Women have made incredible contributions to the science, technology, engineering, and math (collectively known as STEM) fields since the earliest we can recall or have on record but their names have often been left off their contributions or been glossed over in favor of their male contemporaries who used women’s research or contributions to solidify their own work. As a woman in the sciences myself, I find it’s important to show that STEM is for everyone. I tell my students that science was the only place where I could ask questions, be wrong, and it still be important to understanding what was going on.
This is why for today’s STEM mom episode I wanted to highlight 5 women in STEM who have made significant and interesting impacts on our lives that you may not know about. Of course there are much more than five but if you’re interested you can find out more about women in STEM just by doing a simple Google search. I chose these women from the “Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World” by Rachel Ignotofksy that is sometimes used for bedtime stories in this house.
- Hypatia was born sometime between 350 and 370 CE (Common Era – which is basically the same as AD without the Christian overtones to it) and lived until she was murdered in 415 CE. She was the first recorded female mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. While there is evidence of some women predecessors she is really the first we have a detailed account of her life and works (as detailed as one can get for almost 1,700 years ago). She worked and taught in the city of Alexandria where she was educated by her father, Theon. Alexandria was a place known for learning and the exchange of ideas centered around the great Library of Alexandria; the Library was for the most part destroyed by the time Hypatia was born but the legacy of the Library definitely played a roll in Hypatia’s education. Hypatia was a student of geometry, number theory and platonic (i.e. from Plato) philosophy. She wrote commentary on many contemporary works and taught these ideas to many students. Ultimately it was her death, however, that turned her into a legend of the ancient world. We are still unpacking her contributions to the world and she has been a beacon highlighting the importance of female education and participation in the intellectual world. Find more about Hypatia here.
- Mary Anning was born in England in 1799 CE and died in 1847 CE. She first came to my attention when the Munchkin had just been born and I would sit holding her reading “Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier. Mary was a fossil hunter in Lyme Regis which is a small English seaside town. During the paleozoic there was Pangea (many of us remember Pangea) but as the continents started to break up during the mesozoic time England was still very close to the equator and underwater in ways that are in stark contrast to it’s current geological position. This fact made it ripe for fossils and Mary worked to support her family by selling fossils she found to tourists much like she watched her father do, and residents of Lyme today still make money on fossil hunting. What made Mary’s fossils so interesting was that she unearthed complete fossilized skeletons that hadn’t been seen before. She discovered the brand new species plesiosaur while also unearthing the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton and the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany. Many of her fossils were used by contemporary geologists and her finds probably influenced Charles Darwin because the skeletons she found resembled no living species at that time. The idea of extinction seems common place today but it was really Mary’s fossils that helped us to understand extinction and usher in the fascination to this day with dinosaurs. If you or your child has ever been fascinated by ancient life or dreamed of being a paleontologist you have Mary to thank for that. Find more about Mary Anning here.
- Alice Ball was born in Seattle in 1892; because of the wonders of photography she became interested in chemistry. She was the first African American and the first woman to graduate with a Masters of Science from the University of Hawaii in 1915 where she made her most dramatic contributions to people’s lives. She was able to distill and create a treatment for Hensen’s disease (AKA leprosy) that effectively treated the disease so people could survive and return to their homes and families. If you’ve read “Moloka’i” by Alan Brennert you have had a glimpse into some of the atrocities that these people suffered from not just from the disease but the fear and isolation due to the disease and Alice Ball developed such a successful treatment in the “Ball Method” that three decades of patients were spared living without their families or communities because of the disease. Sadly, Ball died when she was only 24 years old and her work has largely been ignored by the general public but she is the one who brought hope to a generation afflicted by it. Find more about Alice Ball here.
- Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was born into a family of African American doctors. Her grandfather was the first African American to graduate from Yale medical school and her father founded Harlem Hospital’s Cancer Research Foundation. If you’ve had a family member of friend stricken with cancer you probably have Dr. Wright to thank for some of their treatment and if that wasn’t enough in 1967 she became the highest ranking African-American woman in a medical institution. She worked, along side her father, testing chemotherapy medications. Dr. Wright developed a way to test cancer tissue without subjecting the whole patient to a chemotherapy drug. This allows doctors to test a variety of medications on the tissue to see which ones the cancer might respond to most effectively before prescribing treatment; this allows doctors to see which medicine might be most effectively more quickly than the trial and error methods of the past. She also worked on ways to treat hard to reach tumors without having to remove the whole organ and innovated ways to deliver chemotherapy drugs via catheter to specific tissues. She was a leader in oncology ultimately becoming the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society. Find more about Dr. Wright here.
- Esther Lederberg was born in 1922 and went on to study genetics at Stanford University in 1946. Lederberg was a microbiologist who discovered a bacteriophage called the lambda phage. Bacteriophages are viruses that attack bacteria by injecting their genetic code (either DNA or RNA) into the bacterium cell and then integrate their genetics into the bactirum effectively hijacking it. Just like the cold (or the SARS-Cov2) virus does to our own cells. The lambda phage was special though because it didn’t always kill off the host bacterium cell and would sometimes just integrate itself into the DNA of the bacteria cell. This phage has become instrumental in drug and other genetic experiments as way to participate in recombination (AKA adding new genes to DNA strands). Almost all genetic studies in the modern era have started out using a lambda phage to inject an E. coli cell to see what happens. Lederberg also developed replica plating which is still used today to test for antibiotic resistance and mutations. Replica plating allows a scientist to transfer the same cells to a variety of petri dishes to study what grows and what doesn’t under different conditions (I even used this method in my graduate studies just a few short years ago). Lederberg’s work helped us understand antibiotic resistance in bacteria and how mutations in genetic code can lead to evolution. Find out more about Esther Lederberg here.
These are just five of the amazing women in STEM’s history that have made contributions to every area of our modern lives. Without them and their important work we wouldn’t be here in the 21st century with all modern life has to offer. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us to do more and be better. If you have questions, you want answers, and you’re not afraid to keep going even when it’s hard, STEM is for you. I hope you’ll take some time this month to talk to the girls and boys in your life about the importance of STEM and how STEM is for everyone.