Groundbreaking Women in STEM

We hope you enjoy learning about these incredible women. Check back soon because we will be expanding our compilation regularly!

Abbie Lathrop (1868-1918)

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Background:

Lathrop was born in Illinois in 1868, the only child of schoolteachers originally from Granby, MA. Lathrop was homeschooled for the sixteen years of her life, after which she acquired two years of formal schooling to obtain an Illinois teaching certificate. At the age of 19, she taught elementary school. However, she was not successful due to chronic anemia. In 1900, she tried and failed to start a poultry business, so she began breeding mice and rats. She marketed them to rodent hobbyists and keepers of exotic pets, and later began selling in large numbers to scientific researchers. Lathrop multiplied her stock up to more than 11,000 mice. She made sure to kept careful breeding records, which proved helpful for researchers in the future.

 

Discovery/Impact:

Several years after Lathrop developed her mouse colonies, she noticed that some of the animals were developing unusual skin lesions. She sent samples to several prominent scientists asking for help.  Well-known pathologist Leo Loeb of the University of Pennsylvania replied, saying that he had determined the lesions to be cancerous. Their mutual work resulted in 10 coauthored articles in prominent journals, such as the Journal of Experimental Medicine and the Journal of Cancer Research. Among other important observations, Lathrop and Loeb established that mammary tumors decreased in female mice with ovariectomies while the tumors increased in pregnant mice. The most frequently used laboratory mouse strain for the past 80 years, C57BL/6J (“Black 6”), is derived from one of Lathrop's animals—mouse number 57.

 

Additional Resources:

Evolution of the House Mouse - Google Books

Jackson Laboratory - Origins of Inbred Mice

Ovarian Cancer Research - Abbie Lathrop

Adriana Ocampo (1955 - Present)

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Background:

 

Ocampo was born in Colombia and raised in Argentina. Her family moved to the United States when she was a teenager. Space exploration was her passion from a young age, and she would dream of designing space colonies while sitting atop the roof of her family's home in Argentina. She never went to bed without looking at the stars and contemplating outer space. Her parents encouraged her interests. After her junior year of high school, she was able to volunteer at JPL and then worked there as an employee during the summer. She received a B.S. and a Master of Science in planetary geology while working full-time at JPL as a research scientist. 

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Ocampo co-led an expedition sponsored by NASA. Her team discovered the Chicxulub impact crater on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, which was caused by a catastrophic meteor strike. She was the first to recognize that a ring of sinkholes or "cenotes" found in the Yucatan peninsula was related to the buried Chicxulub crater. This discovery helped scientists prove that an asteroid caused the extinction of more than 50% of the planet’s species, including the dinosaurs. This occurred over 65 million years ago! Furthermore, Ocampo led 6 research expeditions to study this amazing event, that undeniably changed the evolution of life on our planet. At NASA, she serves as the lead program executive for New Frontiers. This includes the Juno mission to Jupiter, the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and the asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx. She was named National Hispanic Scientist of the Year in 2016.

 

Additional Resources:

Hispanic Network - Q & A With NASA Engineer Adriana Ocampo

Mendeley Blog - Meet Adriana Ocampo, Lead Program Executive at NASA’s New Frontiers Program

Space Rocks: The Story Of Planetary Geologist Adriana Ocampo

Alice Ball (1892 - 1916)

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Background:

 

Ball was born in Seattle, Washington as one of four children. Her family moved to Honolulu and then back to Seattle, where she graduated from high school in 1910 with top grades in the sciences. Ball earned a bachelor's degree in pharmaceutical chemistry and published a 10-page article in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society two years later. Ball then transferred to the College of Hawaii to became the very first African American and the very first woman to graduate with a M.S. degree in chemistry in 1915. 

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Ball worked extensively to develop a successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy. Her research led her to create the first injectable leprosy treatment using oil from the chaulmoogra tree, which up until then, was only a moderately successful topical agent that was used in Chinese and Indian medicine. Through her work, Ball found a way to create a water-soluble solution of the oil’s active compounds that could be safely injected, with minimal side effects. Ball’s scientific rigor resulted in a highly successful method to alleviate leprosy symptoms, later known as the “Ball Method,” that was used on thousands of infected individuals. Thanks to her, leprosy patients were discharged from hospitals and facilities across the globe, and were instead able to be treated out of their own homes. 

 

Additional Resources:

National Geographic: How the Woman Who Found a Leprosy Treatment Was Almost Lost to History

The Ball Method (2020)

Women in Science: Alice Ball

Ann Tsukamoto (1952 - Present)

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Background:

 

Tsukamoto was born in California, United States. She pursued a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, San Diego. After receiving her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, Tsukamoto did her post doctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco. There, she was able to co-create a transgenic model for breast cancer.

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

For years, scientists have theorized that human stem cells could be used to save millions of lives. Isolating those stem cells was the essential step that was missing – and no one could figure out how to do it. In the early 1990s, Ann helped discover human blood stem cells and invented a process to isolate them in the body. This is groundbreaking because a blood stem cell transplant could possibly replace a damaged immune system in a person with blood cancer. Ann Tsukamoto’s work has led to great advancements in comprehending the blood systems of cancer patients and and has the potential to treat various deadly diseases. From there, she devoted her life and career to researching and developing stem cell medicines. 

 

Additional Resources:

Challenging Regeneration to Transform Medicine - Ann Tsukamoto as Corresponding Author

Getting Stem Cell Therapies Approved: Ann Tsukamoto - CIRM Science Writer's Seminar

Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women

Barbara McClintock (1902 - 1992)

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Background:

 

McClintock was born in Connecticut and grew up as one of four children. Her family had little money, so her interest in research was viewed with skepticism. Despite this, Barbara began studying at Cornell's College of Agriculture in 1919. She earned her B.S. and M.S. degrees in botany at, and received her Ph.D. in the same subject at Cornell in 1927.  In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon awarded McClintock the National Medal of Science. Remarkably, in 1983, at the age of 81, she received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work. She was the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category.

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Beginning in the late 1920s,McClintock's studied corn's hereditary characteristics, like the different colors of its kernels. McClintock's conducted an investigation into how these characteristics are passed down through generations and linked this to changes in the plants' chromosomes. During the 1940s, by observing and experimenting with variations in the coloration of kernels of corn, she discovered a chromosome-breaking locus that could change its position within a chromosome. McClintock went on to discover other such mobile elements, now known as transposons. She also found that depending on where they inserted into a chromosome, these mobile elements could reversibly alter the expression of other genes. McClintock's observations were revolutionary because they suggested that  genomic replication does not always follow a consistent pattern, as previously thought. Due to her original contributions, McClintock is viewed as one of the pioneering figures in modern genetics.

 

Additional Resources:

Barbara McClintock - Nobel Prize Geneticist

Barbara McClintock - The Significance of Responses of the Genome to Challenge

The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock's Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 - 1977)

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Background: 

 

Wu was a Chinese-American physicist who was actually born in a small town in China.  She was the only daughter and middle child of three children. Her family encouraged her to pursue science and mathematics from an early age. She attended one of the first elementary schools that admitted girls. which was founded by her father. She later attended National Central University. She was inspired by Marie Curie to major in physics, and graduated with top honors and a B.S. degree in 1934. A female professor at a physics laboratory that Wu worked in encouraged her to move to the United States in 1936, when she attended to the University of California, Berkeley for her Ph.D in nuclear physics. Following that, she taught at Smith College, Princeton University, and Columbia University.

 

Discovery/Impact: 

 

In 1957, she performed the Wu Experiment where she disproved a law in physics previously known as the conservation of parity. It states that nature does not distinguish between right and left, so all objects and their mirrors behaved in the same way. Chien-Shiung found that there is a preferred direction of emission for interactions between subatomic particles during the radioactive decay of cobalt-60. She even helped develop the process for separating uranium metal into various isotopes for the Manhattan Project during WWll. In 1973, Wu became the first woman to lead the American Physical Society, and in 1975 she received the National Medal of Science. Her book Beta Decay, published in 1965, is still a standard reference for nuclear physicists. She is often referred to as the “Queen” or “First Lady” of physics.



Additional Resources:

National Academy of Sciences: Chien-Shiung Wu

National Park Service: Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, The First Lady of Physics

Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom

Emmy Noether (1882-1935)

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Background:

 

Noether was a Jewish woman born in Germany. She was the eldest of her parents' four children, the three younger children being boys. When she was young, she spent her time in school studying languages, with a concentration on French and English. However, she decided to study mathematics and attained her PhD at the University of Erlangen in 1907. She worked at the Mathematical Institute of Erlangen, without pay or title, from 1908 to 1915. This is where she began her famous  work in theoretical algebra. In 1915, she joined the Mathematical Institute in Göttingen and started working with Einstein's general relativity theory. During the 1920s, Noether pursued foundational work on abstract algebra that would have an unprecedented impact on future professionals in her field.

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

In 1915 , Noether discovered that the symmetries of a physical system are inseparably linked to physical quantities that are conserved, such as energy. This is called Noether’s Theorem and was used to solve the puzzle in Einstein’s theory. Her theorem shows that if matter and gravity are considered to be one unified quantity rather than separate quantities, then there is no violation of any conservation law.  Noether’s abstract principles are fundamental to modern particle physics. Her unique perspective allowed her to see relationships that traditional algebra experts could not. She published over 40 papers in her lifetime. Albert Einstein wrote about Noether for the New York Times, saying that she “was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.” 

 

Additional Resources:

Convergence Public Lecture: Emmy Noether: Her Life, Work, and Influence

Discover Magazine - How Mathematician Emmy Noether's Theorem Changed Physics

Emmy Noether: The Mother of Modern Algebra

Eunice Foote (1819 - 1888)

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Background:

 

Foote is an American scientist. Although nothing is known about Foote’s early education, it is clear from her experiments that she must have received some form of higher education in science. Foote later engaged in activism as well. She was avid feminist who signed the declaration at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, one of the nation’s first organized events for women’s rights. Foote’s discoveries culminated in a paper, “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of Sun’s Rays,” which was presented in August 1856 at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and then published. 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Back in 1856, Foote carried out her simple yet ingenious experiment. She filled two glass cylinders with various substances, including moist air and carbon dioxide. She then placed a thermometer in each container, then left them in sunlight. Foote found that the heating effect of the Sun was greater in moist air than dry air, and that it was highest of all in a cylinder containing carbon dioxide. Not only did she demonstrate the absorption of heat from solar radiation by carbon dioxide and water vapor, but she also posited a direct connection to their variability as a possible cause of climate change. Foote was years ahead of her time. What she described and theorized was the gradual warming of the Earth’s atmosphere—what today we call the greenhouse effect. Her explanation was the first step that would help scientists understand the underlying mechanisms behind global warming in the future. 

 

Additional Resources:

2018 Short Film - Eunice

Overlooked No More: Eunice Foote, Climate Scientist Lost to History

The Secret History Of Climate Change

Flossie Wong-Staal (1947 - Present)

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Background:

 

Wong-Staal is a Chinese-American virologist and molecular biologist. She was born in China, where she attended an all-girls Catholic school. In 1965, she came to the United States where she got a B.S. in bacteriology from the University of California, Los Angeles. She was the first to pursue science in her family. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology from UCLA in 1972. In 1973, Wong-Staal began work at the National Cancer Institute on retroviruses. In 1990, she continued previous AIDS research at the Center for AIDS Research and acted as a Research Professor of Medicine at UCSD.

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

During Wong-Staal’s time, HIV was a novel virus, and in 1983 was established to be a retrovirus thanks to her team’s breakthrough. Wong-Staal became the first scientist to clone and sequence a virus that causes HIV and determine the function of its genes. Knowing the sequence helped in the development of blood tests for the virus. Her team also proved that HIV indeed depleted T-cells, which was a key piece of evidence to indicate that the virus causes AIDS. Her discovery was instrumental in the subsequent development of diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for AIDS. Wong-Staal has since published more than 400 papers on the subject of human retroviruses and AIDS. In 1990, she was selected by the Institute for Scientific Information as the top woman scientist of the previous decade.

Additional Resources:

40/40 Vision: Flossie Wong-Staal

AIDS Vaccine Research - Flossie Wong-Staal

Flossie Wong-Staal: NIH Researchers Recall the Early Years of AIDS

Gertrude B. Elion (1918 - 1988)

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Background:

 

Elion was born in New York City, and went to public school there. The death of her grandfather due to cancer when she was 15 motivated her to major in science at Hunter College in 1933. She entered graduate school at New York University in the fall of 1939, where she was the only female in her chemistry class. Though she never obtained a doctorate degree, she was later awarded three honorary doctorates from George Washington University, Brown University and the University of Michigan. Additionally, Elion was an avid photographer, traveler, and music enthusiast. After being offered a multitude of positions at research laboratories during World War ll, Elion decided to partner with Dr. George H. Hitchings in 1944.

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Hitchings and Elion discarded the traditional trial-and-error approach to drug development, in favor of a rational, scientific approach. Starting from the understanding that all cells require nucleic acid to reproduce, they reasoned that rapidly growing bacteria and tumors require even more to sustain the pace of growth. Find a way to disrupt their life cycle, and you find a way to stop disease. Elion’s first major discovery was a purine compound that interfered with the formation of leukemia cells: 6-mercaptopurine. For the first time, that treatment was available and became hugely successful in putting children into remission. Furthermore, her discovery of the immunosuppressive drug azathioprine was extremely important to medicine, because it made possible for people with compromised immune systems to receive organ transplants without their body rejecting them. Elion’s name appears on 45 patents for life-saving and life-changing drugs. Elion changed the way researchers develop drugs. She was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988. Although she died in 1999, Gertrude Elion is still saving lives. 

 

Additional Resources:

Gertrude Elion: Biographical Memoirs Volume 78

Gertrude Elion: Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology and Medicine

How One Scientist Broke Through the 'Brick Wall' for Women in Chemistry

Gladys West (1930 - Present)

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Background:

 

West was born in 1930 in Sutherland, Virginia, a rural community where her family had a small farm. After graduating at the top of her high school class, she attended Virginia University, where she majored in Mathematics. Upon her graduation with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1952, West taught mathematics at schools in Sussex County, and then pursued her Master of Science in Mathematics. She was hired as a mathematician at Naval Surface Warfare Center in 1956, where she analyzed satellite data. She was one of only a few African Americans there. In 1962, she joined the Scientific Programming & Analysis Branch in the Computation Division at Dahlgren, VA. She retired in 1998 and, in 2000, earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Public Administration from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Through the early 1960s, West worked on an astronomical study that proved a phenomenon known as “orbital resonance.” She used this concept to show that for every two orbits Pluto makes, Neptune makes three. Thereafter, from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, using complex algorithms to account for variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces that distort Earth’s shape, she programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer that delivered refined calculations for an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, known as a geoid. This computational modeling would prove essential to modern GPS, as the technology relies on this mathematical model in order to determine the position of a receiver. GPS has changed the lives of everyone forever. There is not a segment of this global society  that does not utilize the Global Positioning System. West’s amazing analytical skills and mathematic capabilities are inspiring, and enabled her to change our society forever.

Additional Resources:

Dr. Gladys West: The "Hidden Figure" Who Pioneered GPS Technology

It Began with a Dream: Dr. Gladys West

Meet Dr. Gladys West, the hidden figure behind your phone’s GPS

Hedy Lamarr (1914 - 2000)

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Background:

 

Lamarr was a Hollywood actress and inventor born in Austria to Jewish parents. She married her first husband in 1934 at age 19, but fled to the United States amidst World War ll.  Lamarr signed a contract with a studio in Hollywood upon arrival, and became an immediate box-office sensation. Her scientific mind had been bottled-up by Hollywood but Lamarr was dedicated to working on her inventions between takes. Lamarr’s inventive genius was long hidden to the public, but was uncovered near the end of her life when she got various recognitions for her achievements.


 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Lamarr and her friend, the composer George Antheil, received a patent for an idea of a radio signaling device, or "Secret Communications System," which was a means of changing radio frequencies to keep enemies from decoding messages. The system involved the use of “frequency hopping” amongst radio waves, with both the transmitter and receiver hopping to new frequencies together. Doing so prevented the interception of the radio waves, thereby allowing the torpedo to find its intended target. Although it was originally designed to defeat the German Nazis, the system managed to form the basis for today’s WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems. In 1977, Lamarr became the first female to receive the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, considered the "Oscars" of inventing. 

 

Additional Resources:

Hedy and Her Amazing Invention

Hedy Lamarr's Double Life

National Women's History Month - Hedy Lamarr

Helen Taussig (1898 - 1986)

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Background:

 

Helen Taussig was born 1898 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite suffering from dyslexia, Taussig excelled in higher education. Despite facing other obstacles like the death of her mother, she graduated from the Cambridge School for Girls in 1917 and went on to earn a B.A. degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1921. After studying at Boston University, she transferred to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to pursue her interest in cardiac research. Taussig graduated from Hopkins in 1927, and served as a fellow in cardiology at Johns Hopkins Hospital for the next year, followed by a two-year pediatrics internship. By the time Taussig graduated from Hopkins, she had lost her ability to hear. As a result, she used her hands instead, and that has been linked to her numerous innovations in pediatric cardiology.

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Taussig became interested in the distinct symptoms associated with specific heart malformations. She used fluoroscopy and ECG to accurately diagnose heart defects in living patients, and she began comparing symptoms from children with similar heart problems. Taussig was particularly interested in “blue baby syndrome,” named for the blue-toned color of their skin. These children often died as infants, and those that survived were confined to wheelchairs. Taussig observed that these children had decreased pulmonary blood flow to the lungs, which reduced the amount of blood available for oxygenation. She realized that creating ducts could be the solution. In collaboration with a surgeon, Taussig pioneered a new operation that was performed in 1944, on a cyanotic 15-month old child. By the end of 1951, her surgical team had given 1,037 blue babies a chance to live. Today the method is fairly standard and has an incredibly low mortality rate. Her incredible achievements are the reason Taussig is often referred to as the “mother of pediatric cardiology.”
 

Additional Resources:

A gentle heart : the life of Helen Taussig

Congenital Malformations of the Heart: Specific malformations

Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig: Living Legend in Cardiology 

 

Henrietta Leavitt (1868 - 1921)

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Background:

 

Leavitt was born in Massachusetts. Since her father was a Congregational minister, the family moved frequently. Leavitt was the eldest of seven children, two of whom died as toddlers.  In 1885, she enrolled at Oberlin College, and then in 1888, she applied to enter Radcliffe College. After taking a course in astronomy her senior year, Leavitt became fascinated by astronomy. Following graduation, that passion motivated her to volunteer at the Harvard College Observatory. She was appointed to the permanent staff, earning 30 cents per hour after a duration of 7 years. She worked at the Harvard College Observatory until her death from cancer in 1921.  

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Leavitt discovered the relationship between the intrinsic brightness of a variable star and the time it took to vary in brightness. She found that some stars have a consistent brightness no matter where they are located – making it easy to figure out their distance from Earth. Before her discovery, astronomers could only determine cosmic distances out about 100 light years. The relationship she defined allowed others to estimate the distance of these far away stars, conclude that additional galaxies exist, and begin to map the Universe. In 2012, thanks to Leavitt’s insights, astronomers were able to reveal that the North Star Polaris is about 100 light-years closer to Earth than once thought. She has gone down in history as ‘the woman who discovered how to measure the Universe’. 

Additional Resources:

Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer (with Audio Recording)

See How Leavitt Fits In: Henrietta Leavitt Discovers the Distance Key

The Night Sky - How Henrietta Leavitt Changed Our Understanding Of The Universe

Janaki Ammal (1897 - 1984)

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Background:

 

Ammal was born in Tellicherry, Kerala in. Her father worked as a sub-judge and she had six brothers and five sisters. After finishing her school in Kerala, she went to Chennai, India to obtain her Bachelor's degree from Queen Mary's College and honors degree in botany from Presidency College in 1921. While teaching at Women's Christian College, she received the opportunity to study at the University of Michigan in the United States. After receiving her Masters, she returned to India and became a Professor of Botany at Maharaja’s College of Science, and taught there for two years. In 1934, Ammal began working as a geneticist in the Sugarcane Breeding Institute at Coimbatore. In 1935, the famous scientist and Noble laureate Sir CV Raman founded the Indian Academy of Sciences and selected Ammal as a research fellow in its very first year. In 1951, the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru personally invited Ammal to work in restructuring the Botanical Survey of India (BSI). As a scientist who studied about ecology and biodiversity, Janaki would be an ardent environment activist throughout her life.

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Ammal’s legacy was built during her time at the Sugarcane Breeding Institute. There, she came to understand that India’s sugar had a problem: it wasn’t as sweet as sugar from other parts of the world. Ammal used her knowledge of cytogenetics to find a solution. She did so by manipulating polyploid cells through cross-breeding of hybrids in the laboratory. This enabled Ammal to create a high yielding strain of the sugarcane that would thrive in Indian conditions. This got rid of the previous need to import from abroad. Her memory is preserved in the delicate white magnolias named after her. She is often known as India’s first women botanist. In her later years, she became a forceful advocate for the value and preservation of India’s native plants, earning recognition as a pioneer of indigenous approaches to the environment.

 

Additional Resources:

Brilliant Botany - Botanist E.K. Janaki-Ammal

Smithsonian Magazine: The Pioneering Female Botanist Who Sweetened a Nation and Saved a Valley

The Wire: Celebrating Janaki Ammal, Botanist and a Passionate Wanderer of Many Worlds

Background:

 

Jane Goodall was born on April 3, 1934 in the city of London. She was the daughter of a race car driver and an author. Goodall moved various times with her family. Her iconic fascination with chimpanzees began at a young age when she was given a toy one. She went to high school at Upland School for Girls, but had a passion for the environment over school curriculum. In 1953, Goodall enrolled at London’s Queens Secretarial College. After working odd jobs, she was asked to visit Africa by a friend. She then took a job there and began learning more about anthropology. In 1960, she arrived in Tanzania and began her groundbreaking work. Although Goodall ended her fieldwork in 1986, she found a fitting yet admirable goal of raising awareness and money to protect the chimpanzees and their habitat through her nonprofit organization, the Jane Goodall Institute. Along the way, she received nearly 50 honorary degrees, and became a UN Messenger of Peace in 2002.

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

In her early days, Goodall discovered that chimpanzees used long stalks of grass to cause ants to emerge from their colonies. They would then lick the ants off, challenging the notion that humans were the only species capable of using “tools.” She decided to get close to the chimpanzees, and stayed with them long enough to gain their trust. This enabled her to discover a number of previously unobserved behaviors. She witnessed the complicated social system that chimpanzees follow that include rituals and communication methods. She noted that they are equipped with a primitive "language" system containing more than 20 individual sounds. Over the years, Goodall was able to correct a number of misunderstandings about chimpanzees. She uses the things that she has learned to fight against using chimpanzees in medical research and educate people all over the world about environmental issues.

 

Additional Resources:

JANE | National Geographic Documentary

The Jane Goodall Institute

Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe

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Jane Goodall (1934 - Present)

 

Jennifer Doudna (1964 - Now)

Background:

 

Doudna was born in Washington, D.C., and then moved to Hawaii where she grew up. Living in a natural hub for science enthusiasts, she explored the rainforests around her. Doudna went to Pomona College for college, and then Harvard for grad school. During this time, she worked with various professors to learn more about RNA molecules. She did her postdoc at University of Colorado Boulder before accepting a position as an Assistant Professor at Yale in 1994. A huge moment in Doudna’s life was in 2005, when CRISPR came to her attention. CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. This is in reference to a repeated DNA sequence in genomes. These sequences allowed bacteria to remember attackers and defend against them the next time. Her curiosity about how this worked opened the path for new research. In 2011, Doudna met French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, who was also working with CRISPR sequences. They began to work together to determine how CRISPR provides bacteria with viral immunity. Together, they perfected the CRISPR-Cas9 system that has change how scientists approach human disease treatment and the limits of research.

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Working with Charpentier, Doudna realized that the bacteria’s CRISPR RNA (filled with information from the previous viral attack) works with something called the Cas9 enzyme. Together, they seek out matching strands of viral DNA. Upon collision, Cas9 cuts the viral DNA and prevents the virus from replicating like it usually would. Doudna and Charpentier made history when they found that the guide RNA sequence could be changed to direct Cas9 to a precise DNA sequence. Therefore, it could be used to edit DNA to the nucleotide level with incredible precision. The CRISPR-Cas9 system has been proven to work in human cells as well. We can now edit the genomes of babies if we want to. More importantly, scientists have the ability to treat previously untreatable disease by cutting out malicious DNA sequences. Since Doudna’s discovery, and intense ethical debate surrounding tampering with embryos has gained media attention. However, Loudna is a strong advocate of using the CRISPR-Cas9 system for well-intentioned medical purposes only. In recognition of her work, Doudna has received memberships in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine. Most recently, she was the recipient of 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

 

Additional Resources:

A Crack in Creation - Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution

Biography of Jennifer A, Doudna | PNAS

2020 Nobel Prize - UC Berkeley Press Conference

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Katherine Johnson (1918 - 2020)

Background:

 

Katherine Johnson was an African American mathematician born in 1918 in West Virginia. When Johnson was young, she was an avid mathematician. She would count everything from the number of steps at church to the number of forks she was washing. Johnson was a prodigy from early on, entering high school at the mere age of 10. She then attended West Virginia College where a world renowned professor helped her prepare for a monumental career in math. She became a teacher after graduating college at the age of 18; at that time, teaching was the only option for her. Few African Americans worked in STEM, and almost no women had a degree in math. At the age of 34, she learned that NASA was hiring African American women to be “computers.” In the 1950s, there were no computers like we have today. That’s why NASA recruited people to solve hard math problems as a job. Johnson got the job at NASA, but didn’t stop there. She began attending meetings to learn more about NASA projects. She pushed to attend despite women not be allowed to, and eventually got recognized as a true leader. Her curiosity and talent caused her to advance within NASA and become an aerospace technologist. After working for NASA for 30 years, Johnson retired in 1986. 

 

Discovery/Impact:

 

Johnson began her work on space missions by making trajectory calculations for Alan Shepard’s 1961 record setting space flight. When the United States decided to send people to the moon in 1962, NASA was faced with a momentous task. Johnson worked to use geometry for efficient space travel. She calculated paths for the spacecraft to loop around the earth before landing on the moon. Johnson's efforts helped NASA successfully send astronauts to the moon on July 20, 1969. They returned safely to Earth on July 24, 1969. Johnson and her love of mathematics was instrumental to this endeavor. She later helped to develop the space shuttle program and Earth resources satellite, and she co-authored 26 research reports before retiring. The fact that she was so influential at a time when few minorities worked in math and science, cemented her name in history. Following retirement, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, had various research centers named after her, and was depicted in the Hollywood film Hidden Figures. Johnson often pushed students that she spoke with to pursue STEM careers, saying that some things will drop or gor way, but STEM will always be with us. She is an undeniable icon for the civil rights movement and women in science.

 

Additional Resources:

Hidden Figures: Official Trailer

Reaching For the Moon: Autobiography

Who is Katherine Johnson?

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