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Pioneering women in STEM

Names you should know, in celebration of Women's History Month

Chein-shiung Wu

Physicist Chien-Shiung Wu in 1963 at Columbia University, where she was a professor.


March 17, 2015

Breakthrough science requires pioneers. People who combine brilliance with courage, even in the face of daunting opposition. The women who paved the way for modern scientific exploration exemplify this spirit; grappling not only with fundamental questions of the universe, but with discrimination and societal constraints that often stripped them of scientific credit. You may know some of those names--Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace. Here are 14 more, paired with contemporary women doing trailblazing work in the same field with support from the National Science Foundation. This list is by no means comprehensive. Dig deeper into any of these stories, and you'll find many more amazing women in STEM.

Also known as the First Lady of Physics, Chieng-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, where she helped develop a process to produce bomb-grade uranium. Wu helped disprove a then widely accepted law of theoretical physics, called the Law of Conservation of Parity, which said that objects that are mirror images of each other behave the same. Wu led a team whose members experimented with photons, electrons and a particular type of cobalt atoms to disprove this theory. The experiment was proposed, but not carried out, by two male physicists. In 1957, they--not Wu--won a Nobel for the discovery. Today, Tanya Zelevinsky--who, like Wu in her time, teaches at Columbia--also uses photons, electrons and atoms to probe fundamental laws of physics.

Annie Jump Cannon cataloged around 350,000 stars in her lifetime, developed the modern stellar classification system, and did it all while working for about 25 cents a day. Cannon was one of many women employed at Harvard College Observatory in the late 1800s, hired under the direction of Observatory head Edward Pickering. He reportedly got so annoyed with his inefficient male assistant he said his maid could do a better job. Pickering then hired 24-year-old Scottish immigrant, graduate and mother Williamina Fleming, who became a celebrated astronomer. She recruited more than a dozen women to work at the observatory, including Cannon. Though generally considered assistants--with low pay and no room for advancement--many made significant contributions to astronomy. Cannon, who was almost completely deaf, was the first woman officer of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). University of Michigan astronomer Sally Oey was recently elected an AAS officer. She researches stellar properties and star formation.

Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes devoted much of her life to education. She was the first African-American woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics and taught for nearly 50 years in the public school system of Washington, D.C., her hometown. She established the mathematics department at Miner's Teacher's College (now the University of the District of Columbia) and served on D.C.'s Board of Education in the 1960s, where she fought against racial and economic discrimination. The de facto segregation systems in D.C. schools were abolished while Haynes was school board president. Today, Melvina Jones continues this legacy of promoting science and mathematics education in D.C. Jones--winner of a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching--is a STEM coordinator at D.C. Public Schools, where she works to encourage the next generation of scientists.

Sarah Frances Whiting "pushed open the doors of opportunity in the various departments of learning," wrote Annie Jump Cannon, one of Whiting's students at Wellesley College. Whiting established a physics lab at Wellesley, the second in the entire country and the first specifically for female students (and the first place X-ray photographs were made in America). She also created Wellesley's astronomy department. At Lowell Observatory in Arizona, astronomer and educator Deirdre Hunter works with teachers and students at Hopi and Navajo schools, inspiring these historically underserved populations to pursue science and engineering. She also involves students in her own research on star formation in dwarf galaxies.

Civil engineer Nora Stanton Blatch was an agitator. So said her first husband, engineer and inventor Lee de Forest, in a 1911 New York Times article headlined "Warns Wives of 'Careers,'" published in the midst of their divorce. De Forest wasn't using the term kindly--he was angry Blatch chose to continue working after she gave birth to their child--but the description fits her pioneering career. She was Cornell University's first female engineering graduate, worked for the American Bridge Company and the New York City Board of Water Supply, and was an active suffragette. The descendent of famed women's rights pioneers, Blatch once rode a horse across New York to campaign for a women's right to vote. In 1916, she sued the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) for refusing to admit her as a full member, even though she met all requirements. At the time, women were only admitted as junior members. Blatch lost, and no woman became a full ASCE member for a decade. Like Blatch, Sara Wadia-Fascetti, of Northeastern University, is a civil engineer with experience in bridge design; today she researches technologies to better diagnose structural health. Wadia-Fascetti also works to inspire future engineers, especially women and minorities, through NSF-funded programs.

Beatrice Alice Hicks grew up in an engineering family--her father was an engineer and owner of the New Jersey-based metalworking firm Newark Controls Company. She studied engineering and became the first female engineer employed by Western Electric, an opportunity that presented itself when male employees left to fight in World War II. Hicks eventually ran the Newark Controls Company, where she developed environmental sensors later used by the U.S. space program. In 1952 she was named "Woman of the Year in Business" by Mademoiselle. Yet all this success showed Hicks how much of a minority she was. So in 1950, she helped found the Society for Women Engineers (SWE). Today the group has more than 27,000 members. A current SWE member, Veronica Santos, also studies sensor technology. She heads the University of California, Los Angeles Biomechatronics Lab, working to build highly-sensitive, controllable artificial hands. Her research could lead to better prosthetics and autonomous manipulators for use in harsh environments.

When Florence Bascom received her doctorate in geology from Johns Hopkins University, she had to get a special exception from university trustees, who adhered to an official policy against co-education (and emphasized Bascom did not set precedents for other women). She continued this exceptional trend through her career: she was the U.S. Geological Survey's first female employee, a long-time professor at Bryn Mawr College, and trained most of the important geologists in the country. Bascom's research focused on crystalline rocks in the Piedmont region, a stretch of the Eastern U.S. between the Atlantic and the Appalachians. Geologist Dorothy Merritts, an expert in environmental geology and geomorphology at Franklin and Marshall College, studies that same area today. Her research focuses on how human activities have transformed the eastern swath of North America since the time of European settlers. Understanding how humans have changed the landscape is crucial to make informed land-management decisions.

For much of the early 20th century, oceanography was--by law--a man's field. Women were not allowed on research vessels, for fear of disturbing ship camaraderie. This was the world Margaret K. Robinson entered in the 1940s. A business school graduate and former teacher, she started work at California's Scripps Institution of Oceanography as a clerk, recording data on ocean temperatures. Robinson soon began taking classes at Scripps, moving up the ranks and contributing to oceanographic expeditions despite overt discouragement from the Scripps director, who once told her women will never be accepted as oceanographers. Teresa Chereskin is an oceanographer working at Scripps today, researching ocean circulation and temperature; her most recent NSF-funded project focuses on observations of the Drake Passage, which connects the Southern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Esther Lederberg is a bacterial genetics pioneer. She bucked expectations of Hunter College faculty to study biochemistry but was so poor, she later said, she had to take home the legs of the frogs she dissected to eat. She is known for discovering the lambda bacteriophage in 1951, the first recognized organism that can invade bacteria and live in its DNA. The breakthrough was important for studying similar viruses in animals. She was part of a research team that discovered that bacteria can mate and exchange genes, and came up with a technique that greatly simplified lab work in microbiology, allowing scientists to "copy" bacteria colonies. Doreen Ware, a computational biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, is a leader in modern genetics. She researches how staple crops evolve, which can help improve modern agriculture practices.

Barbara McClintock discovered something amazing about genes: they jump. Her research on South American maize uncovered "transposable elements," pieces of DNA that can move within a genome, controlling gene expression and resulting in mutations. She was so far ahead of her time a skeptical, even hostile scientific community rejected her theories. Concluding that other scientists would not accept her ideas, she continued her work--without publishing detailed papers--for decades. Her findings were validated within her lifetime, however, and in 1983 she won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Sue Wessler's work connects directly to McClintock's. The University of California, Riverside, biologist has spent decades trying to understand the contributions that transposable elements make to genome evolution. Her research program has developed software to identify and characterize transposable elements.

In 1946 a group of government scientists publicly revealed a breakthrough: the ENIAC, the first general-purpose computer, a 150-foot-long, 30-ton behemoth. ENIAC's software consisted of six women, employed as human "computers" calculating ballistics trajectory calculations during World War II. They were charged with developing most of the machine's programming, and harnessed ENIAC's power to perform ballistics calculations in seconds--thousands of times faster than any prior method. Betty Snyder Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Maryln Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and Frances Bilas Spence didn't receive due credit at the time--their names were left off official announcements and weren't identified in newspaper photographs. Today they have been recognized for their contributions to modern computing, and are inductees in the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. Latanya Sweeney works to help make today's computing world safer. The head of the Data Privacy Lab at Harvard University, Sweeney has created tools to protect computer users' privacy, and developed the theory of "k-anonymity," which holds that "quasi-identifiers" such as birth date, postal code and gender can reveal the specific identities of most U.S. residents.

Annie J. Easley began her 34-year career as a mathematician for America's space agency after reading a newspaper article about sisters working at a nearby NACA (the precursor to NASA) lab. While working at NACA, she attended classes full-time at Cleveland State University, although she was denied access to tuition reimbursement male colleagues received. She worked in the Launch Vehicles Division, developing coding used in solar and wind energy experiments. Easley was one of a few African-Americans at the agency. Easley once said her strategy was to focus on the work: "I'm out here to do a job and I knew I had the ability to do it." Daniela Rus' research portfolio sounds like a glimpse into the future. The first female director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory leads projects to develop robots that fly, swim and bake cookies. Perhaps her most ambitious vision, however, involves tiny robots that could combine and configure into anything users want.

The "high priestess of monetarism," Anna Schwartz, is an American research economist regarded as one of history's greatest monetary scholars. She is probably best known for her co-authorship with Milton Friedman of "A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960," a hugely influential book known for its conclusion that Federal Reserve Bank mistakes helped cause the Great Depression. That work led to a Nobel for Friedman, and many economists thought Schwartz should have shared the award. "Anna did all of the work, and I got most of the recognition," Friedman told The New York Times. She continued to work and publish for decades before her death in 2012, including providing commentary on the 2008 financial collapse. Stanford's Susan Athey is one of the most prominent voices in economics, focusing on how technology transforms markets of today and tomorrow--including the Internet, online advertising and digital currency.

In 1894 Margaret Floy Washburn became the first woman to earn a Ph. D. in American psychology (just after one of her contemporaries, Mary Whiton Calkins, was denied a degree because she was a woman). Washburn is known for her work on sensation, perception and animal behavior. In 1908 she published "The Animal Mind," the first book on animal cognition that discarded speculation and relied on experimental data. She is also known for her work linking conscious thought to body movement. As a Vassar professor, Washburn included her students as co-authors on papers, a rare opportunity for female students at the time. Washburn became the second female president of the American Psychological Association -- following Calkins. Marcia K. Johnson continues to delve deep into the workings of the human brain, focusing on cognition, memory and emotion. Johnson heads Yale University's Memory and Cognition Lab.

--  Jessica Arriens, (703) 292-2243 jarriens@nsf.gov
--  Robert J. Margetta, (703) 292-8070 rmargett@nsf.gov

Investigators
Tanya Zelevinsky
Sally Oey
Deirdre Hunter
Sara Wadia-Fascetti
Veronica Santos
Dorothy Merritts
Teresa Chereskin
Doreen Ware
Susan Wessler
Latanya Sweeney
Daniela Rus
Susan Athey
Marcia Johnson