Editor's Picks, Science, Now + Beyond

8 female scientists of color who changed the world

I got 99 problems but women of color will cure all of them someday.

Whenever we talk of people in science, the first few names that we think of are Albert Einstein, Newton, or Edison.

When it comes to women, let’s be honest: We struggle to come up with more than one name.

In school, we are mostly taught about the great men of science but not about women – especially women of color. This is why it is time to recognize female scientists of color who made great contributions in fields like science and mathematics.

1. E. K. Janaki Ammal (1897-1984), a botanist who put sweetness in India’s sugarcane plants.

Dr. E.K Janaki Ammal
Black and White image of Dr. E.K Janaki Ammal Via ksc.kerala.gov.in

In a predominantly patriarchal society where it was hard for girls to make it past middle-school in India, Janaki Ammal decided to pursue botany and later became a researcher in cytogenetics and phytogeography. She is best known for her work involving sugarcanes and the eggplant.

For her brilliant contributions to science in India, she was also honored with Padma Shri (one of the highest civilian honors in India) in 1977. She is also one of the few Asian women to be granted an honorary doctorate by the University of Michigan, her alma mater.


2. Mary Jackson

Black and White image of Mary Jackson Via nasa.gov

At a time where racial segregation was taking place in full force in various societies, Mary Jackson emerged as a mathematician and scientist whose unparalleled skills and expertise led her to become NASA’s first African-American female engineer and also help in America’s win at the “Space Race”.

She used her accomplishments and her position to continue to champion women, especially women of color into joining the STEM fields within NASA by working as both the Federal Women’s Program Manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and as the Affirmative Action Program Manager.

3. Sunita Willaims

Sunita L. Williams via nasa.gov

Sunita L. Williams is an Indian-American who set great records in her time at the International Space Station (ISS).

With an M.S. in Engineering Management, she was also trained at helicopter combat and flew helicopter support squadrons during the Persian Gulf War. She flew to the ISS in 2006 where she made a record of totaling 29 hours outside the spacecraft while making spacewalks and spending 195 days in space, which was huge for women in space at that time. Subsequently, she has received many honors and awards in her time.

4. Mae Jemison

Mae C. Jemison Via Space.com

Mae C. Jemison, with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering and an M.D., became the first African-American female astronaut at NASA, also earning the title of Space Mission Specialist where she was given the responsibility of conducting scientific experiments on the crew related to weightlessness and motion sickness.

She has also been honored with various accolades and honorary doctorates.

5. Flossie Wong-Staal

Flossie Wong-Staal Via Tumblr.com

With a BS in Bacteriology and PhD in Molecular Biology, Flossie Wong-Staal is a Chinese-American Virologist, who became the first scientist to clone HIV and determine how it’s genes work, marking a huge step in proving that HIV causes AIDS. In 2007, Dr. Wong-Staal was ranked 32 on The Daily Telegraph’s “Top 100 Living Geniuses”.

6. Ruby Hirose

Black and white image of Ruby Hirose Via Wikipedia.com

Dr. Ruby Hirose was a Japanese-American Biochemist and Bacteriologist whose research lead to the development of vaccines for polio and hay fever.

It was because of her achievements in Chemistry, she was one of the few women who was recognized by the American Chemical Society. She later also contributed towards developing vaccines against infantile paralysis.

7. Mayly Sánchez

Mayly Sánchez Via Wikipedia.com

Mayly Sánchez is a Particle Physicist born in Venezuela who was bestowed with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor given to scientists. She is known for her experimental work with work in the field of experimental long baseline neutrino physics.

She is currently an assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy at Iowa State.

8. Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017), whose love of pure mathematics helped her win the Fields Prize.

Maryam Mirzakhani via Tumblr.com

Maryam Mirzakhani was an exceptional Iranian mathematician and a professor of mathematics at Stanford University. Mirzakhani specialized in theoretical mathematics that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics: moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory, and symplectic geometry.  Her contributions to the field led her to become the first Iranian to win the Fields Medal, which is considered as the mathematical equivalent of Nobel Peace Prize. You’re amazing, Maryam.