Remember The Women in STEM
I typically observe Women’s History Month by learning about at least one woman from history whose name and contributions remain widely unknown. There is an innumerable amount of women that played a hand in historical events and yet, their names are not known to the public. This month, I took a closer look at women in STEM who have made hugely significant contributions. Here are five women whose stories deserve more recognition.
One of the first times I realized how history erases women’s achievements (especially in science) was when I learned about Rosalind Franklin in middle school. Franklin was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in London, and studied physics and chemistry at Newnham Women's College at Cambridge University. During WWII, Franklin served as a London air raid warden and sacrificed her fellowship to research coal and carbon for the war effort.
Franklin made a number of significant discoveries during her career, one of the most notable being– the density and double-helix structure of DNA. Two male colleagues of hers used an unpublished X-Ray photograph she had captured that displayed the double-helix, and they presented it as their own work. Franklin’s contributions to this discovery were not uncovered until after her death at age 37 due to cancer – which was likely caused by the X-Ray exposure she endured to make these discoveries.
The little recognition that Franklin received during her lifetime and the way in which her male colleagues exploited her work really opened my eyes to how history neglects female figures.
Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-born American physicist who proved that the principle of parity conversion is not true for weak subatomic interactions. Wu was born in 1912 in a small town near Shanghai and attended a school her father created, as he was one of the few people at the time who believed in educating girls. She traveled to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies at Berkeley in 1936. After receiving her degree, Wu was unable to find a research position at a university so she taught at several institutions including Princeton and Colombia.
In 1944, she joined the Manhattan Project – a New Mexico-based clandestine scientific war effort – where Wu helped in identifying why a nearby nuclear reactor mysteriously shut down. After the war, she got a research position at Columbia and worked with two male colleagues to test their theory that the law of conservation of parity doesn’t fit beta decay. In 1957, Wu published her experimental findings, and that year, the other two colleagues received the Nobel Prize in Physics. Like Franklin, Wu’s work in this project went unrecognized. The good news is that she was the first woman to be the president of the American Physical Society and received outstanding awards for her work including the National Medal of Science, the Comstock Prize and the Wolf Prize in Physics.
Jane Hinton was born in 1919 to a very academically-oriented family. Her father, William Augustus Hinton, was the first black person to teach at Harvard Medical School and encouraged her to dive into the STEM field at a very young age. Starting at age six, Hinton and her sister did their schooling in Europe because their parents wanted them to receive the best education available to black students. She returned to the U.S. to graduate from high school and received a bachelor degree from Simmons College. Following her graduation, Hinton worked in her father’s laboratory at Harvard’s Department of Bacteriology and Immunology where she helped develop the Mueller-Hinton agar: a now-standard method used to test bacterial resistance to antibiotics.
During WWII, Hinton served as a medical technician for the war effort. After the war ended, she became a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 1949, becoming one of the two black women veterinarians in the nation. Hinton did her vet practices in parallel to her research on livestock diseases.
Ellen Ochoa was born in 1958 in Los Angeles, CA, and is the first Hispanic woman to go to space. Ochoa studied electrical engineering at Stanford University and helped create optical systems that were awarded patents and used to recognize objects in space. Ochoa was selected to join NASA’s astronaut program in 1990 and finished it a year later, making her the first Latina female astronaut. She was launched into space as a crew member of the shuttle Discovery in 1993.
On the Discovery, Ochoa and her team did several experiments exploring the sun’s relationship to the Earth. In 1994, Ochoa was part of the Atlantis mission which was a continuation of these experiments. Five years later, she went back to space as part of the first crew to dock at the International Space Station. She brought the flag of the National Women’s Party with her into space and got a photo holding it with her other two female crew members in the ISS. Ochoa went on to become the director of the Johnson Space Center in 2013 after serving six years as the deputy director. She has received the Distinguished Service Medal – NASA’s highest award – and has six schools named after her. Most recently, in 2020, Ochoa became the chair of the National Science Board.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is an immunologist performing trials for the Covid-19 vaccine. Dr. Corbett began studying in labs during the summers while she was in high school as a part of a program called ProjectSEED. After earning her B.S. from University of Maryland Baltimore County, she went to Sri Lanka to study the children's antibody response to the dengue.
After receiving her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology, she became a fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and worked on the development of vaccines for two coronaviruses, SARS and MERS. Dr. Corbett and her team have been credited for discovering a spike protein in Covid-19 which led to a better understanding on how to create vaccines to combat the virus. She was featured in 2021 TIME100 Next, a listicle of the 100 most influential people in the world, with a praising note written by Dr. Anthony Fauci.
This article is certainly not an exhaustive list of influential women in STEM who have made substantial contributions to the field. Although it is impossible to know how many ground-breaking women in the past have gone unnoticed, I hope that these stories were eye-opening. We must acknowledge their contributions to the STEM field and how hard they worked to reach these new heights and inspire future generations of women leaders.