Hidden Figures in STEM

Celebrating women’s achievement, raising awareness against bias, taking action for equality. You may have heard those phrases on March 8th, which marked International Women’s day, dedicated to forging women’s equality and creating a gender-equal world.

International Women’s Day and corresponding events held in its commemoration are important to celebrate and honour, but one word seems to specifically stand out–day. The word day is preceded by terms that allow individuals to showcase themselves and their history. One day dedicated to celebrating individuals who look the same as I do, one day dedicated to learning about contributions people of colour made to history, one day dedicated to wearing clothes that represent our unique cultures. But the word day also carries with it a hidden connotation that sends the message that those qualities were something that cannot be celebrated throughout the year, but instead on just one day. They send the message that showcasing different aspects of your gender, culture, and accomplishments is an exception, rather than the norm.

It really led me to question, despite the numerous achievements of women across the globe we point out on International Women’s day, do we really make an effort towards forging women’s equality on a daily basis? While labelling something that affects nearly 50% of the worldwide population as a day of celebration is significant, how many individuals actually go on to make a tangible difference beyond that day?

As a woman of color in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), I can see how we fall short of upholding an empowering statement beyond International Women’s Day–this is something reflected in Nobel Prize winners for science. Here are a few quick stats to catch you up: since the awards for science were first given in 1901, nearly every winner of a Nobel Prize for science has been a white man. In 119 years, only 23 women have won. Historically, physics has been an especially male-dominated prize. Further, a Black scientist has never won. Despite better representation of women and people of colour in science careers today than a few decades ago, they continue to persistently face career challenges, receive lower pay, and are awarded fewer prizes than their peers. In fact, a study analysing 141 of the top science prizes awarded over the past 2 decades found that women are far less likely to win major awards than their male peers, regardless of the quantity and quality of their research. This further points to global issues such as racial and educational gaps.

However, here at the Western Blot, we can choose to go beyond the Nobel Prize (which does not offer transparency on the nomination and selection process, and does not acknowledge that an accomplishment in science always takes a team–those of you in a lab know exactly what I am referring to). We can instead choose to highlight and tell the stories of women who have made significant contributions to the field of science, and give them the recognition they so rightly deserve.

Before continuing, please note that this list is not exhaustive. If there are additional individuals who you would like to add to this list, please visit here.

Mary G. Ross

Born in 1958, Ross is known as the first Native American woman engineer, and was part of the Cherokee Nation. As a member of the original engineering team at Lockheed’s Missile System Division, where she worked on a number of defense systems, and contributed to space exploration with her work in the Apollo programs: the Polaris reentry vehicle and interplanetary space probes. She also broke new ground as one of the 40 founding members of the top-secret Skunk Works team, where her work on the team included developing initial design concepts for interplanetary space travel (including flyby missions to Venus and Mars) and satellites including the Agena rocket. You can visit this google doodle to learn more!

Kamal Ranadive

One of India’s first woman cell biologists and scientists, Ranadive established the first tissue culture lab in India, contributing to significant progress with the Indian Cancer Research Center (ICRC) and Experimental Biology Laboratory. She also founded the Indian Women Scientists’ Association (IWSA), with a mission to provide more opportunities for women in science. Post-retirement, Ranadive continued to work towards uprooting malnutrition in tribal women and children. A google doodle in November 2021 commemorated her birthday.

Katherine Johnson

Johnson was a Black American mathematician whose complex calculations were critical to the success of manned space missions in the early 1960s, as well as the 1969 moon landing. During her time at NASA, Johnson calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency backup return paths for numerous flights, contributing to their progress and success. The Oscar-nominated motion picture Hidden Figures follows the true story of Johnson and two other Black women scientists, Dorothy Vaugan and Mary Jackson, as they worked to gain recognition in their fields, despite facing heavy discrimination.

Asima Chatterjee

Born in a middle-class family in 1917, Asima’s study on the Madagascar periwinkle plant led to the development of chemotherapeutic drugs to slow the growth of cancer cells. Further, her observations of the fruits and brak of the bael tree led to the discovery of a treatment for a variety of gastrointestinal disorders. Overall, she improved the odds of survival for patients with cancer, epilepsy, and malaria, and in 1944, she became the first woman to receive a Doctorate of Science from an Indian University.

Chien-Shiung Wu

Known as “First Lady of nuclear research”, Wu was an experimentalist who worked on the Manhattan Project (an American-led project to develop nuclear weapons during WW2). Her experiments involving beta decay helped develop the process for separating uranium metal into U-235 and U-238 isotopes. Wu discovered the property of “handedness” of particles in the Universe, changing the field of physics, and impacting what students learn in present-day classrooms. However, Wu did not receive a Nobel Prize for an experiment she conducted, which helped develop her male counterparts' Nobel Prize-winning theories.

Flossie Wong-Staal

During the 1980s AIDS epidemic, Wong-Staal was a part of the team that discovered human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDs. Her research proved that human retroviruses can be carcinogenic, a position long dismissed within the research community. Then within the next 2 years, her research led to the first clone of the virus, paving the path for gene mapping and blood screening for HIV. She held the title as one of the world’s most respected authorities on retroviruses and immunodeficiencies, accumulating numerous accolades.

Sameera Moussa

Moussa was the first Egyptian nuclear scientist who pursued her doctorate at Cairo University, becoming the first woman to hold a teaching position. She was one of the first advocates for using nuclear technology for peace, such as making medical nuclear treatments available and affordable for everyone. She once said, “I’ll make medical nuclear treatment as available and cheap as Aspirin”. Organizing the Atomic Energy for Peace Conference, she went on to pave the way for nuclear research to be more accessible and cost-effective.

Shirley Ann Jackson

Jackson is a theoretical physicist, who became the first African-American woman to get a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As the former head of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Jackson reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to public health and safety. Further, she organized MIT’s Black Student Union and worked to increase the number of Black students entering MIT. After just a year, the number rose from 2 to 57. In fact, Jackson can be credited for revolutionizing communication and technology across the globe: her telecommunications research at Bell Laboratories led to the invention of the portable fax, the touch-tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.

Patricia Bath

Bath, an educator, researcher and physician, was an advocate for blindness prevention, treatment, and cure. Her research led her to envision a method of using laser technology to remove cataracts (known as laser phaco), which has helped restore or improve vision to millions of patients worldwide. Some of her other accomplishments also include the creation of a new discipline known as "community ophthalmology," and appointment as the first woman chair of ophthalmology in the United States, at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at U.C.L.A.

Mina Bissell

Bissell has been a visionary and pioneer in the areas of breast cancer research, the role of the extracellular matrix (ECM), and the nucleus environment to gene expression in normal and malignant tissues. Her lab developed novel 3D assays and techniques that demonstrated a phrase that you may be familiar with: after conception, “phenotype is dominant over genotype”. Bissell has had over 400 publications, and her research continues to have an impact on the field of science.

Continuing to recognize and celebrate women of colour in STEM

In addition to recognizing and celebrating the accomplishments of women of colour in STEM, we should all continue to offer support and lend a listening ear to those around us. Not just for a day, but instead every day of the year. Making a statement of support on International Women’s Day comes with the responsibility to carry through and act on those words. Advocating for equality is admittedly no easy task, but neither is living in a world where others have different privileges than you might. Pairing advocacy with action is crucial to making a definitive change that again, extends beyond just a day.

If you would like to learn more about the individuals discussed in this article (and additional women in STEM!), please visit the resources listed below (which are also linked throughout the article):