2018 Nobel Prizes in Science go to Women: Names You Should Know

Edited by Anna Maria Sordjan

This week, for the first time in nearly two hundred years of its history, both the Nobel prizes for Chemistry and Physics were awarded to women.

In particular, the Nobel prize for Physics had not been awarded to a woman in a shocking 55 years. Before this week, it had seen only two female recipients,  the first went to Marie Curie for her work with radioactive materials. Curie, who was nearly ignored by the Nobel prize committee based on her gender, played a role so pivotal in understanding radioactivity that her field would undoubtedly have been set back many years without her. Curie is also the only person (out of both men and women) to have won both the Physics and Chemistry Nobel Prizes; following her win in physics, she was awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering radium and polonium.  

The only other female recipient of the Nobel Physics Prize--until just last week-- was Maria Goeppert Mayer, who received the award in 1963 for her work on atomic nuclear shell structures. Like Curie, Mayer’s academic career endured much sexism before her ultimate victory; she was refused a salary from numerous universities for her research and work before finally being accepted for her talent and skill.

But this year, over half a century after Mayer’s award was announced, Dr. Donna Strickland of Canada’s University of Waterloo was revealed to be the third-ever female recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics. Her victory was announced shortly after an outrageous act of sexism by Alessandro Strumia, a physics researcher at the University of Pisa, who stated that “physics was invented and built by men”. Strumia was shortly suspended by CERN ( The European Organization for Nuclear Research). 

It was a good week for women in STEM, as the day after Strickland’s win, Dr. Frances J. Arnold, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her research in evolution-directed bioengineering. In addition to being the first woman to be elected to all three US national academies, she was the first woman to receive the National Academy of Arts and Sciences Draper Prize, the Millennium technology prize, and many others. Now adding to that list, she is the fifth woman to win the Nobel prize in Chemistry.

Why is this such a big deal? As Christin Wiedmann, the former president of the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology said in response to Strickland’s win, “I have a hard time imagining there haven’t been women worthy of the prize in those fifty-five years.” While she is undoubtedly right, Arnold and Strickland made the history books this week, not only due to their outstanding achievements, but also because of the revealing light they have shed on the STEM community. So, talk about them. Give them the recognition they deserve and share their stories.  By supporting female individuals, we support the community at large. As Curie once said, “You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals”. And so she did.