By William Huang
Every year, the month of March is reserved for the observance of Women’s History: a way of remembering and honoring important people and events of equality and influence. Throughout history, women have made great impacts on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, despite opposition and less opportunities for centuries, allowing for the furthering of knowledge, human development, and equal opportunities. Let’s look at some of the prominent female leaders in STEM.
Marie Curie in her Paris laboratory
Marie Curie was a Polish-born French physicist, most well-known for her work in radioactivity. She had a number of other accomplishments during her lifetime, including being the first woman to be the Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne in France, being appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, and discovering and isolating the elements polonium and radium with the help of her husband, Pierre Curie. Mme. Curie developed methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues, allowing for the element’s characterization and study of its properties and applications. Throughout her life, she promoted the use of radium in medical settings to alleviate suffering, especially during World War I when she personally participated in the remedial work.
Curie’s work earned her numerous awards and admiration by scientists throughout the world. In 1911, she became a member of the Conseil du Physique Solvay until her death. In 1922, she became a member of the Committee of Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. Among her biggest honors was being the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in 1903 for her study into spontaneous radiation. Furthermore, she received her second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry, for work in radioactivity.
Barbara McClintock in the laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor, New York
(credit: American Philosophical Society Library)
One of the world’s most distinguished cytogeneticists, Barabara McClintock had little money as a child, so her profound interest in science and research was viewed with skepticism. However, in 1919, with her father’s support, Barabara began studying at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and received her PhD in botany in 1927. During that time, she began her lifelong work in corn cytogenetics. She specifically studied the plant’s chromosomes and genes and how they change during reproduction, leading to her development of a technique to visualize maize chromosomes and use of microscopic analysis to demonstrate many fundamental genetic concepts. With this work, she proved the notion of genetic recombination during cellular reproduction and linked regions of chromosomes to physical traits. Later in the 1940s and 50s, McClintock discovered the concept of transposition and used it to explain how certain genes can become active or inactive from one generation to the next. However, due to skepticism of her research at the time, she stopped publishing her data in 1953.
Despite this, in the 1960s and 70s, other scientists began confirming her work in maize genetics. Soon after, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983 among other honors and recognitions. Although a reserved person, she is still recognized as one of the best in her field and led as a role model for other women.
Jane Goodall with an orphaned chimpanzee at the JGI Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center (credit: The Jane Goodall Institute)
Jane Goodall is most well-known for spending years living among chimpanzees in Tanzania creating one of the most influential and eye-opening studies of primates in modern times. Her fascination with animal behavior took root when she was only a child in London, England and dreamed of traveling to Africa to observe exotic animals in their natural habitat.
This dream was fulfilled in the late 1950s when she began her lifelong study of primates and monkeys. At the time, few studies of chimpanzees had been successful due to large safari groups or limited time in the field. Despite much criticism from experts about her lack of formal scientific education or general college degree, Goodall endured long-term isolation in the wild to study the animals she loved so much.
Goodall dispelled all doubts when she eventually established close connections with a chimpanzee group. In fact, after two years of observation, the primates showed no fear of her and often came to her in search of bananas. As a result of her close contact with chimps, Goodall discovered a number of previously unobserved behaviors, including a complex social system, discernible communication methods, consumption of meat, and most famously, the creation of tools. Before her studies, toolmaking and complex social structures were thought to be traits that only humans were capable of. After her chimpanzee studies, Goodall attained professor positions at universities and became a strong advocate for animal rights and science education.
Astronaut Sally Ride (credit: NASA)
Astronaut Sally Ride made history on June 18, 1983 by becoming the first American woman in space. As a child, she was an avid and skilled tennis player and attempted to pursue a career in the sport. However, she realized college was a better option for her and attended Stanford University where she obtained her Bachelor of Science in physics, her Bachelor of Arts in English, and her Masters and doctorate degrees in physics. In 1978, she was one of only five women selected for NASA’s astronaut class, where she excelled due to her athletic and scientific abilities.
On June 18, 1983, aboard the space shuttle Challenger STS-7, Ride became the first American woman and youngest American in space. During the mission, she served as the flight engineer, responsible for operating the shuttle’s mechanical arm and launching two communication satellites. She went on another mission on October 5, 1984 aboard the Challenger STS-41G and spent eight days conducting scientific observations of Earth. After her missions, she investigated the 1986 Challenger accident and became special assistant to the NASA administrator for long range and strategic planning.
After her NASA career, she went on to serve as the Director of the California Space Science Institute, a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego, a member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, and on the Advisory Board of the National Women’s History Museum. Throughout her life, she was passionate about improving science education and promoting STEM education for girls, inspiring future generations to strive for the stars.
And many more
Aside from these four women, there are/were many more influential female scientists, engineers, and researchers, such as Rosalind Franklin (chemist who helped discover DNA structure), Alice Ball (developed the best leprosy treatment until the 1940s), Lise Meitner (physicist who helped discover uranium nuclear fission), and more. Besides their passion for STEM, all these leaders had/have one thing in common: they strive to increase diversity and inspire young girls to pursue careers in STEM.
Anderson, A. (n.d.). Sally Ride. Retrieved from https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sally-ride
Dunbar, B. (2015, May 12). Who Was Sally Ride? Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/nasa-knows/who-was-sally-ride-k4.html
History of Scientific Women. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://scientificwomen.net/women/mcclintock-barbara-65
Jane Goodall. (2020, February 28). Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/scientist/jane-goodall
The Nobel Prize in Physics 1903. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1903/marie-curie/biographical/
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1983. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1983/mcclintock/facts/