Today, July 31st would have been inventor Stephanie Kwolek’s 95th birthday. Kwolek was a chemist at DuPont, where she invented Kevlar, the first synthetic material of exceptional strength, which is used in bullet-proof vests. She has won multiple awards and is featured in the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
- Marie Curie
One of my personal favorite scientists is Maria Skłodwska Curie, better known as Madame Marie Curie, is one of the most well-known scientists in history. She was born in Warsaw, Poland (which was controlled by Russia at the time), where she began her studies. Dr. Curie went on to become the first female professor at the University of Paris, the first woman to win a Nobel prize, and is the only person (not just the only woman, the only person) to win a Nobel prize in two different science categories. She was a physicist and chemist who pioneered research in radioactivity (she even coined the term “radioactivity”), and paved the way for women like me to become scientists.
- Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin was a major contributor to our current understanding of the structure of DNA. Using X-rays, Dr. Franklin examined DNA, and her images helped Watson and Crick to discover the double helix structure, a discovery that earned them a Nobel prize (which was unfortunately awarded after Dr. Franklin’s death, and therefore she was not a co-recipient of the award). In addition to her work with DNA, Dr. Franklin also researched virus structure, for which her co-worker, Aaron Klug earned a Nobel prize in chemistry (again, this was after her death, so Dr. Franklin was not a co-recipient).
- Flossie Wong-Staal
Flossie Wong-Staal, as the image above states, was the first researcher to clone and map the genes of HIV. Her research was instrumental in the discovery that HIV causes AIDS. She also discovered the function of the genes in the virus. Currently, Dr. Wong-Staal is the chief scientific officer for iTherX, a pharmaceutical company she co-founded.
- Barbara McClintock
Dr. Barbara McClintock’s biggest achievement is the discovery of genetic transposition, for which she earned a Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. She is the only woman to earn an unshared Nobel prize in that category. Dr. McClintock conducted her research on maize, where she studied chromosomes. Her research led to many discoveries in the field of genetics, including crossing over during meiosis, also known as genetic recombination, the roles of various chromosomal segments, and theories on the suppression and expression of genes.
- Valentina Tereshkova
On June 16th, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to go to space. After being honorarily inducted into the Soviet Air Force, Tereshkova joined the cosmonaut corps, and became the first civilian to travel to space. After her cosmonaut career, she attended the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy where she graduated as a cosmonaut engineer; she later earned a doctorate in engineering. Dr. Tereshkova was a prominent member of the communist party, and remained politically active after the fall of the Soviet Union. She is still well-loved and in 2013 expressed her love of Mars and desire to travel there. Dr. Tereshkova was quoted saying “We know the human limits. And for us this remains a dream. Most likely the first flight will be one way. But I am ready.”
- Stephanie Kwolek
You may not have heard of Stephanie Kwolek, but I assure you, you know her legacy, Kevlar. While working for DuPont as a chemist, she was tasked with developing a new fiber to be used in tires. The mixture she created was almost thrown away, but Kwolek convinced a co-worker it should be tested, and it was found to be incredibly strong, especially considering its weight. This fiber was perfected into what we know as Kevlar, the material bulletproof vests are made from. Her discoveries also led to the rise of the polymer science.
- Shirley Ann Jackson
In 1973, Shirley Ann Jackson became the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from MIT, and the second African-American woman to earn a doctorate in Physics. Dr. Jackson spent her scientific career as a theoretical physicist, an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. She has contributed to over 100 scientific articles. In 1995, Dr. Jackson was appointed to serve as the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commision by President Clinton, and was the first woman and first African-American to hold the position. In 1999 she became the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and was, again, the first woman and first African-American to hold the position. Since then, Dr. Jackson has become one of the highest paid professors in the United States and serves on the board of directors for over a dozen companies including IBM, FedEx, and the New York Stock Exchange.
- Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and computer scientist in the 19th century. She is widely considered the creator of the first computer program. Lovelace created an algorithm to be run on an “Analytical Engine” which would compute Bernoulli numbers.
- Mary Jackson
In 1958, Mary Jackson became NASA’s first African-American female engineer. After graduating college with a dual degree in math and physical science, Jackson began her career as a teacher at a black school in Maryland (public schools were still segregated at the time). Her first job at NASA was as a mathematician, and after 34 years she had achieved the most senior engineer position at NASA. Throughout her life she tutored high school and college students, and was an advocate for women and other minorities.
Hypatia, also known as Hypatia of Alexandria, was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher in 300-400 CE. She collaborated with her father and fellow mathematician, Theon of Alexandria. No written work of hers has survived to modern times, however, it is documented that she was head of the Neoplatonist School in Alexandria sometime around 400, where she taught philosophy.
I barely hit the tip of the iceberg with this post. These women contributed so much to the scientific community, as did many, many women like them. I could write ten articles about amazing women in science, but I chose these ten women for their groundbreaking contributions to science and/or for being the first woman to contribute to their field.
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