For years, women have been underrepresented and underappreciated in almost every industry. This is especially true of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce.
In the early 70s, women made up 38% of all U.S. workers, and only 8% were STEM workers. By 2019, women made up 48% of all workers, but still only 27%, of STEM workers.
However, plenty of women are breaking barriers in this traditionally male-dominated discipline.
While there are countless articles highlighting famous women in science — featuring the likes of Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Katherine Johnson — we don’t talk enough about female scientists today, who are doing their trailblazing work right now!
Here at Fyli, we are constantly in awe of women taking great strides forward in whatever field they choose. Let’s take a look at famous women in STEM who have made groundbreaking achievements and significant contributions in STEM.
Sunetra Gupta is a modern-day polymath from Kolkata, India. This UK-based scientist is not only a professor of theoretical epidemiology at the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford – she’s also a renowned novelist and a translator of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.
Gupta’s core focus is in the infectious disease department, particularly agents that are responsible for malaria, HIV, influenza, and bacterial meningitis. In 2009, she received the 2009 Royal Society Rosalind Franklin award for her achievements in science, with a key focus on the evolution of diversity in pathogens.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gupta was seen as a health expert because of her extensive expertise in infectious disease and epidemiology. She became an outspoken critic of governmental responses to national lockdowns across the world. She co-wrote alternative approaches to lockdowns that were more humane, as she thought the poorest and most vulnerable people are those that bear the brunt of the fight against the virus.
On top of her unquestionable influence on science, Gupta also explores the connections between science and literature through her novels. Her written work has been as well received as her achievements in science, with her latest novel long-listed for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
She believes science progresses through its ideas and counter-ideas, and we wholeheartedly agree.
“What attracts me to science is the ability, or the opportunity
to be imaginative. So, for me, my journey through science
has been one of using my imagination to come up
with different ideas. Theories are, of course, stories.”
View Gupta’s ideas on realism and accuracy of epidemiological modelling below:
Nina Tandon is an American biomedical engineer who is revolutionizing the world of cell science. She is the founder and CEO of EpiBone, a company that develops technology to create bone tissue from a patient’s mesenchymal stem cells in vitro for skeletal reconstruction.
Using the patient’s stem cells and bone repair technology, this allows practitioners to repair bone defects in people to grow new healthy bones in a lab environment. Another thing that’s amazing about this is they can be made to exact measurements to reflect the patient’s body. The patient’s immune system will naturally accept the new bone, rather than fight against it. This could also prove useful for children with bone defects as they can develop normally and become a seamless part of their body.
Besides skeletal reconstruction, Tandon has also been involved with constructing beating hearts using the same method. She currently serves as an adjunct professor of Electrical Engineering at Cooper Union, and has won so many accolades such as being named as a 2015 Global Thinker by Foreign Policy magazine.
What Nina Tandon has contributed to science is truly astounding, and could have a big impact on keeping people healthy both now and in the future.
“I am passionate about science education (especially for young girls
and in developing countries), entrepreneurship (both science-based and social),
and stewardship (of our bodies and the environment).”
See Tandon’s interesting TED talk below on tissue engineering as a modern medical solution:
Jennifer Doudna is an American biochemist, and one of the greatest living scientists today. She is the inventor of a groundbreaking genome-editing technology called the CRISPR-Cas9. This genome editing tool is creating a buzz in the science world. It has been known to be faster, cheaper, and more accurate than previous DNA editing techniques, and has a wide range of potential applications.
This technology allows scientists to make meticulous edits to DNA in cells, which could potentially help to cure genetic deformities and diseases, including cancer. Studies have shown that CRISPR technology can remove HIV DNA from host cell genomes.
If used in the right way, the remarkable CRISPR technology could help us cure cell diseases previously thought incurable. Doudna, one of the greatest living female scientists, will have made it possible. In 2020, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Emmanuelle Charpentier for their pioneering work and the development of a method for genome editing.
“The power to control our species’ genetic future
is awesome and terrifying. Deciding how to handle it
may be the biggest challenge we have ever faced.”
Watch Doudna’s TED talk below on how CRISPR lets us edit our DNA:
You can thank Katalin Kariko for her work in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, the first approved COVID-19 jab in the West. This is the result of decades of research for this Hungarian biochemist who fled to the US from communist rule in the 1980s.
Kariko grew up in central Hungary, just a year before the uprising against the Soviet-backed communist regime. She was already so fascinated by science from a young age. At 23, she began her career at the University of Szeged’s Biological Research Centre, where she obtained her PhD. It was there that she first developed her interest in RNA. Kariko has had quite the journey since. When she looked for work abroad, she got a job at Temple University in Philadelphia. Back then, Hungarians were forbidden from taking money out of the country, so Kariko sold their family car, and hid the proceeds in her 2-year-old daughter’s teddy bear.
Kariko’s crowning achievement took 40 years of tireless research on the genetic code RNA (ribonucleic acid). In November of 2020, trials found the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to be safe and 95% effective, months later it would be distributed worldwide, potentially saving millions of lives. Her first reaction was a sense of “redemption,” Kariko told The Daily Telegraph:
“I was grabbing the air, I got so excited I was afraid
that I might die or something. When I am knocked down
I know how to pick myself up, but I always enjoyed working…
I imagined all of the diseases I could treat.”
Learn more about Katalin Kariko – the woman who saved the world from the coronavirus:
Cynthia Kenyon is an American molecular biologist and biogerontologist that may have the answer to living longer. Sounds like a stretch, but her focus on genetic studies regarding ageing in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans shows the possibilities to extend human life.
In her research, it’s possible that the same effect could be achieved with humans. She found that a daf2 hormone receptor mutation doubled the lifespan of a simple worm without impacting on the quality of the worm’s life. To make it simpler, said mutant worm would look like a teenager in middle age. Kenyon’s studies were then repeated on mice, the same effect took hold. Another finding was that living things with mutated daf2 hormone receptors are less likely to get ageing diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, or heart disease. Imagine the possibilities of introducing mutated daf2 hormone receptors into our bodies. These discoveries came over two and a half decades ago.
Currently, Kenyon is the vice president of aging research at Google’s Calico Research Labs, and an emeritus professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Her ongoing work at Calico aims to potentially lengthen the lives of humans by up to 100 years. Kenyon is truly a pioneer in ageing research, and one of the most inspirational and famous women in STEM.
“Ageing is very exciting. But if I didn’t work on ageing,
I’d want to work on the brain. There are really cool techniques
you can use now. And bioinformatics. The methods you can
use for comparing large data sets – that’s so powerful.”
Watch Kenyon’s TED talk below on genetic mutation that can double the lifespan of a simple worm:
Women have made extraordinary contributions to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and we are truly inspired to see them succeed. Tell us about the women of STEM that also inspire you!
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