Science and gender equality are both vital for our society’s development — and yet, gender equality in science is definitely not where it’s supposed to be. Although things have somewhat changed for the better in the past, we still have a long way to go.
Women have been making crucial contributions to science, although they rarely get the spotlight and recognition they deserve. Today, as we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it’s important to realize that there’s a long list of women who have made a difference in science. So I went around the office, asking my colleagues at ZME Science who their favorite female scientists are.
Here’s what they said — our favorite women scientists.
Table of contents
If you’re reading this article, the odds are you’ve at least heard of Marie Curie. She was one of the greatest scientists mankind has ever had, and her influence cannot be overstated. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize — in two different scientific fields, nonetheless. Curie was a physicist and chemist who’s work fundamentally changed our understanding of radioactivity.
Because of her truly groundbreaking achievements, Marie Curie casts a big shadow — and it’s a shame that many other women scientists are overlooked. We initially wanted to make a list of “Female scientists that aren’t Marie Curie” — but that essentially caused a riot. No list of female scientists can ever be complete without Marie Curie and she is, no doubt, the star of the show.
But she’s not the only star.
Hedy Lamarr was a true movie star. In the 1930s, she had a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and enjoyed a series of well-received parts which made her famous all around the world. But her inventions are even more impressive as her acting career.
Although Lamarr had no formal training and was self-taught, she loved to tinker and invent things. She figured out that radio-controlled torpedoes, an emerging technology at the time, could easily be jammed and set off course. The Navy was not interested in receiving inventions from civilians and largely ignored her invention (although it was patented). However, in 1962 (at the time of the Cuban missile crisis), an updated version of her design was installed on Navy ships. As it happens, this work also laid the foundation for early versions of Bluetooth and WiFi.
It wasn’t until the late 20th century that her contribution was truly acknowledged, although she had other significant contributions (such as a more efficient traffic light and a better Kleenex box). She remained mostly known for her acting and beauty until recently.
It’s hard to say what computers might look like today without Ada Lovelace. In 1847, when she was only 27, Ada Lovelace became the world’s first programmer — more than a century before the first computer was actually introduced.
Lovelace worked on a very early, calculator-like computer called The Difference Engine. Although the machine never really became practical, Lovelace wrote a landmark early paper on computing that included the first computer program: an algorithm to teach a machine how to calculate a series of Bernoulli Numbers. In her notes, Lovelace showed remarkable foresight, realizing that the potential for computing machines goes far beyond number crunching.
For her contributions, Ada Lovelace is cherished as a true pioneer of computing.
Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas
Without a doubt, Jane Goodall is the most famous of the three — but the three biologists and conservationists worked side by side to study hominids in their natural environments. They studied chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans respectively.
Today, Goodall is widely regarded as the foremost chimpanzee expert in the world, showing that many of their actions are remarkably human-like in nature. Just like humans, chimps have their own personalities, they are social, and they can also be cruel. Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas opened an important door in biology, helping us not only understand our closest living relatives, but also showing that we’re not as unique as we once thought. Goodall is also one of the world’s most prominent conservationists, having one of the loudest voices in animal conservation.
It’s a shame, still, that Fossey and Galdikas didn’t also get as much recognition. While Goodall focused on chimpanzees, Fossey studied gorillas, and Galdikas studied orangutans. Before their study, very little was known of these species, and they all went to become foremost figures in their field. Tragically, Fossey was brutally murdered — almost certainly by poachers, due to her conservation and anti-poaching efforts. Galdikas remains a leading authority on orangutans.
If you’ve ever had laser eye surgery, you owe a debt of gratitude to Bath.
Bath was a pioneering American ophthalmologist and inventor. She became the first African-American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose and the first woman to lead a post-graduate training program in ophthalmology.
Bath holds five patents in the US — three relating to an eye laser probe, and two to the removal of cataracts with ultrasound or a laser-ultrasound combination.
Today, we mostly know Rosalind Franklin as the true discoverer of DNA — or, at least, we should.
Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose work was pivotal towards the discovery of DNA — although a faulty publishing process and lack of ethics led to her merits going unappreciated until recently.
Aside from her crucial DNA finding, Franklin also worked on studying the structure of coal and some viruses — work for which, at least, she received recognition during her lifetime.
Tu Youyou saved millions of lives.
Her work marked a significant breakthrough in 20th-century medicine, finding two compounds that are used to treat malaria. When she carried out her research, scientists were desperate to find compounds that work against malaria. Over 240,000 compounds had been tested, without success.
Youyou had the idea to screen Chinese herbs, discovering artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin. She is the first female citizen of the People’s Republic of China to receive a Nobel Prize in any category (2015). She carried out her education and research exclusively in China.
Marie Curie isn’t the only female to have won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Dorothy Hodgkin was a British chemist who developed protein crystallography, for which she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964.
Hodgkin can boast numerous achievements. She discovered the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12, and the first structure of a steroid.
In 1969, after 35 years of work, Hodgkin was also able to decipher the structure of insulin.
If you told Gladys West she’d invent something like the GPS, she wouldn’t have believed you — she said as much.
But West, an American mathematician who worked on the mathematical modelling of the shape of the Earth, was instrumental in paving the way for the first fleet of GPS satellites.
West herself did not take much credit for this part of her work. Her contributions to GPS were only uncovered when a member of her sorority read a brief biography West submitted for an alumni function.
Karen Uhlenbeck was the first woman to ever win the Abel Prize — think of it as the Nobel equivalent for mathematics.
Uhlenbeck is a founder of modern geometric analysis who’s work stretches across in several areas of mathematics (and has applications as far as particle physics). Her research basically launched an entire field of mathematics.
Notably, in 1990, she was a plenary speaker at the International Congress of Mathematicians — only the second woman to ever do so, after Emmy Noether in 1932.
Anning’s contributions to paleontology were remarkable. She discovered and identified the first ichthyosaur (lizard-fish) fossil and played a key role in understanding that coprolites (called bezoar stones at the time) were actually fossilized feces.
Anning was very well known in geological circles all around the world, and other scientists routinely consulted her on issues of anatomy and collecting fossils. But as a woman, she could not join the Geological Society of London, and did not receive the recognition she deserved.
Anning found several unrivaled fossil specimens in the cliffs along the English Channel in southwest England. Often, she had to support herself by selling fossils
Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on high-intensity lasers in 2018.
A self-described recluse, Strickland didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until she won the Nobel Prize. She also didn’t publish that much — she essentially won the Nobel Prize for a single paper, but a landmark paper at that.
Nowadays, Strickland spends most of her time traveling and working as an advocate for science. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her at the Lindau Nobel 2019 Meeting, and you couldn’t imagine a better advocate for science. Her contribution is indisputable, both in science and in inspiring others.