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Browse through any history book, and it becomes clear how the past couple of centuries of science history saw a largely male-dominated landscape. The societies of the time had their own prescriptive roles for women—and hardly in the laboratory or the workshop!
The 20th century paved the way for the emancipation of women in more and more aspects of society. This is also true for science and academia, where the past several decades started to see women scientists and researchers make their indelible marks on our collective body of knowledge.
Arguably, there’s still a long way to go, but collectively, we have already made significant progress, and women in science have long since ceased to be exceptions.
The following list features 20 women who have led/are leading the way in science research from various fields, taken from the past few decades right up to the 21st century. These women scientists have each made/continue to help us understand the world and everything that makes it up!
This list is by no means exhaustive; it focuses mainly on women in the United States (which is itself a long list), so take it as more of a random selection of names taken from the pantheon of notable women researchers and their significant contributions.
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)
The history of the modern global environmental movement features its own set of characters and personalities who have each advanced the movement forward, and it owes a lot in particular to Rachel Carson.
A marine biologist, conservationist, and author, Carson was born in Pennsylvania and fell in love with the sea at an early age. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the Pennsylvania College for Women (the present-day Chatham University). She earned her graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, focusing on zoology and genetics.
Her body of work includes the US National Book Award-winning The Sea Around Us, although her book Silent Spring stands out.
First published in 1962, it was controversial and revolutionary, bringing together the substantial research work of many scientists and journalists and documenting the harmful environmental effects of pesticides, which at the time were hailed as crucial to the burgeoning development of agriculture but were poorly understood.
Despite facing fierce opposition, Silent Spring struck a chord with a growing number of the public, and this eventually helped launch the movements that led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, as well as putting synthetic pesticides and their bevy of negative effects into the forefront of public discussion.
Vera Rubin (1928 – 2016)
A huge portion of work in science fiction is set in space, and while these are decidedly fiction, they are partly based on real scientific concepts fleshed out and laid down by scientists, including Vera Rubin.
Rubin was an astronomer born in Philadelphia to Eastern European immigrants. She developed an interest in the stars at a young age and went on to pursue her undergraduate degree at Vassar College. She earned her master’s degree at Cornell University and her Ph.D. at Georgetown.
Rubin focused largely on galaxies and galactic dynamics, in particular their rotation rates and movements. Her work led to a number of key observations, and her observed discrepancies in galaxy rotation rates further strengthened the case for the existence of dark matter, a concept first suggested in the 1930s.
In addition to her being a woman in a male-dominated field at the time, Vera’s work was itself controversial in how they bucked the prevailing astronomical & cosmological models at the time. Many of her ideas would be proven to be valid over the succeeding decades, and she would remain a lifelong advocate for women in science and paved the way for more and more women to enter the field.
Her legacy in the field is significant and widely recognized. An asteroid and a landform on Mars are named after her, for example, as well as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, currently under construction in Chile, and will be dedicated to studying dark matter and dark energy.
Jennifer Doudna (1964)
Genetic engineering is a relatively new field, but in that time, it has proven to be both highly beneficial and highly controversial. While some of its use on humans is controversial and has ethical implications, it has proven beneficial in other fields like agriculture and medicine, and it continues to enjoy leaps and bounds in technology from the work of scientists like Jennifer Doudna.
Doudna is a biochemist, currently a professor at UC Berkeley. Her formative years in Hawaii helped shape her interest in the natural world and she was inspired to pursue science by her mentors and teachers, which she continues to cite as significant influences on her life. After studying biochemistry at Pomona College, she earned her PhD at Harvard Medical School.
Her post-doctoral experience includes work in a number of major research institutions, including CU Boulder and Yale. Her most significant work thus far is the discovery surrounding genome editing through the use of Cas9, a protein found in the CRISPR immune systems of bacteria, which serves as their form of defense against phages (viruses).
This discovery earned her a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, together with Emmanuelle Charpentier, who was based in France. Several other research teams are also continuously working on the technology, and it holds a lot of potential that may be realized over the following years.
Dian Fossey (1932 – 1985)
Research on apes in the early 20th century was no easy feat, and we owe our much better understanding of them thanks to field researchers like Dian Fossey, who in her case, laid down her life for this pursuit.
Fossey was a primatologist and conservationist, and from an early age, loved animals (she was also an accomplished equestrienne). Having been unable to finish her degree in Biology at UC Davis, she eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy at San Jose State College.
A trip to Africa first introduced her to wild mountain gorillas, and it was here that she also met several key people, particularly the British paleoanthropologist couple Mary and Louis Leakey.
In 1967, Fossey was recruited to do long-term field research on gorillas by Louis Leakey, along with Jane Goodall (who studied chimpanzees) and Biruté Galdikas (who studied orangutans). The three would affectionately be named the Trimates, and their respective field research would lay the foundation for our understanding of primate behavior.
Fossey’s research extended into conservation efforts for the mountain gorillas she was studying. She was fiercely opposed to poaching and took active efforts to prevent it, along with her team. Dian would sadly be found murdered in her cabin, and the circumstances surrounding her death have yet to be conclusively established. She is buried in Rwanda next to Digit, her favorite gorilla that lost its life to poachers in 1972.
Linda B. Buck (1947)
The smell is one of the strongest senses for humans and is tied to triggering strong emotions and even memories. All of us have an innate understanding of its importance. Our deeper understanding of it from a scientific standpoint, meanwhile, came later, in large part thanks to advances in technology, and to the research done by Linda B. Buck.
Buck is a biologist and is one of the foremost women scientists in the realm of olfaction or our sense of smell. She was born in Seattle and received her bachelor’s degrees in psychology and microbiology at the University of Washington, with her PhD in immunology awarded by the University of Texas Southwestern.
Her pivotal research on olfaction was published in the early 1990s when she and her team were able to identify a set of genes related to odorant sensors and olfactory neurons, which are thought to number around 1,000 for mammals. This research won her the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with her co-collaborator, Richard Axel.
Buck’s work has earned her a number of distinctions over the years, including membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, as well as the Institutes of Medicine. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate by Harvard University in 2015. She is also an active faculty of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992)
We may not know it, but our modern world has come to rely heavily on maize/corn for a lot of our food products as ingredients. First cultivated in what is now southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago, our understanding of corn and genetics as a whole was greatly expanded through the research done by Barbara McClintock.
McClintock was a cytogeneticist who earned her bachelor’s degree at Cornell University. It was there that her interest in genetics was first sparked after taking a course by botanist C.B. Hutchinson, and she would carry on this research focus for the rest of her life. Cornell also awarded her graduate degrees, and it was also here where she would start and continue to lead research into the cytogenetics of maize/corn.
Barbara’s studies in genetics would lead to several discoveries surrounding the inheritance of plant traits and their key enabling mechanisms. She would then go on to explore the evolution of maize/corn by studying indigenous strains from Central and South America, resulting in the seminal work entitled The Chromosomal Constitution of Races of Maize and propelling the fields of genetics and evolutionary biology forward.
She would win the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, becoming the first woman to win the prize unshared.
Eugenie Clark (1922 – 2015)
The fear of sharks largely stems from their portrayal in movies and other media and is misplaced and unjustified: every year, around five people die from shark attacks, while people kill millions of sharks, and only a handful of species out of over 500 pose a danger to humans. The work of Eugenie Clark made a tremendous difference in battling this misrepresentation.
Clark was an ichthyologist and showed her passion for the sea at an early age. She earned her MA and Doctorate of Zoology from New York University, conducting research in a number of institutions, including the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory, from which the majority of her research was based.
Clark focused on the behavior and reproduction of sharks while at Cape Haze and was one of the early pioneers of the use of scuba diving for research purposes. She would, in fact, remain an active scuba diver right up until a couple of months before she died of lung cancer in early 2015.
Eugenie was well-known to the public, being affectionately called The Shark Lady, and she used her platform to reverse the misconceptions surrounding sharks, bring attention to their importance to ocean ecology, and advocate for the preservation of marine environments.
Deborah Shiu-lan Jin (1968-2016)
If you’re over 30, chances are you were taught that there were only four states of matter or five if your curriculum was kept up-to-date. It was only in 2003 that a sixth state was officially created in the laboratory, and Deborah Shiu-lan Jin led the team credited with this discovery.
Jin was a physicist regarded as a pioneer in the field of polar molecular quantum chemistry, a field largely working with particles of the subatomic level. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, going on to work as a Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado.
Jin would become a fellow of the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) and the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), which CU Boulder and NIST jointly ran.
It was at JILA where her team was able to successfully create Fermionic Condensates in 2003, demonstrating the existence of a sixth state of matter. Incidentally, the Bose-Einstein Condensate, the fifth state of matter, was also first successfully created at JILA back in 1995.
Jin’s life and her contributions to science were sadly cut short when she died of cancer in 2016. She was highly regarded as a strong contender for the Nobel Prize in Physics, and it would have been a fitting highlight in a career studded with many accolades.
Andrea Ghez (1965)
We know that our Solar System is part of the Milky Way galaxy, but a lot of questions about our home galaxy remain unanswered. One of these questions is what was at its center, and the work of Andrea Ghez and her co-collaborators went a long way toward answering this and won them a Nobel Prize in Physics in the process.
Andrea Ghez is an astronomer and is currently a Professor of Astrophysics at UCLA. A native of New York City, she earned her BS in Physics from MIT and her PhD at the California Institute of Technology.
Ghez’s work is focused largely on the Galactic Center, a region of the Milky Way known not only for having a dense concentration of stars & dust (making it particularly difficult to observe) as well as what was long thought to be a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*.
Using the Keck Telescope in Hawaii imaging at the infrared wavelength, Ghez and her team were able to make detailed observations of stars orbiting the Galactic Center, as well as of Sagittarius A* and its mass as a supermassive black hole. These discoveries won Ghez the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics, together with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel, adding to an already impressive array of accolades.
Gertrude Elion (1918-1999)
It is one thing to discover a breakthrough drug for a certain set of diseases, and it is another thing to change the fundamentals of how drugs are designed and developed. Very few scientists can successfully lay claim to both, and one of these is Gertrude Belle Elion.
Elion was a pharmacologist and biochemist born in New York City. She finished her bachelor’s in chemistry at Hunter College and a Master of Science degree at NYU. Circumstances barred her from completing her formal Ph.D., but she was later awarded an honorary Ph.D. by NYU, as well as an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Harvard.
Elion’s contributions to the field of medicine happened while she was at Burroughs-Wellcome (present-day GlaxoSmithKline) and Duke University. One of her most significant contributions is related to rational drug design, which took advantage of differences between the biochemistry of human cells and pathogens to design drugs accordingly.
This won her the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with George Hitchings and Sir James Black.
Elion was also involved in the development of several drugs, including treatments for leukemia, malaria, viral herpes, an immune-suppressive agent that addresses rejection of transplanted organs, and more. Gertrude remained active throughout the rest of her life, and right up until her death, she was working on Nelarabine, a cancer treatment drug.
Stephanie Louise Kwolek (1923 – 2014)
A lot of materials used in our everyday objects have grown to become household names since their discovery, such as Nylon, Teflon, and Lycra, which are polymers. Another one is Kevlar, used in a lot of applications from cars, to ropes, and most popularly as part of body armor. Kevlar owes its existence to the DuPont company and one of its scientists, Stephanie Louise Kwolek.
Kwolek was a chemist born in Pennsylvania to Polish immigrant parents. She earned her BS in Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University and got her start working for DuPont, where she would make all her significant contributions to chemistry.
Kwolek’s career at DuPont would span four years, and she kept consulting for them after her retirement. Throughout her career, she ended up filing 28 separate patents and contributed to the development of other products such as Spandex and Nomex (a fire-resistant fiber). She would also devise several chemistry experiments which are still in use in classrooms to this day.
She would also win several accolades, including induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, although she would never directly profit from Kevlar products, having signed over her patents. Kwolek died in 2014 at 90 years old, leaving behind a storied legacy and inventing a product that continues to save countless lives.
Helen Quinn (1943)
It’s not uncommon to see scientists and thinkers remain active long past their retirement, and in the case of Helen Quinn, she would add to her significant contributions to particle physics by laying the groundwork for national education standards in the country.
Helen Quinn is a particle physicist and educator who was born in Australia and later on became a naturalized American. She earned her bachelor’s and doctorate degrees at Stanford University. Her post-doctoral work involved stints at DESY in Hamburg, Germany, Harvard University, and later on at Stanford, working as a Professor of Physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory.
It was at this time that she, together with Roberto Peccei, would develop the Peccei-Quinn Theory, which points to a possible near-symmetry of the universe with regard to matter and antimatter. Her work on the three fundamental types of particle interactions also suggested the possibility of them being aspects of a single unified force.
Helen would retire in 2010, after which her efforts would turn to the education sector, focusing on K-12, preschool science, and multilingual education. Her efforts in education also bore fruit, which includes the Framework for K-12 Science Education, which has since been adopted by many states in the US.
Carolyn Widney Greider (1961)
It is always the case in living systems that the smallest structures play huge roles in a certain organism’s biology, whether in the case of cell components, DNA, or other aspects. Many significant scientific discoveries have followed this trend, and the case of Carolyn Greider constitutes the bulk of her research and scientific contributions.
Carolyn W. Greider is a molecular biologist, and is currently a Distinguished Professor at UC Santa Cruz, having joined in 2020 after having served at Johns Hopkins University. She is a native of California and earned her bachelor’s at UC Santa Barbara and her Ph.D. in molecular biology at UC Berkeley.
Greider’s doctorate work at Berkeley would bring her under the wing of Elizabeth Blackburn, where they would focus their work on chromosomes, which carry genetic information. Their discovery would be centered on the telomere, a structure at the ends of chromosomes, and telomerase, the enzyme that is chiefly responsible for protecting the telomere and the chromosome and determines the overall lifespan of the cell.
This discovery would win her the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, alongside her peers Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak, and add to her impressive list of honors and awards. Her work throughout the 1990s and 2000s expanded on her initial telomerase discoveries.
Sally Ride (1951 – 2012)
In what is largely a male-dominated field, Sally Ride broke barriers in 1983 by becoming the first American woman in space. The journey was aboard Challenger STS-7 along with four male crewmates. Her valuable contribution cemented her place as a trailblazing astronaut and talented physicist.
As a mission specialist, Ride spent one week in space. She helped in accomplishing the set tasks of the mission, including launching communication satellites for Canada and Indonesia. During the flight, the astronauts conducted the first deployment and retrieval of a satellite in space with the use of the shuttle’s robotic arm, which Ride operated, making her the first woman to do so.
Ride was a Physics professor at the University of California, San Diego, where her award-winning academic career began. She was also the director of the university’s California State Institute. Her wisdom and expertise were widely sought, making her the only person who served as a member of the investigation boards of NASA’s two space shuttle accidents.
She was the recipient of numerous awards and honors throughout her decorated career. Ride was inducted into the Astronaut of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She also received the Jefferson Award for Public Service and the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award.
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921 – 2011)
Living in a time where women are given little opportunity to advance themselves, Rosalyn Sussman Yalow succeeded in making a transformative contribution to medical research. Working with Solomon Berson, Yallow’s groundbreaking research was worthy of the Nobel Prize.
Born in New York City on July 19, 1921, Yalow attended Hunter College, becoming the institution’s first physics major. She demonstrated her academic brilliance by graduating early and with honors. However, during that time, women were not given opportunities for assistantship in graduate programs.
When the US joined the World War and prompted many male scientists to sign up and fight, Yalow was offered an assistantship at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. She was the only woman in a faculty of 400. Yalow also earned her PhD in nuclear physics.
Her works focused on early detection of diseases, including radioimmunoassay, a technique that uses radioactive materials to investigate the human body for tiny substances. The work she did with Berson on radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique earned her a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1977.
Lisa Randall (1962)
The study of the universe’s physical origins and its evolution has always been fascinating, but many have struggled to discover the primary material that actually makes up the universe. In 1999, Lisa Randall, in collaboration with Raman Sundrum, presented a vital clue to the hierarchy problem by presenting a groundbreaking theory.
Having spent most of her career exploring the nature of the universe, Randall went on to become a leading expert in particle physics and cosmology. Her research enlightened many to understand the properties and interactions of matter, especially after the publication of the Warped Extra Dimension. She is also the author of several books, including Warped Passages, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.
Randall holds the distinction of being the most cited theoretical physicist in the world in 2004, garnering about 10,000 citations for her work. In 2007, Time Magazine included her among the 100 Most Influential People.
Currently, Randall is a professor of physics at Harvard University. She held professorships at MIT and Princeton and returned to her alma mater in 2001.
Laurie R. Santos (1975)
What does it take to lead a happier life? This age-old question has been addressed too many times in history, but Yale professor Laurie R. Santos has a unique take. This became the foundation of The Happiness Lab, where Santos takes one through the latest scientific research about happiness.
Santos did extensive work on the evolutionary origins of human cognition, but her expertise in the science of happiness earned her a huge following. She taught Psychology and the Good Life at Yale, making it the most popular course in the university’s 300-year history, so much so that it was made available in 2018 on the learning platform Coursera.
Her brilliant works earned Laurie many awards, both for science and teaching. It includes being voted as one of the “Brilliant 10 “young minds by Popular Science Magazine and being included by Time Magazine in its “Leading Campus Celebrity” list.
Later on, Santos developed a podcast called The Happiness Lab. It has ranked third among Apple podcasts, generating millions of downloads since its launch.
Elizabeth Blackburn (1948)
The human body contains a world of wonders. One of the most fascinating discoveries ever made was the molecular nature of telomeres, lending protection to chromosomes and ensuring they are not damaged. A lot of what we know today about telomeres is all thanks to Elizabeth Blackburn.
Blackburn’s research into telomeres led her to find the link between telomere length and cell health, which later on invited broader questions about health and public policy. This important work earned her the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2009.
On top of the Nobel Prize award, Elizabeth also received nearly every award in science, including Hruber, Gairdner, and Lasker prizes. She is also a member of prestigious scientific societies such as the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London.
Born in Hobart, Tasmania, Elizabeth earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne. She later received a PhD from Cambridge University.
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)
The tumult of the 20th century saw massive changes and great conflict, the effect of which we are still feeling to the present day, particularly in the field of physics. Some of these significant contributions arose from the work of Chien-Shiung Wu.
Chien-Shiung Wu was a particle and experimental physicist who made the journey from China to the United States in the years leading up to the Second World War. She demonstrated brilliance during her formative years in China, supported by her father, who was himself an advocate of women’s equality.
During her time at Zhejiang University, she came under the wing of Gu Jing-Wei, who encouraged her to pursue further studies in the United States, herself having earned her PhD at the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan would accept Wu, though she would end up transferring to UC Berkeley.
Wu continued to progress in her education, earning her Ph.D. in 1940. She would eventually end up as part of the Manhattan Project, which would develop the first atomic weapon that would prove decisive in ending the Second World War.
The years after World War II saw Wu emerge as an established scientist. She moved to Columbia University, where she would end up spending the rest of her scientific career, continuing to make significant contributions to the field, particularly her work on beta decay, and her experiment on parity, now known as the Wu Experiment. She would also remain a steadfast advocate of STEM education right up to her death in 1997.
Jill Tarter (1944)
Are we alone? This has been one of our most important questions ever since we looked up at the night sky and pondered what lies beyond. There is a collective effort by scientists around the world to try to answer this question, and it involves efforts to put probes on our closest neighboring planets and satellites physically, as well as listening for signals from distant civilizations. Jill Tarter is one of these scientists, with her work centered on the latter.
Jill Tarter is an astronomer and a native of New York State. She earned her Bachelor of Engineering Physics at Cornell University, going on to pursue her Master’s and PhD at UC Berkeley. It was here that her interest in astronomy grew.
Her professional career is largely involved with the ongoing search for extraterrestrial life, being associated with the nonprofit SETI Institute, or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, as well as a number of related major scientific projects.
Listening out for signs of other intelligent life can be said to be a lonely pursuit, although, on a personal level, Jill’s work in this field has garnered her widespread recognition and respect, with her earning several fellowships awards and public appearances.
The answer to whether or not we are alone in the universe as a sentient species might not come within our lifetimes, but as someone once said, regardless, either answer will elicit dread.
Celebrating the Brightest Women in Science Research
The women featured in this list make up only a portion of the larger set of women scientists and researchers who have made their mark in their respective fields!
They each have their own stories of success, with many of them having had to overcome significant barriers to entry into their fields as pioneering women, and even more continue to be inspirations to many young girls and take active roles in developing the next generation of scientists.
Where will the story of women in science take us over the next few years? It’s hard to pin down a specific answer, but here’s an interesting thought: The past decades have seen developments come mainly from the United States and European countries, and as other countries from the developing world go through their stages of progress, it would be interesting to see what women scientists and thinkers from these parts of the world would be able to give to the world.