Science textbooks often focus on the achievements of male scientists. However, without the contributions of women in science – both historically and today – the world would be very different. Although women make up only 28 percent of the STEM workforce today, female scientists are blazing trails and making the world a better place. Here are five incredible female scientists from the past and present who broke the glass ceiling and whose stories will inspire future generations of women in STEM.
Dr. Marie Curie
The famed physicist Marie Curie is the subject of a new film called Radioactive, which explores her life and the person behind her scientific achievements. Marie Curie was born in Poland and attended university in France, where she studied physics and mathematics and met her husband Pierre Curie. She, working alongside her husband, discovered two new elements – polonium and radium – and became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1903 for her work relating to radioactivity.
She made history again in 1911 when she became the first woman to win a second Nobel prize, this time in the field of chemistry. She created the first X-ray machines during World War I, and her research contributed to cancer treatments and the atomic[AB1] bomb. Marie Curie paved the way for modern women in science and has been called the “Mother of Modern Physics” and the “Mother of Radiation”. In the end, her exposure to radioactive material caused her death. She is buried with her husband in Paris’ Pantheon, a mausoleum where the most significant figures in French history are laid to rest.
Dr. Mae Jemison
Dr. Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to go to space. Before becoming an astronaut, she already had a successful career as an engineer and medical doctor. During college at Stanford University, she studied chemical engineering and African American studies, then she completed medical school at Cornell University, and went on to serve in the Peace Corps. Although she was a successful doctor with her own practice, Jemison decided to follow her dream and become an astronaut with NASA. She was selected out of 2,000 applicants and became the first Black female astronaut in 1987.
At NASA, Jemison worked on numerous engineering projects and performed bone cell research experiments on mission STS-47. In 1992, Jemison was chosen to lead scientific experiments on board the space shuttle Endeavor. She spent over 190 hours in space, orbited the Earth 126 times, and became the first Black woman to go to space. Since retiring from NASA in 1993, Jemison has started a foundation to further the advancement of science, technology and education in the developing world, founded an international space camp, and served as a professor and board member for numerous colleges and organizations.
Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal
Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal was a molecular biologist and virologist who helped discover HIV and whose research into the virus helped scientists understand AIDS. She was born in China in 1947 and fled to Hong Kong after China’s Communist revolution. Wong-Staal moved to the United States in 1965 to study science at UCLA and then began working for the National Institutes of Health after obtaining her PhD from University of California San Diego.
Wong-Staal is credited as one of the co-discoverers of HIV after being the first person to clone the gene for HIV in 1985. She was the first person to map the virus and realize its genetic diversity which led to the discovery that HIV causes AIDS. Her research was used to develop blood tests for the virus, gene therapy for HIV, and combination therapy to manage AIDS. During her life she published over 400 papers, founded the Center for AIDS Research at UC San Diego, and co-founded a biopharmaceutical company with her husband. Although Dr. Wong-Staal passed away in 2020, her research is currently being used to better understand the COVID-19 virus.
Dr. Hayat Sindi
Dr. Hayat Sindi is a biotechnologist from Saudi Arabia who works to provide lifechanging healthcare technologies to developing regions and vulnerable populations. Despite growing up in Saudi Arabia where girls don’t have equal access to education, she went on to get degrees from King’s College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. She then received her PhD from Cambridge University in 2001 and became the first woman from the Persian Gulf to earn a doctorate.
Her inventions have helped developing regions around the world gain access to life-saving technologies, such as a biochemical sensor that can diagnose illnesses quickly in the field. She is also the Chief Scientific Advisor of the Islamic Development Bank where she promotes social and economic development through science, technology and education initiatives. She has started foundations to improve access to science education for girls and was named a Goodwill Ambassador in STEM education by UNESCO in 2012. Dr. Sindi hopes that her story will inspire more girls to study STEM and she believes that no one’s gender, religion or race should stop them from going into science.
Dr. Nicole Hernandez Hammer
Dr. Nicole Hernandez Hammer is a climate scientist who is internationally recognized for her research on sea-level rise. She was born in Guatemala and came to the United States at age four with her parents. After Hurricane Andrew in Florida destroyed her home, Hernandez Hammer began researching the impacts of sea-level rise, focusing particularly on Latin communities and other vulnerable populations. Her research and sea-level rise projections have been included in numerous climate reports and she is the first scientist to highlight that coastal Latin communities are hit hardest by flood waters.
Because of her heritage and ability to speak Spanish, Hernandez Hammer now works to mobilize Latin communities around climate issues and spread awareness about environmental justice. She also uses her scientific background to convince elected officials to support climate policies. In 2015, Dr. Hernandez Hammer was honored by First Lady Michelle Obama for her achievements in climate research and activism, and she continues to advocate for solutions to climate change today.