Throughout the history of science, women have made crucial discoveries and contributions that continue to have significance and relevance to this day. Yet, more often than not, the work of these women is ignored or discredited. In a world where science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) continues to be a male-dominated field, gender bias and the field’s lack of women continue to be reported. While it can be easy to overlook the work done by women, it is that much more important to properly recognize these women.
So we are doing just that. Here are 27 women in STEM that you should know about.
1. Janaki Ammal
Janaki Ammal is considered the first woman botanist in India. Her most notable work involved studies on sugarcane. In the early 20th century, India’s sugar was not as sweet as the rest of the world. But after laborious cross breedings in the laboratory of Sugarcane Breeding Institute, Ammal was responsible for creating the variety of sweetened sugarcane that we consume today. At 83 years old, she also advocated for the preservation of the Silent Valley National Park and has worked to preserve indigenous plants and practices toward the environment.
2. Shirley Ann Jackson
We’ve touched on this remarkable woman before. Shirley Ann Jackson was not only the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate at MIT, but was the first woman, in general, to earn a doctorate in physics in MIT’s history. She was a recipient of the National Medal of Science in 2014 and is currently the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private research university in New York. Jackson remains both an advocate and role model for women and minorities in the sciences.
3. Chien-Shiung Wu
Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese American experimental physicist, most known for her contributions to the Manhattan Project and the Wu experiment. For the Manhattan Project, Wu helped to develop the process for separating uranium metal into the dangerous U-235 and U-238 isotopes. Her namesake, the Wu experiment, was a nuclear physics experiment of her own design. It led to the disproval of the hypothetical law of conservation of parity during beta decay. Due to her groundbreaking work in physics, Wu has been dubbed as “the First Lady of Physics” and “Queen of Nuclear Research.”
4. Mae C. Jemison
Mae C. Jemison is the first African-American female astronaut. In 1987, she was admitted to NASA’s astronaut training program. Five years later, in 1992, Jemison flew into space with six other astronauts aboard the Endeavour, a joint mission between the U.S. and Japan. As a result, she became the first African American woman to travel to space and she remains an inspiration for those pursuing careers in a field that is largely dominated by men today.
5. Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson was one of a small group of Black women mathematicians who did crucial work at NASA. She worked for NASA for more than 30 years and her math helped send astronauts to the Moon. She calculated and analyzed the flight paths of many spacecraft including Apollo 11, the spaceflight that first landed humans on the Moon. The well-received Hollywood film, “Hidden Figures,” is based on Johnson’s experience working in NASA.
6. Vera Rubin
American astronomer Vera Rubin transformed modern physics and astronomy. Her observations confirmed the existence of dark matter, which makes up the majority of matter in the universe. In 1993, President Bill Clinton awarded Rubin the National Medal of Science for her pioneering research programs in observational cosmology.
7. Marie Maynard Daly
Marie M. Daly was the first African American woman to earn a doctoral degree in chemistry in the United States of America. In addition to conducting important studies on cholesterol, sugars and proteins, Daly also developed programs to increase the enrollment of minority students in medical schools and graduate science programs, paving the way for others.
8. Flossie Wong-Staal
During the wake of the AIDS epidemic in the United States of America, Flossie Wong-Staal, a Chinese American virologist and molecular biologist, saved countless lives through her groundbreaking work on HIV. She was a part of a team that discovered HIV in 1983 and helped determine that the virus was the cause of AIDS. In 1985, she became the first scientist to successfully clone HIV and genetically map the virus, an effort that led to the development of blood tests for the virus which was a revolutionary step in fighting against the virus.
9. Marie Curie
French-Polish physicist Marie Curie, known as the “mother of modern physics,” is famous for her discovery of radioactivity, specifically the radioactive elements polonium and radium. With Henri Becquerel and her husband Peirce Curie, she was awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of radioactivity. She was the sole winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium. She was also the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to win the award in two different fields. She eventually died from aplastic anemia as a result of her exposure to radioactive material.
10. Alice Ball
Alice Ball was an African American who developed the “Ball Method,” a technique that became the most effective treatment for leprosy during the 20th century. Her practice was used to treat thousands of infected individuals. Ball was also the first woman, as well as the first African-American, to earn a master’s degree in chemistry from the College of Hawaii.
11. Ada Lovelace
English mathematician Ada Lovelace is remembered by many as the world’s first computer programmer. She introduced many computer concepts and is best known for her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, which is considered to be the concept for the first general mechanical computer. Every year, the second Tuesday of October marks Ada Lovelace Day to celebrate the achievements of women in STEM.
12. Mary-Claire King
Mary-Claire King was the first to show that mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are the cause of two types of reproductive cancer; breast and ovarian. King’s discovery enabled doctors to screen women for the inheritance of mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes and evaluate their risks for breast and ovarian cancer. Additionally, her method of analyzing the genetic effects on breast cancer has been used by many other researchers to study other illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
13. Adriana Ocampo
Adriana Ocampo is a planetary geologist and a science program manager at NASA. Her research led to the discovery of the Chicxulub impact crater, which was believed to be caused by the asteroid that caused the extinction of dinosaurs 66 million years ago. By studying the Chicxulub impact crater, researchers and scientists were able to assemble a timeline of what happened after the extinction of the dinosaurs.
14. Jane Hinton
Jane Hinton, along with Alfreda Johnson Webb, became the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in Veterinary Medicine in 1949. With microbiologist John Howard Mueller, Hinton developed the Mueller-Hinton agar, a microbiological growth medium. Today, it is commonly used for testing how susceptible certain bacterias are to antibiotic treatments.
15. Susan La Flesche Picotte
Susan La Flesche Picotte is widely acknowledged as the first Native American physician to earn a medical degree. After witnessing a sick Native American woman die after a white doctor refused to treat her, Picotte, who was a child at the time, became motivated to pursue medicine. She became a pioneering doctor who provided valuable health care and resources to her Omaha community.
16. Gerty Theresa Cori
Biochemist Gerty Theresa Cori was the first American woman (and third woman worldwide) to win a Nobel Prize in science. Additionally, Cori became the first woman to win the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with her husband Carl Ferdinand Cori for their role in the discovery of how the human body metabolizes sugar. This became known as the Cori Cycle.
17. Gladys West
Gladys West is an African-American mathematician known for her contributions to the modeling of the shape of the Earth. This would prove essential to the development of the modern Global Positioning System (GPS), one that has been widely integrated into everyday life from driving to your local store to airlines flights and security tracking. In 2018, West was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame for her contributions.
18. Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lemarr was an Austrian-American actress, inventor, and film producer. Not only did she star in the Oscar-nominated films, “Algiers” and “Samson and Delilah,” Lamarr also made crucial contributions in technology. She co-invented an early technique for spread spectrum communications which was key in the development of WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth.
19. Nergis Mavalvala
Pakistani-born, openly queer and a woman in STEM, Nergis Mavalvala is no stranger to breaking barriers. As an astrophysicist, she is best known for her work that proved Einstein’s prediction of the existence of gravitational waves. In 2010, Mavalava was one of 23 recipients of the 2010 MacArthur fellowships.
20. Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a British astrophysicist and astronomer who is best known for her discovery of pulsars, which are rapidly spinning neutron stars, in 1967. She made the discovery using a radio telescope that she and Antony Hewish had built to study the recently detected star-like quasars.
21. Maria Sibylla Merian
Maria Sibylla Merian is a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator who not only observed numerous plants and animals but also showed the relationships between them. She contributed to the advance of entomology through her work on metamorphosis in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
22. Mary Anning
Mary Anning was a pioneering paleontologist and fossil collector who made some of the most important geological finds of all time. Like many women at the time, Anning had little formal education and instead taught herself geology and anatomy. In 1823, Anning was the first to discover the complete skeleton of a plesiosaur, a large marine reptile that lived during the Jurassic Period. Her discoveries and contributions have brought valuable insight into the history of the Earth.
23. Jennifer Doudna
American biochemist Jennifer Doudna, alongside French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, are best known for their invention of CRISPR-Cas 9, a tool that has provided the means to edit genes both quickly and cheaply. Additionally, Doudna has spearheaded the public debate regarding the ethical implications of using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit human embryos.
24. Stephanie Kwolek
American chemist Stephanie Kwolek is known for inventing Kevlar, a light and heat-resistant synthetic fiber that is strong enough to stop a bullet. Today, Kevlar is used in many products including bulletproof vests, spacecrafts and helmets. Her work continues to protect and save thousands of lives.
25. Elizabeth Blackwell
British physician Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in America to receive a medical degree in 1894. Ten years later, she became the first woman to have her name on the British medical register which enabled her to practice medicine in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Additionally, she supported medical education for women by opening her own medical college for women. She has become a role model for many women in medicine.
26. Ann Tsukamoto
Ann Tsukamoto is an inventor and stem cell researcher who became one of the first scientific researchers to identify and isolate blood-forming stem cells. Her research helped to save hundreds of thousands of lives and contributed to numerous successful bone marrow transplants that can replace a damaged immune system in a person with blood cancer.
27. Dilhan Eryurt
Dilhan Eryurt was the first Turkish woman to work for NASA, having been the only woman astronomer working there at the time. Her work provided NASA engineers with crucial information about the sun’s effects on the lunar landscape. In 1969, she was awarded the Apollo Achievement Award for her significant contributions to the Apollo 11 moon landing.
It is clear women have immeasurably helped STEM grow into the innovative and life-saving field we know it to be today. We should remain committed to doing our part in recognizing and celebrating these amazing women.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!