Let’s Explore the women, both household names and not, who you should know in the STEM fields.
Science is often considered a male-dominated field. In fact, according to United Nations data, less than 30% of scientific researchers worldwide are women.
Studies have shown that women are discouraged from, or become less interested in, entering the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) beginning at a young age. And according to the Pew Research Center, women remain underrepresented in engineering, computer science, and physical science.
Despite challenges of gender discrimination and lack of recognition in the scientific community, countless inspiring women in these fields have made historic contributions to science and helped advance understanding of the world around us. Many were not recognized in their own lifetimes, but their achievements have helped generations of female scientists to come.
We may have all learned about Marie Curie and Jane Goodall, but here are 10 women in science you should know.
1. Alice Ball (1892 – 1916)
American Chemist Alice Ball was the first woman and first African American to receive a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii and went on to become the university’s first female chemistry professor. At just 23 years old, Ball developed a groundbreaking treatment for leprosy – a disease which previously had little chance of recovery and forced victims into exile.
Prior to Ball’s research on leprosy, the best treatment available was chaulmoogra oil, which was difficult for patients to ingest or apply topically and was too thick to inject. While working as a research assistant at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii, Ball developed an easily injectable form of the oil that ultimately saved countless lives and became the best treatment for leprosy until the 1940s.
Unfortunately Alice Ball died before she was able to publish the findings, and the president of the University of Hawaii attempted to claim the research as his own until Ball’s former supervisor publicly spoke out that she deserved the credit for the lifesaving injection. It wasn’t until the 21st century that her achievements were fully recognized and the Governor of Hawaii declared February 29 “Alice Ball Day.”
2. Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)
Legend has it that British chemist and DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin knew she wanted to be a scientist since she was 15 years old. That dream went on to become a reality when she was offered a prestigious scholarship to King’s College London, where she became an expert in the X-ray crystallography unit.
Franklin’s research data was the first to demonstrate the basic dimensions of DNA strands and reveal the molecule was in two matching parts, running in opposite directions. Her data was used by James Watson and Francis Crick to get their research on the DNA model across the finish line, and was published separately as supporting data alongside Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins’ research articles in Nature.
Many people in the scientific community argue that Franklin should have been awarded a Nobel Prize alongside Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” Unfortunately, Franklin died from ovarian cancer in 1958, just four years before the prize was awarded, even though at the time the organization could have awarded it posthumously.
3. Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994)
Dorothy Hodgkin was a British chemist on the cutting edge of X-Ray crystallography. In 1964, Hodgkin became the first and only British woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.”
Throughout her career, she made numerous breakthrough discoveries, including the atomic structure of penicillin, the structure of vitamin B12, and the structure of insulin. Hodgkin also spent decades improving X-ray crystallography techniques, which made it possible for her to complete her innovative research on insulin and improve treatments for diabetes.
She also became the second woman to win the UK’s prestigious Order of Merit in 1965. While Hodgkin was a professor at Oxford University, she even mentored future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who would go on to win the Order of Merit herself.
4. Grace Hopper (1906 – 1992)
Grace Hopper was a trailblazing computer programmer who helped develop multiple computer languages and is considered one of the first programmers of the modern computing age.
Armed with a master’s degree and PhD in mathematics from Yale, Hopper went on to have an influential career in the private sector and the US Navy. She joined the US Naval Reserve in 1943 to help with the American war effort, and throughout WWII she worked in a prestigious lab responsible for top-secret calculations such as calibrating minesweepers, calculating the ranges of anti-aircraft guns, and checking the math behind the creation of the plutonium bomb.
Her career also contributed to modern computer vernacular. While Hopper was developing some of the earliest electromechanical computers – MARK I and MARK II – she dismantled a malfunctioning computer to find that a dead moth was causing the problem. She became the first person to call computer problems ‘bugs’ in the system.
5. Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992)
American botanist Barbara McClintock was responsible for several groundbreaking discoveries in the field of genetics following her decades-long career studying the genetic structure of maize. McClintock studied how genetic characteristics are passed down through generations, eventually uncovering that some genes could be mobile.
In the 1940s and 1950s, McClintock’s research revealed that genetic elements could sometimes move on a chromosome and thus cause nearby genes to activate. But it wasn’t until decades later that scientists apart from maize specialists understood and recognized the immense value of her discovery.
McClintock was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1971 and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 “for her discovery of mobile genetic elements,” now called transposons.
6. Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)
Austrian physicist Lise Meitner contributed significant advancements to the field of nuclear physics. She was also the first woman to become a physics professor in Germany.
Meitner’s work on nuclear fission was instrumental in her longtime research collaborator Otto Hahn winning the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, so much so that many scientists later argued it was unfair for her contributions to not have been recognized equally by the Nobel Committee. Meitner was also an advocate for the peaceful use of atomic energy and flatly refused to work on the Manhattan Project because she strongly opposed using fission to create an atom bomb.
Today, multiple prestigious awards in physics are named in honor of Meitner and she even has a chemical element — meitnerium — named after her.
7. Sally Ride (1951 – 2012)
NASA astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, serving as a mission specialist on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. At 32 years old, she was also the youngest American to ever leave the atmosphere. (She wasn’t the first woman in space, though — that title belongs to Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.)
After the Challenger disaster in 1986, in which an explosion occurred shortly after takeoff and claimed the lives of seven astronauts, Ride served on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the tragedy. She also helped investigate the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, during which the shuttle disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere, making Ride the only person to serve on both investigation commissions.
Ride went on to have an award-winning career as a public servant and as a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego. She also founded “Sally Ride Science,” an organization that aims to inspire young people in STEM, and she wrote several books about her experience in space to teach kids about science.
8. Tu Youyou (1930 – Present)
Pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou’s discovery of a new malaria treatment has saved millions of lives. Tu, who studied traditional Chinese and herbal medicines, found a reference in ancient medical texts to using sweet wormwood to treat intermittent fevers — a symptom of malaria.
Tu and her research team were able to extract a malaria-inhibiting substance called artemisinin (or qinghaosu in Chinese) from wormwood. She even volunteered to be the first human subject to test the substance. Since her discovery of artemisinin in the 1970s, antimalarial drugs based on the substance have saved millions of lives.
Tu is now chief scientist at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine — a position she reached without a medical degree, a PhD, or research training abroad. She won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery, which has been deemed “arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half-century” by the Lasker Foundation for medical research.
9. Maria Winkelmann (1670 – 1720)
Maria Winkelmann was a pioneer in German astronomy. In 1902, she became the first woman to discover a new comet. Sadly, her husband Gottfried Kirch published the discovery in his own name and did not publicly reveal her as the true source of the comet discovery until years later.
However, Winkelmann was still widely recognized as an accomplished scientist during her time, and her research and observations on sunspots, Aurora Borealis and comets were met with high regard. She also took on an active role in improving the Berlin Academy of Science, where her husband served as the principal astronomer.
But years later the Academy turned on her. While serving as an assistant to her son at the Berlin Observatory, Academy members complained she took on too prominent of a role and forced her into retirement — ending her astronomy career in 1716, aged 46.
10. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 – 1997)
Chinese-American physicist Chien-Shiung Wu is credited with disproving one of the basic laws of physics, called conservation of parity. Prior to Wu’s work, the laws of physics stated that all objects and their mirror images behaved in the same way, symmetrically, meaning that nature could not distinguish between right and left. Wu’s breakthrough research revealed that during the process of radioactive decay, decaying identical nuclear particles didn’t always behave symmetrically.
She also worked on the Manhattan Project, helping develop the process for separating uranium metal and developing better instruments to measure nuclear radiation.
In 1973, Wu became the first woman to lead the American Physical Society, and in 1975 she received the National Medal of Science. Her book “Beta Decay” remains a standard textbook for nuclear physics students.
The Advancing Women Engineers Team enjoys featuring women that are making strides and shattering glass ceilings today, but we also enjoy featuring the women who inspired and led today’s groundbreakers to get to their current positions. How have these women, and other groundbreakers, inspired you? We want to hear about it! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know about who has inspired you, and who you’d like to see featured today.