Shaheena Patel Shaheena Patel13 February 2023 Open Science

Six Women Who Made a Difference in Science

The UN established the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (IDWGS) to recognize women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To read more about the topic, check out our recent blog article on this year’s IDWGS theme, the 2030 Sustainability Development Goals.

According to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than 30% of researchers in science are women. The IDWGS, therefore, aims to promote the voices of those who are often underrepresented.

Promoting the achievements of women in STEM can help to inform young women and girls that a career in science is a viable and empowering option for them. Here, we look at some exciting ways that women have changed their fields and the opportunities they have helped to provide for women and girls interested in a career in science.

Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison broke records in 1992 as the first Black woman in space. She orbited the earth 127 times during the first Endeavour mission, during which she helped to redeploy INTELSAT VI, a communications satellite.

Jemison established the Jemison group following this. The company looks to solve solve socio-cultural issues with science. For example, one of their current projects uses satellite technology for healthcare delivery in West Africa.

As noted in New Scientist, Jemison is now interested in the way that science can be used to promote progress. She has taken her success forward and supports young people looking to access resources and pursue research careers.

The Jemison foundation

Jemison established the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence following the launch of the Jemison group.

The foundation now runs a science camp known as The Earth We Share (TEWS). TEWS invites young people to develop skills and teaches them about relevant topics like space exploration and sustainability.

The aim is to ensure that young people are taught scientific literacy, which will help them to build a career in STEM. TEWS also aims to prepare future generations for interdisciplinary research challenges.

Tu Youyou

Tu Youyou was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She is best known for pioneering the WHO-recommended first-line defence against Malaria with her colleagues in 1972.

In the 1960s, Vietnam appealed to China for help due to rising malaria cases. China’s Project 523 was launched to help find a cure. Tu was then made head of the project.

Early in her career, Tu acknowledged the value of various herbal treatments documented in traditional Chinese medicine. And in the 1960s and 70s, Tu traveled across China, looking for a compound that could assist in treating malaria.

Her research led her to investigate sweet wormwood, or Artemisia annua. The compound was initially found to be ineffective. However, Tu developed an extraction method to isolate its antimalarial compounds, artemisinins. These compounds were successfully used to create drugs to treat malaria.

Tu’s research in pharmaceutical science helped to spotlight Chinese medicinal practices and save countless lives in places like Southeast Asia, where hospitals were struggling to cope with malaria fatalities. She now works as Chief Scientist at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine and teaches there.

Given her monumental contributions to science, the MDPI journal Molecules established an award in honor of Tu in 2016. A Special Issue was also set up to commemorate her 80th anniversary in 2009.

Hertha Ayrton

Hertha Ayrton is an important figure in the field of electrical engineering.

Though difficult to access at the time for most women, Ayrton managed to secure a place to study mathematics at Cambridge in the 1880s. However, she was not granted an academic degree in 1880 due to discriminatory policies against women. Instead, in 1881, Ayrton received her BSc from the University of London, the first university in the UK to grant degrees to women.

In 1884, Ayrton patented the line divider, an engineering tool designed to divide a line into equal parts. Many more patents would be filed by Ayrton in her lifetime. Another notable invention is the ‘Ayrton anti-gas fan’, which was used to clear gas from trenches in the First World War.

Ayrton, who would later become a teacher, participated in the suffrage movement by attending rallies with her daughter. She was an advocate for women’s access to education and helped found the International Federation of University Women (IFUW).

Graduate Women International

Today, the IFUW operates as Graduate Women International (GWI). GWI helps women to access education at all levels and to develop skills like financial literacy, including in STEM subjects. The organization also helps women to access employment.

Gladys West

Without Gladys West, we might not have the GPS we know and use today.

As an important figure in mathematics, West helped to develop a precise understanding of the shape of the Earth. However, she did not receive the recognition she deserved at the time, despite her important contributions to science in the fields of aviation and space exploration.

Living in the U.S. in the 1960s, West faced racism and gender disparities. She was part of the all-Black group of women mathematicians who inspired the narrative behind Hidden Figures, a 2016 film celebrating the work of women working at a NASA facility in the 1960s who were subject to racism and segregation.

West’s ability to join protests in favor of civil rights was limited because she was a government employee. However, her contribution to advancing the position of Black women in the U.S. is not insignificant. West engaged with debates and discussions around issues of civil rights as a resident of Boomtown, a base for government employees.

Gladys West was interviewed by the BBC for their BBC 100 Women campaign in 2018 to celebrate the strides she made as a woman in STEM. And in 2021, the Royal Academy of Engineering awarded West the Prince Philip medal.

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai is a notable figure in the field of ecofeminism. Ecofeminism looks at the intersection between environmental issues and feminism, which we recently discussed on the blog.

Maathai’s work helped to expand the field of ecofeminism by taking into account the intersections of gender and environmental issues as well as colonialism and global disparities.

Maathai sought to respond to climate issues, gender inequality, and global disparities that impact Kenya by launching mass reforestation and community programs. She established The Green Belt Movement (GBM), a non-governmental organization (NGO), to support future reforestation programs and respond to the needs of women in Kenya.

Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her important work. The 2004 award marked a special occasion, as she was the first African woman to receive it.

The Green Belt Movement

The first initiative of The Green Belt Movement took place on World Environmental Day in 1977, and the NGO continues to carry out important work to this day. There are now over 4000 community groups working with The Green Belt Movement, showing the value of the organization’s grassroots approach.

As part of its Community Empowerment and Education program, GBM helps to place women in decision-making roles. This is in line with their aim to promote gender equality and equity.

Sophie Wilson

Sophie Wilson is known for her achievements in computer science. One of her earliest creations is the BBC Microcomputer, or BBC Micro. The term ‘microcomputers’ describes devices that work on a central processing unit (CPU).

The BBC launched the BBC Micro as part of an education program in the 1980s that included topics like coding and programing, as well as basic computer literacy. When working at Acorn in the 1980s, Wilson helped to develop the first design. Wilson also developed BBC Basic, the programming language used in the device.

Wilson then helped to develop ARM processors. ARM stands for Advanced RISC Machines. They are based on a reduced instruction set computer (RISC) architecture. A RISC architecture helps to reduce the level of complexity in processors, leading to greater efficiency.

The ARM architecture is widely found in the electronics we use every day, including laptops, tablets and other consumer devices. Wilson and her colleagues were awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize in 2022 in recognition of their fundamental work in developing RISC chips.

Wilson was also named a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 2020 to recognize her achievements in the field.

Better access for women and girls

It’s clear that women have historically faced barriers in STEM, including limited education and recognition, and gender disparities in workplaces. These limitations are compounded at intersections such as race that make access and recognition all the more challenging.

Even with these limitations, we would scarcely recognize the world we live in today without these pioneering women in science.

This is where the importance of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science can be seen. It ensures that there are platforms to acknowledge the achievements of trailblazing women in science.

The foundations established by Jemison and Maathai provide tangible resources for women in science, while the achievements of all of these women in mathematics, medicine, engineering, and computer science provide clearer paths for future generations of women and girls in these fields.

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