The International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a stark reminder for us all how underrepresented women are in STEM-related fields.
Less than 30% of researchers worldwide are female according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics data.
Female enrollment globally onto STEM higher education courses is extremely low as only 35% of higher education STEM students are female.
Young girls are discouraged from studying a STEM discipline due to gender bias and gender stereotypes (1), which is one of the reasons why this international day is so important. We must empower girls through awareness and education to encourage more to pursue STEM careers.
Here is a list of incredible female scientists who became pioneers within their fields and shaped our world.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
When Franklin was just 15 years old she already knew she wanted to pursue a career in science. She was living her childhood dream when following her PhD she was offered the chance to be a research associate at King’s College London.
At King’s she worked on X-ray diffraction images of DNA which facilitated the discovery of the DNA helix by Watson And Crick. Photo 51 (see image) became vital evidence that revealed the DNA double helix structure. Unfortunately, Franklin died from ovarian cancer 4 years before Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for discovering the DNA double helix structure.
Despite the use of her X-ray crystallography observations to solve the chemical organisation of DNA the Nobel committee did not make posthumous nominations at the time.
However, Watson has himself suggested in an interview that to honour her contribution it would’ve been a good idea for Franklin and Wilkins to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Jennifer Anne Doudna (1964-Present) and Emmanuelle Charpentier (1968-Present)
Doudna and Charpentier are leading figures in the CRISPR Revolution for their work that was fundamental in developing CRISPR-mediated genome editing. In 2012 they proposed that enzymes from bacteria that control microbial immunity, known as CRISPR-Cas9, could be utilised for programmable editing of genomes. In 2020 they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the CRISPR-Cas9 method of genome editing.
Cynthia Kenyon (1954-Present)
In her early life, Kenyon worked on a farm before realising she wanted to study science to become a vet. She is now a pioneer in ageing research from her studies on the roundworm (Caenorhabditis elegans) which has demonstrated that genetic manipulation can change the process of ageing.
In 1993 Kenyon discovered that a single-gene mutation (DAF-2) doubles the lifespan of C. elegans and a second mutation in the gene for the transcription factor DAF-16 reverses this effect.
After 3 decades of research Kenyon’s final efforts are now focused on finding small molecules to allow disease-resistant youthful ageing in humans.
Janaki Ammal (1897-1984)
While growing up she watched as her sisters wed through arranged marriages. However, she followed her own intuition by embarking on a life of scholarship which began when she obtained a Bachelor’s degree at Queen Mary’s College (University of Madras) and was later awarded an honours degree in Botany. During this time women internationally were discouraged from higher education proving how fierce she was! In 1931 she became the first Indian woman to receive a doctorate degree in botany in the US.
As an expert in cytogenetics Ammal helped the Imperial Sugar Cane Institute in Coimbatore allowing them to develop and sustain their own varieties of sweet sugarcane. Her research helped determine which varieties of native plants to cross-breed with Saccharum to find a crop that was best suited for India’s tropical environments.
To honour her research in plant breeding, a variety of Magnolia was named after her: Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal.
Flossie Wong-Staal (1946-2020)
Flossie Wong-Staal was part of a team that first identified HIV was the cause of AIDS.
She became the first researcher in 1985 to clone HIV allowing scientists to understand how the virus evades the immune system. She finalised genetic mapping of the virus making it possible to develop testing for HIV. Her research contributed to the development of the blood tests we use to detect HIV.
Wong-Staal was quoted to say: “It adds to the joy of discovery to know that your work may make a difference in people’s lives”.
Towards the end of her brilliant career, she focused her effort on better understanding hepatitis C by working as the Chief Scientific Officer at Immusol, a biotechnology company, developing drugs to combat the disease.
She will be remembered as a ground-breaking researcher. Her methods are still practiced today to understand diseases such as Covid-19.
Hadiyah-Nicole Green had no aspirations as a child to become a scientist but now she is a multi-disciplinary physicist who specialises in targeted cancer therapeutics.
She admitted in an interview to The Scientist that she didn’t have a scientist as a role model in her life growing up, but she loved learning.
She earned her doctoral degree in physics at the University of Alabama becoming the second black woman and fourth black person to do so.
Her interest in developing a new cancer treatment became apparent after her aunt chose not to undergo chemotherapy after being diagnosed with female reproductive cancer and by watching her uncle, who developed oesophageal cancer, experience the unwanted side effects of chemotherapy.
Her aim, using her background in lasers, was to develop a treatment that targeted cancerous cells without damaging healthy ones.
She said during an interview “If we can see from a satellite in outer space if a dime on the ground is face up or face down, we should be able to do a better job of pinpointing the tumour and treating just the tumour and not the whole person.”
Her goal is to demonstrate the efficacy of the laser-activated nanoparticle treatment, which induces tumour regression by ~100%, in a variety of malignant tumour models.
This article gives a brief overview of the ground-breaking research these women have undertaken and the discoveries they have made which have shaped our world. If you enjoyed reading this article and would like to read more subscribe to our mailing list!