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Three Women in STEM You Should Really Know About

In almost every industry, women are undermined, underrepresented and underappreciated. This is especially true for science. There are, however, a number of women in STEM making great strides in this traditionally male-dominated profession.

From the discovery of telomerase to powerful lasers, let’s dive into the accomplishments of some of these extraordinary women. 

Elizabeth H. Blackburn

Ever wanted to find a cure for cancer? Elizabeth Blackburn might have the answer. She discovered the molecular structure of telomeres and co-discovered the enzyme telomerase, essential elements for DNA replication and cell division. 

When cells divide, it’s vital that their chromosomes be copied completely. Similar to aglets at the end of shoelaces, telomeres act as caps at the end of each chromosome, protecting the chromosome when the cell divides. Elizabeth discovered that telomeres were six segments of repeating DNA. But, how are telomeres formed? Elizabeth and her student, Carol Greidner, asked the same question. 

As they continued their research, Elizabeth and Carol discovered telomerase. When a cell is young, telomerase replenishes the telomeres by adding layers of repeating DNA. Hence, the molecular structure Elizabeth found years prior. Later, the telomerase stops functioning, allowing the telomere to shorten and deteriorate with each cell division. When telomeres become too short, the cell can no longer divide, ultimately dying. 

This discovery has important implications for many fields, especially cancer research. Cancer cells divide infinitely, meaning they must infinitely replenish their telomeres. To replenish their telomeres, telomerase activity is increased. Many hope that new cancer treatments can be developed that target telomerase to stop the replenishment process. 

For her work with telomeres and telomerase, Elizabeth received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 along with her colleagues.

Tu Youyou

Tu was born and raised in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China. As a teenager, she contracted tuberculosis. After this experience, she knew exactly what she wanted to study: medicine. Tu studied pharmacology at the Beijing Medical College, where she learned about medicinal plants and their active ingredients.

In 1967, Chinese leader Mao Zedong decided there was an urgent need to find a cure for malaria as it was claiming the lives of many soldiers in the Vietnam War. To combat this, Project 523 was launched, a secret effort to find a treatment for malaria. Two years later, Tu was made the head of this project. 

For information on treating malaria, Tu and her team used ancient Chinese medical texts to research traditional Chinese medicine. In these texts, her team found a reference to sweet wormwood – a substance used in 400 AD for treating malaria-like symptoms. Her team isolated one active ingredient, artemisinin, which appeared to battle the parasites. When given to 21 patients in Hainan Province, all of them recovered. Today, the WHO recommends the use of artemisinin-based drug therapies as the first line of defense against malaria.

For her extraordinary work with artemisinin, Tu Youyou and her colleagues earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015. She was the first citizen of China to win in that category and the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Donna Strickland

If you’ve ever received corrective eye surgery, give thanks to Donna Strickland. 

Donna Strickland was born in Guelph, Ontario in 1959. Interested in lasers and electro-optics, she enrolled in McMaster University’s engineering physics program thinking it “sound[ed] cool.” At the time, she was one of three women in a class of 25. Afterwards, she pursued her PhD at the University of Rochester, where she joined the laser lab of physicist Gérard Mourou. 

With the help of Gérard, they developed chirped pulse amplification (CPA), a method to generate ultrashort, yet extremely powerful laser pulses. CPA is now used in laser eye surgery, cancer treatments, the manufacturing of cell phone screens, and more.

Donna earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018 along with her mentor Gérard. She was the third woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Physics, after Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer. This past October, McMaster named a street on campus Strickland Way. Strickland Way runs from A.N. Bourns Science Building to the Gerald Hatch Centre. She now works in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo!

Sydney is a third-year student at McMaster University pursuing Life Sciences. In her free time, you'll find her swooning over romance novels and period dramas!