During Women’s History Month, it is important to reflect on the amazing accomplishments women have achieved despite having all odds against them. Women in the STEM fields have faced discrimination in hiring practices, grant and award competitions, and during typical work days as well. While our society has made large strides toward gender equality, it is vital that we take the time to remember all of the strong leaders who got us to where we are today.
1. Radia Perlman - Computer Science
Radia Perlman, the Mother of the Internet, is best known for writing the algorithm for STP, Spanning Tree Protocol. STP works like a traffic pattern for the internet, solving the issue of file sharing between computers. She is currently working to replace STP with an improved protocol called TRILL- transparent interconnection of lots of links. Her work has earned her over 80 patents and numerous awards.
2. Marie Curie - Chemistry
Marie Curie studied and termed radioactivity, leading to her discovery of the elements polonium and radium. She extended her work in chemistry and physics to impact the field of medicine by developing a mobile X-ray machine. Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win twice and the only person to win them in two different sciences (chemistry and physics).
3. Nettie Stevens - Biology
Nettie Stevens discovered the sex chromosomes while studying male mealworms. This discovery was the first time someone was able to link a genetic variation with a phenotypic (physically observable) trait. She published 38 papers on various chromosomal inheritance topics. Her work helped support the theory of Mendelian genetics.
4. Mary-Claire King - Medicine
Mary-Claire King studies Medical Genetics, a medical specialty focusing on hereditary disorders and their treatment. One of King’s major discoveries is the fact that humans and chimpanzees are 99% genetically identical. She also discovered the mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that result in breast and ovarian cancer. She also works to use genetic sequencing as identification of human rights violation victims. She is currently a professor at the University of Washington.
5. Lise Meitner - Physics
Lise Meitner worked on nuclear fission during World War II in Austria. After Germany annexed Austria, she emigrated to Sweden. Once there she continued her research, despite receiving little support from her institute. Meitner then named and explained nuclear fission - the splitting of an atom’s nucleus, which releases energy. Her male colleague was awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery, while she was unrecognized until after her death when the element meitnerium was named after her.
6. Catherine Johnson - Mathematics
Catherine Johnson was a mathematician for NASA and one of the first black students at West Virginia’s graduate schools. While working for NASA, Johnson completed the trajectory analysis for America’s first manned spaceflight. Johnson is best known for checking a computer’s math by hand before the first flight in which an astronaut orbited the Earth, a turning point in the Cold War. In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her story of resilience in the face of racial and sex discrimination is told in the movie Hidden Figures.
7. Emily Roebling - Engineering
Emily Roebling had a vital role in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Her father-in-law was working on building a bridge that would connect New York and Brooklyn when he died due to an accident. Her husband then stepped up and took the role of the Chief Engineer of the bridge. He then developed caissons disease, a decompression disease common in bridge builders. Emily Roebling then stepped up so that her husband would not lose the title of Chief Engineer while he was ill, acting as a liaison between the labors on the bridge and her husband. During her work, she became knowledgeable in the strength of materials, stress analysis and cable construction. She took over many of the Chief Engineer responsibilities, such as daily supervision and project management. She was the first person to cross the bridge once it was completed.
8. Karen Sparck Jones - Technology
Karen Sparck Jones wanted to develop a technology that would allow computers to respond to human language. She combined statistics and linguistics to allow computers to understand the relationship between words. This technology resulted in the development of the Search Engine, transforming the way we use computers. She was one of the first computer scientists to recognize how computers can be used to impact our society.
9. Florence Nightingale - Statistics & Nursing
Florence Nightingale was a nurse during the Crimean War. She worked tirelessly to both care for patients and improve the conditions of the hospital. She used statistics to study how unsanitary conditions in hospitals result in poor patient outcomes. Nightingale’s realization decreased the death toll by two-thirds. Her work caused a worldwide change in health care. Nightingale helped the field of nursing evolve into a highly honored field.
10. Cecilia Payne - Astronomy
Cecilia Payne is known for her thesis that stars are mostly composed of hydrogen and helium. She proved her thesis by comparing the absorption lines of the Earth with those of the Sun. She concluded that as stars are largely composed of hydrogen, it must, therefore, be the most abundant element in the universe. However, because this work was in a Ph.D. thesis, her conclusions are largely attributed to her male supervisor. She was one of the first women in the field of modern astronomy.
11. Inge Lehmann- Earth Science
Inge Lehmann discovered that the Earth’s core is composed of two parts: a solid inner core surrounded by a liquid mantle, separated by the Lehmann Discontinuity. She used seismology, the study of earthquakes, to debunk the popular belief that the Earth’s core was a single liquid sphere. She received a multitude of awards for her scientific contributions.
In STEM classes, we often are taught of the accomplishments of men in science, such as Einstein, Newton and Avogadro, but it is important to take the time to learn about the achievements of women in STEM who often go unrecognized, despite the extra challenges they face.