With media reporting that only 13% of STEM workers are female, wanting to push a career in that industry can be really daunting. However, women have had a strong influence and shaped the way the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics sector is today.
From the Space Task Group at NASA to the use of Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy to beat cancer, here are nine inspirational women who have gone against the stigma and paved their way through the STEM sector, with huge successes.
Katherine Johnson (Mathematics)
Katherine Cole Goble Johnson (1918) is an African-American mathematician and physicist for NASA Langley Research Center. She worked alongside NASA’s first black female aerospace engineer and mathematician Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan – the first African-American women to supervise a team at NASA.
Katherine’s contributions to NASA’s aeronautics and space programs included calculations for the launch windows, emergency backup paths and trajectories the Project Mercury (1958 – 1963), the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, the Space Shuttle program and Mission to Mars. Johnson is honoured for her accuracy in celestial navigation, as well as conquering society’s discrimination against race and gender.
Dorothy, Mary and Katherine began their careers in the segregated West Area Computing Division building, where they overcame isolation, bigotry and inequality, helping shape NASA to become what it is today. The heavily accoladed film, ‘Hidden Figures’ (2017) tells the story of these women, celebrating their achievements.
Marie Curie (Science)
Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) was a Polish physicist and chemist renowned for her pioneering research of radioactivity. Marie Curie was the first Woman to win a Nobel Prize (1903 & 1911), is the only women to date to win two Nobel Prizes and the only person with a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. In 1898 Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie discovered Polonium and Radium, which was a landmark discovery in the physics and chemistry.
Her groundbreaking contributions to medical research is still used in hospitals today, as she developed the mobile radiography units used in X-rays. During the First World War, Marie Curie helped stock ambulances with mobile x-ray equipment that she then drove to the front line. She was then appointed as head of the Red Cross’ radiological service, where she trained medical orderlies on how to use the equipment.
Despite Marie Curie’s incredible success, she faced constant opposition from other male scientists, and did not receive the recognition or financial benefit she deserved. Up until 1903 the Nobel Prize Committee ignored her and refused to give her any recognition for her groundbreaking research. It was not until Marie’s husband Pierre insisted that they were considered together that she was noticed. Unfortunately, Marie Curie died of leukemia in 1834.
Mayim Bialik (Science)
Mayim Bialik (1975) is an American actress and neuroscientists. She is renowned for her role as Sheldon Cooper’s girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory. Both Bialik and the character she plays has one thing in common – a Ph.D in Neuroscience. The former childhood star faced discrimination from other students during her time in higher education because of her TV appearances, but continued to forge a successful career in both television and science.
Bialik first earned her degree in Neuroscience, Jewish and Hebrew studies when she went to UCLA from 1995 – 2000. In 2007 she earned her ph.D in neuroscience after focussing on obsessive disorders amongst those with Prader-Willi syndrome. Bialik has written a book about the science of hormones for parenting and is an avid supporter of girls going into STEM education.
In 2013 Mayim Bialik was faced with a reported who’d assumed she wasn’t smart, after he’d asked her the question, “Being on The Big Bang Theory, how many people — not that you aren’t a genius — think that you can solve calculus at the drop of a hat?” one reporter asked. She responded by telling them she was a neuroscientist, showing every journalist and reporter the importance of doing research before interviewing at events.
Rosalind Franklin (Science)
Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958) was an English X-ray crystallographer and chemist who made groundbreaking discoveries on the molecular discoveries of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal and graphite. Franklin earned her Ph.D at the University of Cambridge in 1945, after discovering that cole acts like a molecular sieve, as its fine structure separates mixtures of molecules, which is still used today.
Rosalind’s second year of university began just as the Second World War began, and her Father refused to pay for her tuition as he wanted her to contribute to the war effort. However, Rosalind’s mother managed to persuade her Father otherwise. Alongside this, it wasn’t until seven years after Rosalind earned her Chemistry degree, the University of Cambridge started recognising women as full members on their college.
Unfortunately, Rosalind was faced with hostility by her male colleagues – one of the reasons she left Cambridge in 1946 was because her doctoral supervisor believed that women would always be less than men. However, Rosalind was passionate about her career and pursued sciences, creating groundbreaking research.
Barbara McClintock (Science)
Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992) was a scientist and cytogeneticist who made groundbreaking discoveries on chromosomes and how they changed during reproduction in maize. McClintock was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983, and was elected a member of the National Academy of Science in 1944.
Barbara McClintock created the first genetic map for maize, where she linked regions of the chromosome to physical traits. McClintock evidenced the importance of the telomere and centromere region of the chromosome, and how they are crucial when it comes to storing genetic information. This research extended to the study of the cytogenetics and ethnobotany of maize races in South America.
McClintock’s research was really understood in the 1960s and 1970s, once other scientists confirmed the mechanisms of genetic change regulation that was demonstrated in McClintock’s maize research. McClintock is the only woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in the Physiology or Medicine category.
Natalie Portman (Science)
Natalie Portman (1981) is a critically acclaimed Hollywood actress who has starred in blockbusters such as Leon, The Black Swan and her most recent film is Jackie. However, Natalie Portman is lesser known for her educational prowess. In 2003 Natalie Portman graduated from Harvard University with a B.A degree in Psychology.
In 2004, Portman went to Israel and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and in 2006 she guest lectured at a Columbia University course in terrorism and counterterrorism. In 2002, made contributions to the study on memory called “Frontal lobe activation during object permanence: data from near-infrared spectroscopy” during her time at Harvard.
Alongside this, Portman co-authored two research papers that were published in scientific journals. In 1998 her high school paper, “A Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar,” was co-authored with scientists Ian Hurley and Jonathan Woodward, and entered into the Intel Science Talent Search.
Vera Rubin (Science)
Vera Rubin (1928 – 2016) was an American astronomer who pioneered in the work of galaxy rotation. Rubin discovered the phenomenon that is now known as the galaxy rotation problem. Vera identified the discrepancy between the predicted angular motion of galaxies and their motions by studying the galactic rotation curves.
Vera was inspired by the first nationally known female astronomer Maria Mitchell, which is why she chose to study at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Rubin earned her BA degree in Astronomy in 1948, and was the only graduate in that subject in her class. Rubin then received her Masters in 1951 at Cornell University. She studied under Philip Morrison, Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe.
Because of Rubin’s perseverance and passion, she undertook groundbreaking research and received a plethora of awards including the Adler Planetarium Lifetime Achievement Award – this is something we should all celebrate!
Lisa Kudrow (Science)
Lisa Kudrow (1963) gained worldwide fame after her 10 year stint on Friends as Phoebe Buffay. Whilst balancing a successful career as an actress, she also worked with her Father on a study regarding the likelihood that cluster headaches are more common in left-handed people.
Kudrow’s interest in science was inspired by her Dad’s career as a Physician who specialised in headaches. Kudrow went to Vassar College and earned a BA in Biology. After getting her degree, she spent eight years collaborating with her Dad on the aforementioned study and worked as a news anchor for Amarillo – an ABC affiliate in Texas.
Many only think of Kudrow’s interesting character, Phoebe in Friends instead of her accomplishments in the STEM sector. Whilst Smelly Cat is one of the best sitcom songs of all time, it can be argued that Kudrow deserves much more credit for her accolades in science.
Are you thinking of studying a STEM subject? There are many different universities in the UK that are looking to tackle the lack of women in the STEM sector and are focused on improving career progression for female academics. Some of the top universities for these subjects are; University of Bristol, University of Edinburgh, University of Oxford and also The Open University.
Can you think of any other inspirational women in the STEM sector? If so, let us know who in the comments section below. Need some inspiration? Then get in touch!