Eight Women Making Waves in STEM

by Leah Marsh ’19

Today, there is a strong effort to attract women to fields in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). However, while the numbers are creeping up, there is still an incredible lack of diversity in STEM, and women who do enter STEM still face challenges. In honor of International Women’s Day, here are eight female scientists, past and present, who have broken barriers and made remarkable contributions to their fields. Their stories and their work are inspiring, and they are role models for anyone and everyone who wants to go into STEM.

Ada Lovelace (1818-1852)
Ada Lovelace’s interest in the sciences began at a young age and lasted her entire life. She designed flying machines as a child, and she later became the world’s first computer programmer: her friend Charles Babbage had shown her his “Analytical Machine” (regarded as the world’s first computer), and Lovelace found a way for the machine to calculate Bernoulli numbers—essentially, she wrote a program. This and her other works went on to inspire many other computer scientists, including Alan Turing.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)
Henrietta Swan Leavitt was born right here in Cambridge; she became interested in astronomy while in college and later held a job at the Harvard College Observatory. With many other young women in a lab headed by men, she worked as a “computer,” analyzing the brightnesses of stars in photographs. Through this close analysis, she put two and two together and discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars (which vary in brightness with a regular period). This relationship provided a basis for many other important discoveries in astronomy.

Emmy Noether (1882-1935)
Emmy Noether was a brilliant German Jewish mathematician. She taught without pay for many years and was only allowed to join the faculty at Göttingen University after Einstein intervened on her behalf (though she still wasn’t paid for several years). During this time, she made groundbreaking contributions to the fields of abstract algebra and particle physics. When the Nazis came to power, Noether was once again forbidden to teach (despite having recently been awarded the prestigious Ackermann-Teubner Memorial Prize in mathematics); instead she came to America and taught at Bryn Mawr College for several years.

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)
If you haven’t read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, here’s a primer: Henrietta Lacks was a young black woman living in Maryland when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. During her stay at Johns Hopkins, the only hospital that treated black patients, two samples of her tissue (healthy and cancerous) were removed without her permission and given to Dr. George Gey. He used them to create the first immortal cell line—at the time, most human cells grown in culture died within a few days. Cells derived from the original samples helped create the polio vaccine, and today, the “HeLa” cell line is still the most widely used of all immortal cell lines. It all began without the consent or knowledge of Henrietta Lacks, who later died the same year that the samples were taken.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
Recently, Dr. James Watson gave a talk in Science Center Hall B about the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure, with which he is credited, along with Francis Crick. At the time, many scientists were working on the structure of DNA, among them Rosalind Franklin. Although she couldn’t eat in the university’s male-only dining halls or go out to male-only pubs, Franklin persisted in her work, specializing in X-ray crystallography. It was one of her photographs of DNA that led to Watson’s “lightbulb” moment; however, her contributions remain largely uncredited to this day.

Shirley Ann Jackson (1946-present)
The first African-American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT, Shirley Ann Jackson has had a distinguished career in physics, including research at Bell Laboratories, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). She chaired both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and she also became the first black or female president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1999. During her time at RPI, she has secured over a billion dollars in donations to philanthropic causes.

France Anne-Dominic Córdova (1947-present)
France Córdova, the director of the National Science Foundation, was born in France to Irish-American and Mexican-American parents. She studied English at Stanford University, conducted research in anthropology in Oaxaca, Mexico, and later earned her doctorate in physics from California Institute of Technology. She was the youngest and first female NASA Chief Scientist when she was appointed in 1993. She held leadership positions at several universities, including Purdue University, and later served as the chair of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents. She was confirmed as the leader of the National Science Foundation in 2014.

Joanne Liu (1965-present)
Joanne Liu is a Canadian doctor and the International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, or MSF). From a young age, she wanted to become a pediatrician, and she studied pediatrics at McGill University School of Medicine. She began working with MSF in 1996, providing disaster relief and medical treatment in Indonesia, Haiti, Kenya, Palestine, and many other areas where help is needed. She helped create MSF’s telemedicine project, which allows doctors in remote areas to quickly communicate with specialists around the world. She was named MSF’s International President in 2013.


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