 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 of London. In general, people at the schools thought of me as nice but dull; partly because I was dyslexic, but of course nobody diagnosed it at the time. That level of underestimation didn’t bother me – it just gave me the opportunity to prove them wrong. So I worked hard. From the beginning, my father prioritized education. He used to ask me: “So which Oxford college are you going to?” He moved to the UK in the 1950s when the message was: no blacks, no dogs, no Irish. He raised daughters in a rather hostile environment and believed the great equalizer was education.

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

However, those setbacks did not deter me from my ambition. All my studies were a means to an end and each step, no matter how difficult, brought me closer to my crazy goal of getting into space so I could learn what’s out there. I may 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 mother, who always lifted me up and pushed me forward. During my PhD I was in a group of 200 people at Imperial doing physics. There were five women, and one other Black person. I got used to walking into 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 was capable. I am not a stranger.

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Assimilating in this industry has not always been easy. There were times when I would walk into a room and someone would hand me a set of keys and say, “Here you go, you can clean the offices.” Because I’m 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 see it as my role to help people overcome their assumptions so they don’t make those mistakes again, but it’s hard sometimes and trying to tackle it.

The only time I really doubted my desire to get into space was when my daughter was born. I was 42 and I was worried that I would never be able to have children. When she arrived, I was amazed. I thought, “I have to stay here and watch this new vulnerable creature!” I realized that I have a job here on earth.

For a while she had the same dream as me: she told people that she wanted to be a scientist and travel to space with her mother. She has since moved on from that dream, but I haven’t. If anything, I’ve gotten even more adventurous as I’ve gotten older. I’m still an absolute lunatic when it comes to space. If I’ve 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 big and wide and glorious. It’s not like you just look up and all your problems disappear, but it’s important to realize that we’re all part of something wonderful.

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.” This is what I tell children today when I meet them. Reach for the stars, dream a crazy dream and let’s see where it takes you.

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