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Published: 26 January 2021

Surrey Women in Science and Engineering Year: a 12 month celebration of Daphne Jackson’s legacy

2021 marks 50 years since Daphne Jackson became the first female Professor of Physics in the UK. Honouring this milestone, we are launching a year of ‘Surrey Women in Science and Engineering’ to celebrate the achievements of Professor Jackson and the many women she helped to inspire.

A lifelong campaigner for women in science and engineering careers, Daphne Jackson was a distinguished theoretical nuclear physicist who became Professor of Physics at Surrey at the age of 34, in 1971.

Fifty years on, we have designated 2021 as Surrey Women in Science and Engineering Year, and will be celebrating the achievements of Professor Jackson and the women who have followed in her footsteps through their pioneering work in science and engineering. This will include monthly news features and interviews with Surrey’s past, present and future stars – from world-leading academics to current students. We will also be staging special events to mark International Women in Engineering Day in June and Daphne Jackson Day in the autumn, with plenty of opportunities for students, alumni and academics to get involved.

Throughout the year, Surrey will look back on Professor Jackson’s incredible life, which was cut short by her untimely death in 1992.

A passionate promoter of women in science

Having graduated with a degree in physics from Imperial College – where she was one of only two female students in her cohort of 100 – Professor Jackson started work as a researcher at Surrey, then the Battersea College of Technology, and was awarded her PhD in 1962, later becoming a lecturer.

Her niece Susan Balgarnie (who studied at Surrey herself) remembers: “Students really mattered to her and she cared that young people got a good education. She felt very strongly that if you had a passion or vocation for something, you should be allowed to pursue it.”

Professor Jackson was a prolific academic, publishing 55 papers on the use of nuclear physics in medicine during her career, and contributed to the fight against cancer through her work with the Institute for Cancer Research and Royal Marsden Hospital, which was recognised with an OBE in 1987.

In the course of her work, she met many talented women who were reduced to taking low-level jobs after a career break to have children or care for parents (something she had first-hand experience of as carer for her own mother).

She famously said: “Imagine a society that would allow Marie Curie to stack shelves in a supermarket simply because she took a career break for family reasons.”

Determined to stop this waste of talent, in 1985 she launched a pilot scheme for women returners which gave them the retraining and flexibility they needed to get back into a research career.

Following her death, the Daphne Jackson Trust was set up to continue the scheme and, to date, it has helped over 400 researchers to return to their careers by offering part-time, flexible Fellowships which enable them to conduct research alongside an individually tailored retraining programme.

Dr Katie Perry, Chief Executive of the Daphne Jackson Trust, explains that the Trust’s work today is a direct progression of Professor Jackson’s scheme.

“Daphne wanted to take away the disadvantage of a career break, and that is still very much our role. We currently have 64 Fellowships running at universities, research institutes and other organisations across the UK and Republic of Ireland. One of the biggest barriers to returning to research is loss of confidence, so we tackle that by providing one-to-one support from our Fellowship advisers.” - Dr Katie Perry

Hosted within the Department of Physics at Surrey, the Trust has always had a very inclusive philosophy, and 10 to 15 per cent of its Fellows are now male returners. Its remit has also recently been extended to include arts and humanities research.

Dr Perry, who studied physics at Surrey as an undergraduate and PhD student while Professor Jackson was Head of Department, says: “From a personal perspective, she was a great inspiration and mentor to me. During the first year of my PhD she asked me to take over the outreach talks she was delivering in schools when she became ill, and this helped to develop my interest in public engagement. I’m delighted to have come full circle and now lead the Trust that honours her memory.”

Surrey’s culture of equality

Alongside the Trust, Professor Jackson’s legacy at Surrey has been a culture of equal opportunities and diversity. Within the University’s commitment to Equality Diversity and Inclusion, it spearheads initiatives such as a returners programme and Menopause Café.

The University holds an Athena SWAN Bronze Award, and the Departments of Mechanical Engineering Sciences, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Computer Science and Maths, and the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, have Athena SWAN Bronze Awards at departmental level, while Physics holds the Juno Award – a subject-specific equivalent. The School of Biosciences and Medicine has been awarded Athena SWAN Silver status.

Today, with more female students and academics at Surrey than ever before, the University strives to provide a nurturing community where all students and academics are supported to succeed – very much in line with Professor Jackson’s philosophy.

“My aunt was proud of her achievements, but she had no wish to stand alone,” remembers Susan Balgarnie. “Much of her work was about finding opportunities for other women and giving them a better platform – such as helping to set up Surrey’s nursing degree. While she was single-minded in her research, she was also very grounded in the real world and an excellent communicator.”

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