Professor Jo Dunkley

Professor Jo Dunkley

As part of International Women’s Day we want to highlight some of the fantastic winners of the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Medal and Lecture. The Rosalind Franklin Medal and Lecture is awarded to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to any area of science and includes a grant for a project to raise the profile of women in STEM.

Jo Dunkley is Professor of Physics and Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. Her research is in cosmology, studying the origins and evolution of the universe. She was awarded the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Medal in 2016 and gave the lecture ‘The window on the Universe’ in October 2016.

Can you explain your research and day to day roles?

I ask questions about how the universe behaves as a whole thing. So I’m interested in how universes begin and what the rules of physics that describe them are. In my day to day work I do a lot of computer programming to study data taken from telescopes, which I then turn into quantities that describe the universe. This includes things like how old is it and how fast is it growing. I am also involved in guiding students.

How did you get to where you are today?

At school I enjoyed maths the most and it became apparent I could use it to describe the real world. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a physicist but it was the thing that appealed to me the most. I also had quite varied interests so I was never just a scientist!

I did my undergraduate degree in Cambridge then graduated not knowing what I wanted to do as a job. It took me a year before starting a PhD in Astrophysics in Oxford where I realised I loved thinking about science and I couldn’t stop. I later moved to Princeton which set up collaborations with colleagues that have lasted until today. I returned to Oxford where I spent eight years, before the opportunity came up to come back to Princeton.

What did it mean to you to be awarded the Rosalind Franklin Medal and Lecture?

It was such an honour to be awarded the Medal. Rosalind Franklin is such a role model and it is a big honour to be associated with her. The lecture was a fantastic forum to share what I do. Young women don’t always get to see enough senior people sharing their science, and I think it helps to see someone that you can relate to.

The theme for IWD 2017 is “be bold for change”. What is your take on this and what do you think that means to women, and women in science?

One thing is being confident and being yourself. We all have to decide how to live our lives, be professional scientists and be humans as well. To me (and this doesn’t just apply to women) it has always been about deciding how you want to do it that is important. I have a three year old daughter so I don’t do things that aren’t compatible to both doing my research and my family life. Sometimes people can feel pressure to conform but that doesn’t need to be true. This can mean having the confidence to decide you’re going to make your own path through life.

What would your one piece of advice be for young women starting in science?

Never assume you can’t do it. Even if something is hard, there is no reason that any one person isn’t as good as anybody else. You’ve got to remember that even when it gets difficult, other people are just better at hiding it! Also, if you enjoy something but find it challenging it is a good thing that you need to push through to understand.

You can watch Jo’s Rosalind Franklin Award Lecture ‘A window on the Universe’ online and also read other interviews with Rosalind Franklin winners on the Royal Society’s blog.