Globally, women make up less than a third of the science and research workforce. Female scientists are even underrepresented in children’s books, and more than half of those women who do enter the STEM field experience discrimination.
While science is still a male-dominated field, people are trying to change this and include more women and girls in science and math. There’s also a push to feature more female scientists in the media. To help close the gender gap in tech, Reshma Saujani founded Girls Who Code, an organization that introduces high school girls to computer science programs. Black Girls Code, founded by electrical engineer Kimberly Bryant, brings computer coding lessons to young girls in underrepresented communities.
While Marie Curie was exploring radiation in the early 1900s, modern-day women in science are traveling through space, editing genetic code, and curing malaria. Female scientists have also taken to social media to fight gender stereotypes about how a scientist should look, including #distractinglysexy and the “I look like an engineer” hashtag.
Stacker looked back through history and consulted NASA, news reports, and past Nobel Prize winners to compile a list of 30 amazing women in science. Female scientists should be an inspiration to everyone, but they can be especially important role models for young girls. Click through to see how women in STEM have shaped the world.
American biochemist Jennifer Doudna, along with French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, created the gene-editing technology CRISPR. Bacteria use the CRISPR system to capture DNA segments of invading viruses. From these snippets they create CRISPR arrays, used to produce RNA segments that destroy virus DNA. Doudna and her lab replaced the arrays with a “guide RNA” to cut particular places in the genome. The use of this technology, which could eradicate disease, has caused ethical debate.
During graduate school at University of Cambridge in 1967, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell helped build a radio telescope that enabled her to identify pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars that emit radiation. The discovery helped future scientist explore space-time and dark regions of the universe.
Back in 1974, her supervisor Anthony Hewish won the Nobel Prize for the discovery. In 2018, Bell Burnell was officially recognized and was awarded $3 million along with the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.
Geneticist Barbara McClintock spent her life studying corn and discovered that genes could move. Depending on their location, these “jumping genes” could reversibly alter the expression of other genes. In 1983, thirty years after her discovery, she received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, the first lone woman to receive this award.
Jacqueline Barton is a chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology. She was awarded the American Chemical Society’s Priestley Medal in 2015 for her work on electron transport in DNA, which helps cells discover and repair mistakes. Barton’s recent research shows that disruption in this transport process may contribute to cancer.
Chandrasekar recently graduated from Harvard with a degree in biomedical engineering, with focus on the intersection of health care and tech. While still in high school, she created ProjectCSGIRLS, a nonprofit organization that encourages girls in middle school to pursue computer engineering. She is currently a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar to India studying why the Indian school system fails to support autistic students with learning disabilities.
In 1987, Astronaut Mae Jemison became the first black woman admitted to NASA’s astronaut training program. In 1992, she flew aboard the Endeavor mission into space. After leaving NASA, Jemison created an international space camp for teenagers and remains outspoken on the need to encourage women to enter STEM fields.
In 1971, Eugenia Kalnay—now an atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland—was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has worked with NASA and the National Weather Service to improve weather prediction models, but her current work focuses on increasing rain and vegetation with windmills and solar panels in large desert areas like the Sahara.
Elion graduated with a masters degree in chemistry in 1941. She helped develop antiviral drugs to treat childhood and adult leukemia as well as medicine that helps prevent organ rejection after kidney transplants. In 1983, she aided in the development of azidothymidine (AZT), the first drug approved in the fight against AIDS. She and two male coworkers received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1988.
Astronomer Henrietta Leavitt discovered about 2,400 variable stars from 1907–1921. She studied properties of stars by looking at photographic plates and discovered that certain stars have a consistent brightness. These “Cepheid variables” can be used to calculate astronomical distances, which is how astronomer Edwin Hubble realized the universe was expanding.
The nuclear physicist, who was nicknamed the "Chinese Madame Curie,” worked on the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the atomic bomb. Wu also disproved the law of parity, the quantum mechanics law that holds that two physical systems like atoms are mirror images that behave in the same way. Her colleagues received a Nobel Prize in 1957 for this work, but like many female scientists of the era, she was excluded.
Mária Telkes, a physical chemist and biophysicist, developed ways to store solar energy and invented the first residential solar-powered heating system. In 1940, she joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Solar Energy Conversion Project, where she researched how to heat a home solely with solar energy.
Often overshadowed by her parents Pierre and Marie Curie, Irène Joliot-Curie was an accomplished scientist in her own right. She was a nurse radiographer during World War I, and she and her husband shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 for their synthesis of new radioactive elements. Her research also helped future scientists to discover uranium fission.
Astrophysicist Jedidah Isler focuses on hyperactive supermassive black holes, also known as blazars, in distant galaxies. In 2014, she became the first black woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale. She hosts VanguardSTEM, a monthly web series that features women of color in the STEM field.
Elizabeth Blackwell entered the field of medicine in the mid-1800s, a time when women weren’t welcome in medical schools. After she was finally admitted to Geneva Medical College in New York, she became the first woman in America to graduate with a medical degree and to practice medicine as a doctor. In 1868, she opened the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary.
Molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon’s research field is the genetics of aging. She is a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco and the president of aging research for Google’s Calico, a research and development company focused on health and longevity. In 1993, Kenyon discovered that in C. elegans roundworms the rate of aging is subject to genetic control and does not happen automatically.
Chinese phytochemist Tu YouYou created one of the world’s most effective drugs to fight malaria. YouYou shared the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
Ethologist Jane Goodall has researched chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania since the 1960s. Her long-term research has allowed people to better understand chimpanzees. She, for example, discovered that chimps can make tools, display social behaviors, and are omnivores.
Actress Hedy Lamarr, who co-starred alongside Clark Gable in the 1940s, helped create the technology that led to modern wireless capabilities. During World War II, she worked with composer George Antheil to develop a “secret communications system” that would send radio signals over different frequencies to prevent enemies from figuring out the messages.