To recognise International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we're celebrating the world’s most influential women scientists.
In almost every industry women are not only underrepresented, they are underappreciated. This is also the case within science.
There are, however, a significant number of women in science making major inroads in the traditionally male-dominated discipline. While there are countless online articles highlighting famous female scientists from the past — featuring the likes of Marie Curie — very little is made of female scientists currently in work.
Without diminishing the groundbreaking achievements of women throughout the history of science, it's time we got to know those taking great strides forward in the here and now.
From a polymath poetry translator to the inventor of a transformational genome editing technology, here are four of the most influential female scientists who are changing the world around us.
1. Cynthia Kenyon
Ever wanted to live forever? Molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon may have the answer. OK, so it’s not quite as straightforward as that, but her genetic studies regarding ageing in C. elegans worms show us that it may be possible to make life longer. She found that a daf2 hormone receptor mutation doubled the lifespan of a simple worm without impacting on the quality of the worm’s life. In human terms, a mutant worm would look like a teenager in middle age.
The most impressive part of Cynthia Kenyon’s studies is that when repeated on mice, the same effect took hold. As mice are mammals, it is possible that the same effect could be achieved in humans. Another finding was that living things with mutated daf2 hormone receptors are less likely to get ageing diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, or heart disease. Imagine if we could take a pill to introduce mutated daf2 hormone receptors into our bodies.
These discoveries came over two and a half decades ago. Now she works with Google’s Calico, and the aim is to potentially lengthen the lives of humans by 100 years. A pioneer in ageing research, if there is one scientist who is likely to make us all live healthier longer lives, it’s Cynthia Kenyon. She truly is one of the most inspirational women in science today.
View Kenyon’s TED talk below:
2. Jennifer Doudna
The inventor of a groundbreaking technology for editing genomes, named CRISPR-Cas9, Jennifer Doudna is one of the greatest living scientists. Allowing scientists to make ultra-precise edits to DNA in cells, it could potentially help to cure genetic deformities and diseases — including cancer.
Studies have shown that CRISPR technology can be used to alter the DNA of the HIV virus in human cells. It was also used successfully in 2016, when two monkey twins were born healthy but with specific genetic mutations.
Whilst this is indeed revolutionary, it does cause some serious ethical concerns. Most notably if it is used on humans. This actually happened in China — where researchers experimented with CRISPR technology on human embryos. In the wrong hands, CRISPR could be used to create so- called “designer babies.”
Whilst this is potentially an uneasy future for the technology, if used in the right way, CRISPR could help us cure cell diseases previously thought incurable. And it is Jennifer Doudna, one of the greatest living female scientists, who will have made it possible.
View Doudna’s TED talk below:
3. Nina Tandon
Nina Tandon is a biomedical engineer who is changing the world of cell science. She is the founder and CEO of EpiBone, a company that grows bones for skeletal reconstruction. It allows practitioners to repair bone defects in people by using the patient’s stem cells to grow new healthy bones in a lab environment.
They can be made to exact measurements to reflect the patient’s body. It also means that the patient’s immune system will naturally accept the new bone, rather than fighting against it.
Amazingly, the bone can also grow, which means that for children with bone defects, their body can develop as usual.
Tandon has also been involved with constructing beating hearts using the same method. Little wonder that she has won so many accolades, from becoming a TED fellow, to being named as a 2015 Global Thinker by Foreign Policy magazine.
What Nina Tandon is doing in science is truly amazing, and could have a big impact on keeping us healthy both now and in the future.
View Tandon’s TED talk below:
4. Sunetra Gupta
Sunetra Gupta is something of a modern-day polymath. The Calcutta-born, UK-based scientist is not only the professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford, but is also a novelist and a translator of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Quite the CV. But what is she doing in science?
Gupta’s core interest is in the infectious disease agents that are responsible for HIV, malaria, bacterial meningitis, and influenza. With a key focus on the evolution of diversity in pathogens, she received the 2009 Royal Society Rosalind Franklin award for her achievements in science.
During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Gupta's expertise in infectious disease and epidemiology has seen her become an outspoken critic of governmental responses to national lockdowns across the world.
While her influence on science is unquestionable, what is also interesting about Gupta is her explorations of the connections between science and literature. Her novels have been as well received as her achievements in science, with her latest novel, So Good in Black, published by Clockroot Books in 2011, long-listed for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
View Gupta's ideas on epidemiological modelling below:
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