Though things are beginning to get better, society too often sweeps the accomplishments of women under the rug. While this unfortunate situation is found in all fields, it is especially prominent in STEM, where if you went by your high school science education you would believe that maybe only three women in history ever had a scientific thought. This is categorically untrue. Women have, and continue to contribute to scientific understanding in all fields. While the following list is by no means comprehensive, it is a good starting point.
1. Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin was instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Using a method known as X-Ray Crystallography she took the image known as “Photo 51” that proved the shape of the molecule resembled the right handed helix we are so familiar with today. “Photo 51” was actually stolen by famed scientists Watson and Crick who later received most of the credit for the discovery. In addition to her data being taken without her permission, Franklin was also unable to share in the Nobel Prize for the discovery due to her untimely death. Although her role in the discovery of the double helix was overlooked for many years, her contributions as a woman scientist are finally being properly recognized.
2. Dr. Mae Jemison
Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to travel through space after logging over 190 hours in space aboard the Endeavor in 1992. Beyond her work with NASA, Dr. Jemison has extensive research experience in both engineering and medical research, as well as mastery of four languages (Russian, Swahili, Japanese, and English). Dr. Jemison currently serves as a professor at Cornell University and remains very involved in promoting scientific study among the public. As an additional fun fact, Dr. Jemison is very much a supporter of the arts, especially dance. She even brought a poster from the American dance company Alvin Ailey on the shuttle with her: “Many people do not see a connection between science and dance, but I consider them both to be expressions of the boundless creativity that people have to share with one another” .
3. Marie Curie
Marie Curie, a chemist from the 20th century definitely made her mark in STEM through her study of radiation, which included the discoveries of the elements of Radium and Polonium. She was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize (1909), the first person (and still the only woman) to win a second Nobel Prize (1911). She also remains the only person to have ever won two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. It’s also interesting to note that one of her daughters also went on to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
4. Katherine Johnson
You may recognize Katherine Johnson’s name from the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures”. As is explained in the movie, she is most known for her influential mathematical work with NASA. Proven to be more reliable than the computers, Johnson was trusted to confirm the calculations needed to orchestrate the orbital of John Glenn, a feat which turned the tide space race of the 1960s. Though she is perhaps best known for her role in Glenn’s orbital, she was involved with numerous other calculations related to space travel and worked with NASA for 33 years. In 2015 her outstanding work was recognized by President Obama who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
5. Inge Lehmann
Inge Lehmann was a geophysicist and seismologist from the 20th century who discovered that the Earth has a solid inner core (popular consensus at the time was that the core was completely molten). Lehmann single-handedly completed a series of very complex calculations to test her hypothesis in the 1930s, publishing her results in a paper with the shortest title in seismology (perhaps all of science) entitled P’. Her work remains seminally important within the field of geophysics and helped us gain a much deeper understanding of the Earth. During the course of her life, she won several awards for her work and has had an award in geophysics named in her honor.
Despite what most textbooks would have you believe, women have been and continue to be an important part of STEM, and you don’t have to look far to find someone who will truly inspire you. Don’t let the lack of representation get you down, women are an increasingly important part of STEM fields.