When we think of the most influential scientists of our time, our minds often gravitate to the classics; Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, Sir Isaac Newton - the list goes on. While the education system highlights the findings of many famous scientists and important figures across STEM, the imbalance between male and female figures we are taught about is, undeniably, biased.
The lack of representation of women in STEM has major consequences. Girls without female STEM role models are nearly twice as likely to avoid STEM occupations, compared to those who grow up in more representative surroundings. What’s more, only 28% of the STEM workforce is female, despite major skills shortages threatening the industry.
Meanwhile, the gender pay gap is widening and roles in fields such as computer science and engineering face escalating gender disparities – resulting in fewer women entering, let alone progressing, in the field.
In this article, we will showcase 4 influential women whose careers, and findings have paved the way for new scientists, while shaping the world we live in today.
1. Dr. Adriana Ocampo and the Chicxulub impact crater
Dr. Adriana Ocampo is a Columbian planetary geologist, who currently holds the position of Science Program Manager at NASA HQ.
After completing her Masters in Science, at California State University, she went onto complete her PhD in the Netherlands. Ocampo has since led six research expeditions in the same region that her most famous research took place, which ultimately led to the discovery of the Chicxulub impact crater.
Today, the Chicxulub crater is known to be the signature catastrophic meteor strike that likely wiped out the dinosaurs, along with many other species on earth. The asteroid was found on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, after hitting Earth more than 65 million years ago.
2. Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal’s discoveries around HIV
Born in Guangzhou, China, Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal was a Chinese-American virologist and molecular biologist. Coming from humble beginnings, Wong-Staal and her family of six, fled to Hong Kong in 1952 following the Communist revolution in the late 1940s. During her time there, Flossie was educated at Maryknoll Convent School, where she took a liking to science. Upon completion of her studies, Flossie left home to attend the University of California in Los Angeles, where she began pursuing a Bachelor of Science in bacteriology. Following this, Flossie went on to earn her PhD from UCLA in 1972 and began conducting research from the University of California in San Diego.
Dr. Flossie Wong-Staalis is now most known for cloning methodologies in the treatment of HIV and subsequently becoming the first scientist to not only clone the immunodeficiency virus, but also determine the function of its genes. Her findings provided the link that was needed to prove HIV is the cause of aids. Wong-Stall also carried out genetic mapping of the virus, which made it possible to develop HIV tests, and fundamentally aid the development of blood tests for HIV.
3. Two-time Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Marie Curie
Dr. Marie Curie was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who is famously known for her pioneering research which she conducted on radioactivity. Born in Poland in 1867, with the inability to enrol in a regular institution of higher education due to her gender, the odds for Curie’s success were small. However, in 1890 a turning point came when she was granted admission to The Flying University, which enrolled female students, and began her practical scientific training in a chemical laboratory. She later moved to Paris in 1891 where she worked towards her first degree in physics, later followed by a second degree in 1894.
In 1903, Curie made history by becoming the first woman to win a Nobel prize, when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Marie Curie, Pierre Curie (Marie’s husband), and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics. Curie then went on to win her second Nobel Prize just seven years later, but this time in Chemistry. To this day, she remains the only person to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes in Science. Only a few years after receiving her second Nobel Prize, World War I began, and her selflessness shone through when she offered to have both prizes melted down to help provide gold for war efforts.
4. Rosalind Franklin pioneering work on molecular structures
Born in Notting Hill, London, Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer, often referred to as the ‘’Sylvia Plath of molecular biology’’. After graduating from Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1941 with a degree in natural sciences, she went on to enrol for her PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Cambridge. After graduating, she moved to Paris in 1947 and quickly became an accomplished X-Ray crystallographer. Years later in 1951, she joined Kings College London as a research associate and discovered the key properties of DNA, now known as the double helix structure, which helped produce the photograph that helped unravel the mystery of DNA.
Franklin’s work was crucial to the understanding of the molecular structures that make up DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. After disagreements with her director at Kings College London, she was required to move to Birkbeck College in 1953, where she took the lead on the pioneering work of the molecular structures of viruses. The day before she was set to reveal the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus at the 1958 International Fair in Brussels, she sadly passed away at the age of 37 due to ovarian cancer. However, her research went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982, as her team member, Aaron Klug, had continued her research following her passing.
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