Women Who've Made Breakthrough Scientific Contributions


Jan 1, 2014

Women Who've Made Breakthrough Scientific Contributions

The conversation on the lack of women in science, or the gender gap in STEM, never seems to cease. A recent New York Times article writes that a Yale study found that "physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a woman with the same qualifications."

Despite the gender bias and years upon years of walls put up by sexism, women have nevertheless made monumental contributions to their fields and to the larger scope of science.

From Rosalind Franklin who played a key role in unearthing the molecular structure of DNA -- for which famed scientists Watson and Crick largely received all credit for -- to our recent MAKER Nancy Wexler, who has dedicated her life to finding a cure for Huntington's Disease, women have made, and continue to make, major impacts in science.

Take a look through the breakthough scientific contributions from female scientists!


Ada Lovelace Described as the world's first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. The daughter of Lord Byron, Lovelace referred to herself as a "poetical scientist". Her notes on the Analytic Engine are considered the first algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computers. She also developed a vision on the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others focused only on those capabilities. "Ada Lovelace Day" is an annual event celebrated in mid-October with the goal is to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.   Photo: SSPL via Getty Images
Rosalind Franklin Rosalind Franklin was the biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer who played a key role in developing our modern understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. Famed scientists Watson, Crick and Wilkins would go on to receive credit for discovering DNA's double helix structure even though Franklin's work was essential to the breakthrough. The three men earned the Nobel Prize for their discovery in 1962. Nobel Prizes aren’t awarded posthumously, and Franklin died in 1958 of ovarian cancer, at age 37. Photo: National Library of Medicine
Hedy Lamarr Hedy Lamarr was an actress who was a contract star of MGM's "Golden Age." She was also an inventor who, along with George Antheil, invented an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, necessary for wireless communication from the pre-computer age to the present day. This work was honored in 1997, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr a belated award for her contributions.
Elizabeth Blackburn Elizabeth Blackburn is a Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist whose research focused on understanding a critical structure at the end of chromosomes, called the telomere, which protects DNA during the cell division. Her breakthrough discovery, for which she was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, concerned the process by which cells replicate. Specifically, Blackburn co-discovered an enzyme called “telomerase”, which rebuilds telomeres following cell division. Scientists knew that telomeres broke down during cell division, but until Blackburn’s discovery they didn’t know how they were repaired afterward. Photo: Getty Images
Leslie Thompson Leslie Thompson has worked on Huntington’s disease for over two decades, and her group’s research has revealed extensive insights into the biological underpinnings of the disease. Her team identified how two proteins help control the accumulation of the Huntingtin protein in brain tissue. This accumulation is central to disease progression. “The molecular activities we identified represent defined therapeutic targets,” says Thompson. Photo: University of California, Irvine
Marie Curie Marie Curie was the Polish-born French physicist and chemist best known for her contributions to radioactivity. She developed methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues in sufficient quantities to allow for its characterization and the careful study of its properties, therapeutic properties in particular. In 1903 she and her husband received the Nobel Prize in Physics and in 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, in recognition of her work in radioactivity. She was the first woman to hold the position of Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne. Photo: Library of Congress
Jane Goodall Jane Goodall is the British primatologist and ethologist, widely considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees. She led a 45-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. A non-traditional scientist, Goodall gave the chimpanzees she studied names like Fifi and David Greybeard instead of numbering them, treating them more like people than animal subjects. Her studies revealed a fascinating window into a world of chimpanzees who had personalities and emotions similar to humans. Photo: Getty Images
Maria Mayer German-born American theoretical physicist, Mayer proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus, for which she became a Nobel laureate in Physics. During World War II, she worked worked for the Manhattan Project on isotope separation, and at the Los Alamos Laboratory on the development of the Teller's "Super" bomb. Photo: NobelPrize.org
Rachel Carson Rachel Carson was the marine biologist and conservationist whose work revolutionzied the global environmental movement. Her work of most impact, "Silent Spring" published in 1962 served as a warning about the danger of pesticides, especially DDT, to the environment. Because of her work exposing the dangers of these chemicals, lethal pesticides have since been banned in the United States. Photo: Getty Images
Barbara McClintock Barbara McClintock was a pioneer in the field of cytogeneticist who focused particularly on chromosomes in corn. During the 1940s and 1950s, McClintock discovered transposition and used it to demonstrate that genes are responsible for turning physical characteristics on and off. However, because of skepticism of her research she stopped publishing her data in 1953. As her studies became more understood, McClintock was awarded and recognized, receiving the Nobel Prize in 1983. Photo: Getty Images
Nancy Wexler Nancy Wexler, PhD is a neuropsychologist who's devoted her life's work to finding a cure for the fatal hereditary disorder Huntington's Disease. She is best known for her major contribution in discovering the location of the gene that causes the disease, a huge step closer in a finding a cure.  
Rita Levi-Montalcini Nobel Prize-winning neurologist Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini discovered the critical chemical tools that the body uses to direct cell growth and build nerve networks, opening the door to study of how those processes can go awry in diseases like dementia and cancer. Although Mussolini had issued a manifesto barring non-Aryan Italians from having professional careers (Levi-Montalcini was Jewish), she studied chicken embryos in the bedroom of her house in Turin, Italy, during World War II. After years of study, she found a protein that, when released by cells, attracted nerve growth from nearby developing cells. Photo: Getty Images
Gertrude Elion American biochemist and pharmacologist Gertrude Elion received the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Using innovative methods, Elion helped to develop a multitude of new drugs including the first treatment for leukemia used in organ transplantation, the first immuno-suppressive agent, and others. Her work would later lead to the development of the AIDS drug AZT. Elion stated that she "had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of cancer. I decided nobody should suffer that much." Photo: WILL & DENI MCINTYRE
Kathryn D. Sullivan Kathryn Sullivan is a geologist and a former NASA astronaut. A crew member on three Space Shuttle missions, she was the first American woman to walk in space. She flew on three space shuttle missions and logged 532 hours in space. After leaving NASA, Dr. Sullivan served as President and CEO of the COSI Columbus, an interactive science center. In 2004, Dr. Sullivan was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Photo: NASA
Elizabeth Blackwell Elizabeth Blackwell was physician who was the first woman to become a medical doctor in the United States as well as the first woman on the UK Medical Register. She was the first openly identified woman to graduate from medical school, a pioneer in promoting the education of women in medicine in the United States. Blackwell viewed medicine as a means for social and moral reform.
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard won the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1991 and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995, together with Eric Wieschaus and Edward B. Lewis, for their research on the genetic control of embryonic development. Her findings have also led to important realizations about evolution - for example, that protostomes and deuterostomes are likely to have had a relatively well-developed common ancestor with a much more complex body plan than had been conventionally thought. Photo: Rama
Esther Lederberg Esther Lederberg was a microbiologist and a pioneer of bacterial genetics. While Lederberg deserved credit for the discovery of lambda phage, her work on the F fertility factor, and, especially, replica plating, she never received it due to sexism. Lederberg's work would grow to lay the groundwork for future discoveries on genetic inheritance in bacteria, gene regulation, and genetic recombination. Photo: Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg
Chien-Shiung Wu Chien-Shiung Wu was recruited to Columbia University in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project. She conducted research on radiation detection and uranium enrichment and eventually overturned a law of parity. The physics milestone led to a 1957 Nobel Prize for Wu's partners, but not for Wu, who was left out despite her critical role.  She became known as one of the best experimental physicists of her time. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives
Nettie Stevens By working on mealworms, Nettie Stevens was able to deduce that the males produced sperm with X and Y chromosomes—the sex chromosomes—and that females produced reproductive cells with only X chromosomes. This was evidence supporting the theory that sex determination is directed by an organism's genetics. Due to gender discrimmination, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a prominent geneticist at the time, is often credited with discovering the genetic basis for sex determination.
Lise Meitner Lise Meitner discovered that uranium atoms were split when bombarded with neutrons. The discovery eventually led to the atomic bomb. However, due to the situation within Nazi Germany as well as sexism, Meitner, a Jew and a woman, was left out of the nuclear fission published findings. In 1944, her lab partner Otto Hahn alone won the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his contributions to splitting the atom.
After discovering the DNA marker in 1983, Nancy Wexler and her team realized you could find a gene using the marker. The results changed how science was approached and led to the foundation of the Human Genome Project.

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