Women’s history month: 10 female pioneers of scientific discovery

With the power to revolutionize the world, scientific discovery is a major player within our society.  Through scientific research, we’re able to develop a profound understanding of the world as we know it today, improving our current processes and drastically transforming our healthcare.

Despite facing gender discriminatory challenges and systematics barriers, women have made significant contributions in scientific discoveries throughout history. Given that the scientific sector has been historically male dominated, and as we continue to embrace women in STEM, it’s important we pay tribute to female pioneers in the scientific field. 

To kickstart Women’s history month this March, lets take a look at 10 major female pioneers of scientific discovery throughout history: 

Jennifer Doudna (1963 – Present): Pioneer in CRISPR Technology

An American biochemist, Dounda made game-changing contributions within genetic engineering. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat (CRISPR) technology is a transformative engineering technique co-developed by Dounda and was specifically devised for genome modification.

This was a significant advancement within Biotechnology and has since led to developments of CRISPR-based therapies for the treatment of genetic diseases, including neuro-disorders, cardiovascular disorders, and life threatening diseases such as Cancer. Dounda received the Nobel Prize in 2020 for her significant contribution.

Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020): Mathematician, One of NASA’s “Hidden Figures”

Nicknamed the ‘human computer,’ Johnson used her mathematical calculations of orbital mechanics to successfully navigate US spaceflights. Johnson was one of the first African-American women to work as a Mathematician at NASA, her calculations allowed the first ever American spacecraft to enter the earth’s orbit as well as land on the moon.

In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her significant contributions towards Americans progression in space.

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958): X-Ray Crystallographer and Chemist

Franklin made remarkable contributions within Physics and Biochemistry, particularly with her discovery of the DNA molecular structure. In 1953, Franklin used X-ray Crystallography to determine the helical structure and basic dimensions of DNA.  Her work further lead to the structural discoveries in RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite.

Sadly, Franklin had passed before the Nobel prize was awarded in 1962. Despite this, she is still widely known as a pioneer in the identification of essential molecular structures.   

Dame Sarah Gilbert (1962 – Present): Vaccinologist, the ‘Woman Behind the COVID-19 Vaccine’

Gilbert is a English Vaccinologist and professor of Vaccinology, who focused on influenza and other emerging clinical pathogens. During the global COVID-19 pandemic, her work led to the lifesaving creation of Oxford-Astra Zeneca, one of the first available COVID-19 vaccines.

The vaccine was authorised in late 2020, and was distributed to at least 270 countries. This saved the lives of millions of people, with over 2.5 billion doses of the vaccine issued worldwide. 

Mae Jemison (1956-present): First Black Woman in Space

Jemison was a former NASA astronaut, and the first African American woman to have gone to space. In 1992, Jemison was one of 7 to onboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, on a mission that orbited the earth for nearly 8 days.

Retiring from NASA in 1993, Jemison is now an engineer, and continues to holds a prominent presence within the scientific field. Now the author of several books, Jemison further formed a non-profit educational foundation, as well as her own company to encourage science, technology and social change. Jemison’s contribution to scientific history has enabled her a spot in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994): Chemist, Pioneer in the Structure of Biological Molecules

Hodgkin’s scientific discoveries revolved around the advancement of X-ray Crystallography, and the subsequent determination and architectural mapping of biological molecules.  Her research lead to the discoveries of the molecular structures of cholesterol, Vitamin B12, insulin, and penicillin.  

Through her discovery of these biochemical substance structures, Hodgkin received a Nobel Prize in 1964, and remains to be the only British female to have received one.  

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (1840 – 1912): Physician, leader of the ‘Edinburgh Seven’

Sophia was a British Physician and feminist, who fought to change current legislation that limited Women’s education. During this time, women were not allowed to pursue a medical degree, nor were they able to hold a medical license.

Sophia was the leader of the ‘Edinburgh seven;’ a revolutionary group of women dedicated to fighting for women’s rights to study medicine. Thanks to her efforts, the legalisation was abolished, followed by the opening of the Medical School for Women in London in 1874, with another in Edinburgh in 1886.

Marie Curie (1867 – 1934): The ‘Mother of Modern Physics’

Known as the ‘Mother of Modern Physics’, Curie was a pioneer in Physics and Chemistry, and one of the first women to receive a Nobel Prize. Her work led to the discovery of Radioactivity – particularly with the chemical elements Radium and Polonium – which uncovered its powerful ability to kill cancerous cells.

Her work lead to her receiving two Nobel Prizes, one with her husband in 1903, and the second independently in 1911. Sadly, her ongoing radioactive exposure contributed to her passing in 1934. 

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) Leading Female Figure in Physics

Nicknamed the ‘First Lady of physics’, Wu was a pioneer in the field Nuclear and particle Physics. She is well known for her ‘Wu experiment’ in 1956, that found that atoms had a preference for the direction in their spin, proving that the Law of Conservation of Parity did not apply during Beta Decay. This was a significant milestone in Physics history, which her two colleagues received the Nobel Prize for in 1957.

Wu went on to receive the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978 and was then elected as the first female president of the American Physical Society. 

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852): Mathematician, the ‘First Computer Programmer’

Over a century before it was engineered, Lovelace devised the algorithm needed to create the ‘Analytical Machine.’ Despite the lack of technology available to build such a machine at the time, Lovelace was able conceptualise the formulation behind the creation, resulting in her well-deserved reputation as the first computer programmer.

As we continue to celebrate women in STEM today, it’s important we celebrate female pioneers of scientific discovery who’ve helped pave the way for women of today.

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