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October 10, 2016

Kacey Templin

Women of STEM: Historic Female Scientists You Should Know

Topics: Girls & STEM, STEM

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On Tuesday, the world will observe Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM. While women have traditionally been underrepresented in these fields, they have been an integral part of STEM professions for centuries. Today, we’ll take a look at three amazing women who helped us understand the world around us through careers in STEM.

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

So who was this woman for which this day is named? Throughout her life, Ada held a great fascination with scientific subjects, but she is most famous for creating the first computer algorithm, and is hailed as the world’s first computer programmer.

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Born on January 16, 1815 in London, England, Ada was the daughter of Lord George Byron and his wife Anne Milbanke, Lady Wentworth. Her father was disappointed with the fact that she was a girl, and abandoned his young daughter and wife a month after her birth.  Her mother left Ada in the care of her maternal grandmother, Judith, shortly after.

From a young age, Ada showed an interested in the mechanics of life. At age 12, she decided that she wanted to fly, so she set out to creating a pair of wings for herself. She experimented with materials and wing sizes, and studied the anatomy of birds for reference. She even considered integrating steam into her plans. Her creativity earned her the nickname “Lady Fairy” from her future mentor, Charles Babbage.

Her mother, extremely concerned that Ada would inherit her father’s insanity, insisted that her daughter begin her education in mathematics at an early age. She quickly found that she had a great interest in math, believing that mathematics and creative intuition helped her explore “the unseen worlds around us”. In 1833 she was introduced to Charles Babbage who found her intellect and analytic skills impressive.

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Babbage had created a device that made reliable calculations with a turn of a handle which he demonstrated to Lovelace upon their introduction. This struck up a correspondence between the two math-minded individuals that later turned into a partnership. Babbage began to work on the “Analytical Engine” – a machine with thousands of cogwheels that could perform accurate functions – and Lovelace worked as an interpreter of his notes. She wrote about how the machine could perform particular calculations and included algebraic patterns in a way that was accessible to math scholars of the time. In one note, she laid the plan for a function that used a long sequence of Bernoulli numbers  that would later be considered the first computer program. Though she didn’t live long enough to see her program put into action, her work laid the foundation for computer science in the years to come

Marie Curie (1867 – 1906)

Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking research on radioactivity.

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Marie was the youngest of five children born to poor school teachers. Her fascination with knowledge began early in her life as a governess, reading scholarly books in her free time for pleasure. She became a teacher, then moved to Paris in 1891 to pursue a university education at the request of her sister. Marie studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics at the University of Paris, and earned her degree in physics in 1893.

Marie met Pierre Curie shortly after graduation, and their mutual interest in science drew them together. Pierre, an instructor at the School of Physics and Chemistry, owned a small laboratory in which he found some space for Marie to begin her work. They were married a year after meeting.

The Curies began to research the newly discovered phenomenon of invisible rays given off by uranium. Uranium was extracted from a mineral called pitchblende, which was four times as radioactive as uranium itself, leading Curie to hypothesize that there were other elements within pitchblende. This lead to the discovery of polonium, an element 330 time as radioactive as uranium, and later radium for which the Curies coined the word “radioactivity”.

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Marie’s would later publish articles that included observations of radium destroying tumor forming cells faster than healthy cells. She also developed mobile X-ray machines that helped to diagnose injuries at the front of the WWI battlefield. She won two Nobel Prizes, one in 1903 for physics and the other in 1911 for chemistry. Curie died at the age of 66 from prolonged exposure to radiation, but her significant contributions to science are recognized daily through the work in modern chemistry and physics fields.

Dr. Mae Jemison (1956 – Present)

Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman to travel in space when she flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992. Today, she is the principal for the 100 Year Starship program, an organization that seeks to make interstellar travel a reality in the next 100 years.

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Mae was born in Decatur, Alabama, to an elementary school teacher and a maintenance supervisor. Her family moved to Chicago when she was three years old to take advantage of better educational and employment opportunities. Growing up, she always knew she wanted to go to space, and figured it was easier to apply to become an astronaut with NASA, “rather than waiting around in a cornfield, waiting for ET to pick me up or something.” While her teachers weren’t supportive of her scientific aspirations, her parents were. Jemison entered Stanford University at the age of 16 and received a B.S. in chemical engineering while meeting the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American Studies. She later obtained her Doctor of Medicine from Cornell Medical College in 1981.

After being inspired by Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek and Sally Ride, she applied to the astronaut corps. Jemison flew her only space mission from September 12 to 20, 1991 as a Mission Specialist on STS-47. She co-investigated two bone cell research experiments while aboard, as well as experiments on weightlessness, and motion sickness. In the end, she logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, and 23 seconds in space. Today, she serves an inspiration to all women and girls interested in pursuing science as a career.  

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Women in STEM careers are still underrepresented, but there are many organizations that are trying to change this. The Office of Science and Technology Policy, in collaboration with the White House Council on Women and Girls, supports efforts to retain women in the STEM workforce and encourages mentoring to support women throughout their academic and professional experiences. More and more female students are taking classes like pre-calculus and advanced biology during high school, a promising sign. With more and more women entering STEM-focused fields, we’ll start to see the potential of a woman’s perspective in traditionally male-dominated occupations. And we all owe it to these incredible women for paving the way for the rest of us!

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