Dr Becky's International Women's Day Assembly
Monday, 08 March 2021
Pupils at Bolton School Girls’ Division started International Women’s Day 2021, and their first week back on site after lockdown, with an inspirational assembly. Astrophysicist and Old Girl Dr Becky Smethurst (Class of 2008) joined pupils on Zoom to talk about her job and her path to becoming a scientist.
Dr Becky currently studies supermassive black holes and their effects on galaxies at the University of Oxford (Christ Church). She is also an ambassador for women in science and an enthusiastic science communicator with a successful YouTube channel. In 2020, she received the Institute of Physics Mary Somerville Medal and Prize, which recognises exceptional early career contributions to public engagement in physics.
First, she gave the girls a taste of what she does, from exciting international trips where she visits telescopes and takes observations of the sky, to long hours crunching numbers at her desk, to presenting her findings on how galaxies and black holes grow together. She also explained how it is possible to ‘weigh’ a black hole by calculating the speed of the hydrogen gas spiralling around it, using graphs of real data as illustration.
Circling back to talk about how she became an astrophysicist, Dr Becky began with her first day at Bolton School as a Year 4 pupil. She described herself as an inquisitive child who had always loved space, but admitted that it was only when she started to learn about ‘the fun stuff’ like radioactivity and astronomy at GCSE that physics became her favourite subject. Speaking about her time at the school, she said: ‘I’m very grateful for all the knowledge I learned from the teachers at Bolton. They really do give you a rounded education and you should get as much knowledge as you can from them while you can. Everything I do, I do standing on their shoulders.’
Dr Becky shared her experience of leaving school and stepping into the unknown. Although she said it was terrifying to make such big decisions, she was able to reassure students who might be struggling with similar feelings.
She also implored the girls to make mistakes, because these are the experiences that shape us. She talked about one of her own: moving into an engineering role following her undergraduate degree at Durham University, only to quickly realise it was not for her. This led her to continue her studies with a PhD at Oxford University, followed by her current job researching black holes surrounded by wonderful colleagues who share her passion for space.
Finally, returning to the theme of International Women’s Day, she showed her appreciation for the many supportive women around her, including colleagues, friends and family.
In the live question and answer session that followed, pupils asked more about Dr Becky’s typical day, her favourite place to visit as part of her work, and her advice on applying to and interviewing at Oxford University. She revealed that her favourite planet is Saturn because of its beautiful rings, while her favourite star is Betelgeuse because it’s close to dying and could go supernova, something she hopes to see in her lifetime! She also talked about her experience on the recent Christmas University Challenge, and how realistic science fiction films are: her favourite is The Martian because it’s the most accurate portrayal.
Dr Becky also spoke about overcoming imposter syndrome. She advised girls to look at everything they have achieved and realise that they are good enough. She also discussed prejudice, including microagressions, but focused on the fact that the people around her have always been supportive. She spoke about women in the scientific community who acknowledge the prejudices they jointly face and band together, nominating one another for awards and being the change that they want to see. She said that she feels encouraged to have seen positive change in just the past five years, and hopes that the fear of prejudice would never put anyone off following a career in science.
As the assembly came to a close, Year 13 student Sophie Hann thanked Dr Becky for taking the time to speak to the school. She said that the talk was an inspiration not only for young women with a passion for STEM subjects, but anyone who wishes to communicate complex ideas clearly.
Dr Becky’s International Women’s Day address can be viewed in full here, or via the play button below:
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