As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it’s only fitting that we remember the work of the women who have contributed to the field of STEM throughout the years. Here are 5 women who have been invaluable in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and paved their way through a male-dominated system to become some of the greatest names in STEM history.
- Yvonne Brill
Yvonne Brill was an American jet propulsion engineer who was responsible for the invention of the rocket thruster model that is currently being used by satellites today. Brill’s invention has been invaluable in creating a satellite model that can stay in orbit. Having invented this in the 1970s, Brill was awarded the National Award of Technology and Innovation by President Obama in 2011 for her invention that soon became the industry standard and is used to this day.
Breaking several stereotypes of what ‘career women’ were expected to be during the time, Brill was awarded the Diamond Superwoman Award for maintaining a successful career while also having a family. This was, and still is, an incredible feat by female standards, and to have accomplished this in a far more gender discriminatory time period is an applaudable act. Brill passed away at the age of 88 in 2013 and remains a great name in engineering due to her astounding contributions to rocket science.
- Katherine Freese
Dr. Katherine Freese is a theoretical astrophysicist who is renowned for her work in developing the theory of natural inflation. Her theory is one that puts forward a model of universe expansion, and one that has stood the test of time and research nearly 30 years on. In 2019, she was awarded the Lilienfeld Prize for her outstanding contributions to the field of physics and for her exceptional lectures to diverse audiences.
Katherine Freese was one of the first women to ever major in physics at Princeton University, where she received her bachelor’s degree. Having been offered postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University and the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, Freese was appointed to be an Assistant Professor at MIT. After moving to the University of Texas in Austin in 2019, she currently holds the Jeff and Gail Kodosky Endowed Chair in Physics. Freese continues to convey and communicate the wonders of physics to the general public and constantly strives for new developments within her work.
- Barbara McClintock
Barbara McClintock is perhaps best known for her work in discovering ‘jumping genes’, or genetic transposition. She was an American scientist and cytogeneticist who devoted her life’s work to discoveries in the study of chromosomes and the field of cytogenetics. McClintock was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983, making history as the first American women to receive an unshared Nobel Prize.
In addition to this, the various accolades she was awarded include the Guggenheim Fellowship for the Natural Sciences in 1933, the National Medal of Science for Biological Sciences in 1971, the Wolf Prize in Medicine in 1981 and more. McClintock received her PhD in botany from Cornell University in 1927, she spent the entirety of her life committed to discovering more in the field of cytogenetics and is found to have stated that she couldn’t be any happier than when she was working; sleep seemed only to hold her back from more ground-breaking work. Barbara McClintock died at the age of 90 in 1992 and remains the first and only women to receive a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
- Gertrude B. Elion
Gertrude Belle Elion was an American pharmacologist and biochemist whose work was invaluable in developing advanced drug designs for new drugs. Elion was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988 which she shared with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black for their collective work in bringing an innovative design for drugs. Elion’s work has been used in helping to fight leukaemia and kidney transplant rejection, which work by blocking the growth of cancerous cells and toxic foreign organisms.
Elion was inspired to work in the field of physiology and find a cure for cancer after witnessing the death of her grandfather, who lost the fight against stomach cancer. Having graduated high school at the age of 15, Elion attended Hunter College on a scholarship and graduated in 1937 with a degree in chemistry. Having saved enough to attend university for her further studies, she attended New York University and graduated in 1941 with an MSc. Being unable to pursue her PhD studies part time, Elion never completed her studies, but was awarded an honorary doctorate for her work in the field of physiology by the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in 1989. Elion died at the age of 88, in 1991, and is now renowned for the work she undertook with diligence and determination.
- Chien-Shiung Wu
Chieng-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American experimental physicist who made many significant contributions to the field of nuclear physics. Wu is best known for her work on the Manhattan Project, the major research and development project undertaken during World War II to construct nuclear weapons. Apart from this, Wu was also involved in the development of the Wu experiment that aspired to prove whether the phenomenon of parity (a term used in quantum mechanics) was conserved or not.
Wu attended the National Central University in Nanjing in 1929 and, upon graduation, taught at a public school in Shanghai. Having studied graduate-level physics for a time period, she moved to the United States and studied at the University of California in Berkeley. She was appointed as an associate research professor at Columbia in 1945. Wu was an advocate for gender equality and spent the latter part of her life striving to establish a system where women were encouraged to study STEM subjects. Wu is hailed as the ‘queen of nuclear physics’ and the ‘first lady of physics’ due to her many valuable contributions to the field.