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Reaching for the Stars

College launches new Parasol Foundation scholarships for women in astronomy

Woman sitting in a relaxed, reclined pose surrounded by the metal framework of a giant telescope

Murray Edwards College is establishing a new scholarship programme with the Parasol Foundation Trust; so more talented female students from the UK can study astronomy and astrophysics at Cambridge University.

The first intake of students to take up The Parasol Foundation Scholarships will start in the academic year 2024-2025. Three promising female applicants a year will be offered a fully-funded place – including tuition fees and maintenance – to study for a Master’s degree in Astrophysics, an MPhil in Astronomy or the new MPhil in Planetary Science and Life in the Universe (PSLU) at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy. The latter course is deliberately inter-disciplinary to mirror the interplay of knowledge needed to help unlock the secrets of the Universe.

The one-year Master’s degree programme is not only valuable to students themselves but will provide a vital pathway for more women to progress further in academia and in careers in the space sector. They are significantly under-represented in both areas. Figures show there is an alarming under-representation of women at lecturer and professor level in STEM subjects in UK universities.In 2021-22, women made up only 14% of professors of Physics, Maths and Chemistry, while in Electrical and Computer Engineering, only 9% were women.

According to the 2020 Space Census, women account for only 29% of the space workforce.

Professor Hiranya Peiris is the first woman to be appointed to the prestigious Professorship of Astrophysics (1909) at Cambridge in its 115-year history, taking up the post in October 2023. She is also a current Fellow and alumna of Murray Edwards College, with a strong commitment to widening access to Cambridge. Together with College President Dorothy Byrne, she is determined to break down the systemic barriers that hold women back from achieving their true potential.

Murray Edwards, formerly known as New Hall, was chosen for The Parasol Foundation Scholarships because it is a college for women boasting a proud record educating women in STEM. In Astrophysics alone, the College’s distinguished alumnae include Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discoverer of pulsars, and Katherine Blundell, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

Nevertheless, evidence shows that women are still in the minority at Cambridge when it comes to studying most STEM subjects, notably Computer Science and Mathematics. At the university overall, there is an even gender split among undergraduates, but in the 2022 intake (the most recent for which figures are available) women made up just under a fifth of computing and maths students, and took only just over a quarter of Engineering places.

When I read about Professor Peiris’ appointment and the work that is going on to encourage more females to study STEM subjects it felt a natural fit to support their efforts. These new scholarships build on our long association with Cambridge University. In the past, we have funded the Darwin Library and given scholarships to promising students from overseas.
‘We believe that women should be heard and seen in all spaces and places. I succeeded in the male dominated world of tech and sadly things haven’t changed much since I made it. I want to do all I can to encourage women and girls to have opportunities and remove the barriers that stand in the way of their talent.
Ruth Monicka Parasol, principal benefactor
‘This is a great opportunity to offer more women, no matter what their background, the chance to study space sciences. This is one of the most exciting fields in STEM, yet we know it is also an area of shocking gender imbalance.

‘We are very grateful to the Parasol Foundation for their generous support in helping us give individual outstanding female scholars the chance to pursue their academic dreams, but also in helping us drive for equality in this cutting-edge academic discipline. As a women’s college with a proud record in producing brilliant astrophysicists, we are perfectly placed to demonstrate that there is no place for misogyny in space.'
Dorothy Byrne, Murray Edwards College President

Further information

  • The Parasol Foundation Scholarships will be awarded for an initial intake of two academic years and support six female students with full tuition fees and maintenance costs. The scholarships are open to UK students who qualify for home fees.
  • The Scholarships build on the Foundation’s past association with Cambridge University through its £800,000 donation to the Darwin Library and former scholarships to overseas students of STEM subjects.
  • The Parasol Foundation, created in 2004 is Gibraltar-based. To date, it has funded £40m worth of ambitious projects and partnerships in Gibraltar, UK, Spain, Israel and the US.
  • Ruth Monicka Parasol is the principal benefactress of The Parasol Foundation Trust. A tech pioneer and entrepreneur, she is passionate about widening opportunities, supporting women’s health and helping women to achieve their potential in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

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