Organic chemist Emīlija Gudriniece (1920-2004) was one of the first scientists to recognize the potential to produce fuel from vegetable oils.
Gudriniece was born and raised in Latvia, where she studied chemistry at the University of Latvia. After becoming a professor at Riga Polytechnic, she founded a Department of Organic Synthesis and Biotechnology there and served as department head for 27 years. A prolific scientist with broad interests, she synthesized useful compounds including the antibiotic furanicide and antioxidants for makeup. While much of her work benefitted the cosmetics industry, she was by no means a “girly girl” and her refusal to be confined by gender stereotypes likely helped inspire her work on biofuel; an avid motorcyclist, she won the Latvian Women’s Motorcycling Championship two times.
Gudriniece felt close ties to her homeland and, where she saw gaps in Latvia’s opportunities for scientists, she worked to fill them; she organized numerous scientific meetings and conferences in Latvia, revived the Latvian Chemical Society, and organized national and international scientific congresses of Latvian scientists. Known and admired for her enthusiasm and energy, Gudriniece loved working with students and guided over two dozen to successful completion of a degree. She died in 2004 in Latvia, the country she loved, a country whose scientific community and resources she worked tirelessly to strengthen.
The lack of women among this year’s Nobel Prize winners has brought attention to the serious underrepresentation of women in positions of power in science. This WiSE Wednesday, we honor one of the rare female Nobel laureates, German developmental biologist Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard not only for her accomplishments in science but also for her dedication to helping other women succeed in the field.
Nüsslein-Volhard won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995 (shared with Eric Wieschaus and Edward B. Lewis) for her work in developmental biology. Nüsslein-Volhard used chemicals to introduce random mutations in fruit flies, then observed the development of these flies’ embryos. Fruit fly larvae are segmented and undergo a distinct, carefully orchestrated series of developmental “steps” as they establish their body plans. Different mutations disrupted different steps and by characterizing these mutations, Nüsslein-Volhard helped elucidate genetic logic of early development.
Although this work was performed in fruit flies, much of it has been shown to apply to other organisms as well. This includes zebrafish, another model organism which Nüsslein-Volhard later turned to studying at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany where she has served as Director since 1985. She has also served on many committees including the National Ethics Council of Germany, where she promoted ethical biological research in a world of rapidly advancing technology.
Nüsslein-Volhard knows that her success story as a woman in science is much too rare and she works to help address the factors holding women back from achieving positions of influence. For example, in addition to the hard work required for success in science, women often face additional demands of their time including childcare responsibilities. Lack of affordable childcare options can prevent women from attending conferences and networking events, which makes it difficult for them to advance up the career ladder. Knowing this, Nüsslein-Volhard started a foundation (the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation) that supports female graduate students and postdocs through grants to assist with childcare and household chores. Who knows, maybe one of these grant recipients is a future Nobel laureate!
Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr
Representation matters. Case in point: this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree Dr. Patricia Bath, whose work both inside and outside the operating room saved the sight of many.
Born in Harlem, New York in 1942, Bath showed an early aptitude for science, which her parents encouraged. She received a medical degree from Howard University and went on to specialize in ophthalmology. During a fellowship at Columbia University, she observed that African American patients were disproportionally affected by preventable and/or treatable eye problems. While some scientists might have jumped to trying to find genetic roots to this disparity, Bath took a more holistic view. Having grown up dealing with poverty and racism, she was all too aware of how they could affect access to care. She also knew that without prevention information, early detection, and medical treatment, curable eye ailments could lead to irreversible blindness. After she found that this was the case for her African American ophthalmology patients, she founded a discipline called Community Ophthalmology to provide access to basic eye care treatment and education to everyone. Community Ophthalmology has since become a worldwide discipline that has saved the sight of countless people, including through the work of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which she co-founded in 1976.
In addition to expanding access to care, Bath also worked to improve the care patients received, inventing a tool to remove cataracts, the Laserphaco Probe. She patented the probe (which is still used) in 1988, making her the first female African American doctor to patent a medical device. Among her other firsts – she became the first female Ophthalmology Chair in the US and the first female African American surgeon at UCLA. She retired from UCLA in 1993, but continues to advocate for access to eye care, which she considers a basic human right. In an effort to expand this access, she has taught telemedicine at Howard University and Grenada’s St. George University.
Did you see Saturday’s Google Doodle and wonder what it was all about? The image, with “Google” spelled out in organic chemical line drawings, honored the 100th birthday of this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, the late Dr. Asima Chatterjee, an Indian chemist who developed drugs to treat epilepsy and malaria based on chemicals from plant extracts.
Chatterjee was born in Bengal and raised in Calcutta, where she earned a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Calcutta. Interested in why certain plants were effective at treating disease, Chatterjee dove into the field of phytomedicine. After extracting and purifying active chemicals from plants, she characterized them and developed techniques to synthesize them in the lab. With large quantities of these compounds, she could study their mechanism of action against diseases including cancer, epilepsy, and malaria.
In addition to being a leader in phytomedicine, Chaterjee was a trailblazer for women in science; she founded a department of chemistry at the Lady Bradbourne College of the University of Calcutta, and her PhD was the first Doctorate of Science granted to a woman by an Indian University. Her numerous honors included the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in chemical science (she was the first woman to win), fellowship in the Indian National Science Academy, and election as the Indian Science Congress Association’s first female General President.
Chaterjee loved science, and she passed on her passion for chemistry to her daughter, Julie, who became a successful organic chemist. She also served as an inspiration and mentor for numerous students and colleagues. Chaterjee passed away in November 2006.
Photo Credit: The Indian Scientists, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis transformed the way we think about the origins of life. Eukaryotic (plant, animal, and fungal) cells contain membrane-bound “organelles” that are not present in bacterial cells. In her groundbreaking endosymbiotic theory of organogenesis, Margulis proposed a mechanism by which these organelles, including mitochondria (cellular “powerhouses”) and chloroplasts (plants’ photosynthetic factories), began as bacterial cells taken in (endosymbiosed) by other cells. After being endosymbiosed, these bacteria evolved to fulfill the energy needs of the host cell. This theory was incredibly controversial at the time (fourteen publishers rejected it before it was finally published) but genetic and experimental evidence has provided strong support for it, and it is now widely accepted.
Margulis was born in Chicago in 1938. She earned a Liberal Arts degree from the University of Chicago followed by a master’s in genetics and zoology from the University of Wisconsin before going on to obtain a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. She taught for almost two decades at Boston University before transferring to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Margulis’ initially controversial endosymbiotic theory turned out to be one of her least controversial hypotheses; described by many as a “scientific rebel,” she spoke out against “Neo-Darwinists” who believe that evolution occurs linearly through small changes within an organism, arguing instead that exchange of genetic material between different organisms plays a larger role than Neo-Darwinists give credit to.
Despite often thriving among scientific “outcasts,” Margulis also received recognition from the more mainstream scientific community; she was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and received the National Medal of Science in 1999. Margulis passed away in 2011 from complications of a stroke, but her son, Dorion Sagan, with whom she wrote many books, continues her legacy of communicating science.
Many researchers talk about “living and breathing” science – this metaphor is particularly apt for this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Mary Amdur (1921-1998), who pioneered research on air pollution’s harmful effects on the lungs. In studying the chemical nature of smog, Amdur discovered that sulfur dioxide could react with particles released from industrial plants to form harmful molecules capable of damaging the lungs. Despite pushback from both industry and academia, she could not be intimidated into backing down.
Her initial work was carried out at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) with funding from the American Smelting and Refining Company (AS&R). AS&R was hoping to get evidence that the sulfuric acid released by their plants was harmless; not only did Amdur come to the opposite conclusion, but she also found that the AS&R’s main emission, sulfur dioxide was also hazardous. Executives and lawyers from AS&R and other industrial companies pressured her to delay publishing her work, but, despite being a young woman in a male-dominated field, Amdur refused to give in to the pressure. Her work got published, but it came at a price: the loss of her research assistant position.
Thankfully, another professor at HSPH recognized the importance of Amdur’s work and hired her to work in his lab; there she developed an animal model for studying air pollution’s effects that allowed her to perform further influential experiments. Nevertheless, thirty years of ground-breaking work wasn’t enough to gain her tenure, or even a position above “Associate Professor” at Harvard. Despite these personal injustices, it was a fight over the denial of tenure for a colleague that led Amdur to leave HSPH for MIT, where she worked for 12 years (in a non-faculty position) before starting a research group at New York University. At NYU, she reached her highest position, “Senior Research Scientist,” but still didn’t receive tenure. She retired in 1996 but continued to write and edit scientific papers. She passed away in 1998, but she still serves as an inspiration for many in the field and her story is a great example of how great scientists (especially women and minorities) are often denied access to the top rungs of the academic ladder.
Picture original publication: Casarett and Doull’s Toxicology The Basic Science Of Poisons
When the AIDS crisis struck, some tried to isolate themselves or ignore the problem – not this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree! French virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi co-discovered the cause of AIDS, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Before the cause of AIDS was known, homosexual men and other populations hit hard by AIDS faced strong discrimination and stigma. This discovery was a crucial step in understanding how AIDS spreads, helping to combat both the disease and the climate of fear that surrounded it.
Barré-Sinoussi made the discovery in 1983 while working at Paris’ Pasteur Institute (where she started as a volunteer). In recognition of her work, she and her former mentor Luc Montagnier were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008. Barré-Sinoussi started her own lab at the Pasteur in 1988, where she continued research on HIV: basic research including factors that affect its transmission as well as more translational explorations into potential treatment and prevention measures. She has also been actively involved in international AIDS organizations including UNAIDS-HIV and the International Aids Society (where she served as president from 2012 to 2014) and has trained many of the “next generation” of AIDS researchers.
Additionally, Barré-Sinoussi has been a strong advocate for women in science. I was personally inspired by her when I had the great honor of hearing her speak last October at a special meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory: HIV/AIDS Research: Its History & Future.
photo credit: U. Montan
The medical “breakthroughs” you read about on the news, while rightly celebrated, usually involve very expensive treatments for previously untreatable diseases. Much less attention is typically given to the most effective way to confront disease – prevention – especially when it comes to preventing diseases in developing nations. This week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Rita Colwell, has dedicated her life to stopping the spread of cholera, a devastating water-borne illness that takes a huge toll on developing nations.
Colwell spent years researching how environmental factors affect infection rates. Among her many findings, she discovered that increased water temperatures can lead to the spread of cholera by supporting the growth of algae that host cholera bacteria. Therefore, she warns, climate change has the potential to increase cholera’s spread. However, Colwell emphasizes that this spread is not inevitable – infection can be prevented with simple methods. For example, while they may not be glamorous, Colwell found that even simple cloth filters can drastically reduce cholera’s spread.
On the national level, Colwell served as the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s first female director (1998-2004). While holding this position, she advocated for increasing the representation and success of women and minorities in science and engineering, doubling funding for NSF’s ADVANCE initiative, which supports projects focused on removing institutional barriers to women’s success in STEM.
Colwell was born in Massachusetts in 1934. She received a B.S. in bacteriology and M.S. in genetics from Purdue, followed by a Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Washington. She serves as a professor at the University of Maryland and the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She has also taken on entrepreneurial roles, including founding a bioinformatics company called CosmosID that monitors microbial activity in ecosystems around the world. In 2006, she was awarded the National Medal of Science, and she has received over 60 honorary degrees. Colwell’s story serves as a great reminder that there are many career paths available to scientists, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Photo Credit: University of Maryland College Park
Discrimination forced Tikvah Alper (1909-1995) to relocate frequently, but she found ways to pursue her scientific interests wherever she went, ultimately receiving fame for her discovery that, unlike viral and bacterial diseases, the infectious brain disease of sheep, scrapie, was not transmitted from animal to animal via DNA or RNA. Alper discovered this by irradiating scrapie with different wavelengths of light – wavelengths that destroy nucleic acids (DNA & RNA) didn’t affect scrapie’s ability to replicate, but wavelengths that disrupted proteins did. This led to a conceptual revolution in scientists’ understanding of scrapie and related diseases such as “mad cow disease” and kuru that are caused by misfolded proteins termed “prions”.
Alper was born in South Africa in 1909 to a family of Russian refugees. There, she thrived in school from a young age, graduating from high school early and receiving a grant to study math and physics at Capetown University. She left South Africa in 1930 to pursue a doctorate at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin (in a department headed by past WiSE Wednesday honoree Lise Meitner). Despite early successes in her research on radiation, escalating tension in Germany led her to return to South Africa in 1933, where she married the microbiologist Max Sterne.
At the time, married women were not allowed to be appointed to academic positions, so Alper and her husband set up their own laboratory in their home’s garden, where Alper continued conducting research while also raising two sons, one of whom was born deaf (Alper learned speech therapy to help her communicate with him). She was later made a physics lecturer at Witwatersrand University and, after conducting research in Britain on the irradiation of bacteriophage (a type of virus that infects bacteria), she was made head of the Biophysics Section in South Africa’s new National Physics Laboratory. Alper was forced out of this position for her opposition to apartheid, and she and her family again left South Africa for London where she worked her way from unpaid researcher to director of Hammersmith Hospital’s MRC Experimental Radiopathology Research Unit. Even after retirement, Alper remained active as both a scientist and a feminist until her death in 1995.
Chances are, you’re reading this WiSE Wednesday profile with the aid of Wi-Fi. If so, you have this week’s honoree, Hedy Lamarr to thank! Better known to many as the actress who starred in mid-1900s films, Lamarr developed a frequency-hopping technology central to present-day wireless technologies including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Hedy was born in Vienna in 1914. Her acting skills were discovered when she was a teenager, leading to an early acting career in Europe. At the age of 18, she married a wealthy Austrian businessman 15 years her senior, Friedrich Mandl. Mandl was very controlling, leading Hedy to eventually flee to Paris, but not before she had the chance to learn about applied science by sitting in on Mandl’s business meetings with scientists discussing military technology.
In Paris Lamarr met a talent scout who brought her to Hollywood in 1938, where she began a successful acting career. Her talents weren’t limited to the stage however – despite lacking any formal training, she loved inventing. Lamarr’s greatest technological contribution came during World War II, although it’s importance wouldn’t be fully recognized until years later.
Having learned about torpedoes during Mendl’s meetings, Lamarr’s curiosity was peaked when she heard of the possibility of jamming radio-controlled torpedoes in order to force them off-course. Brainstorming ideas to protect torpedoes from this interference, Lamarr envisioned a frequency-hopping signal that could quickly change frequencies to make it resistant to jamming. She shared her idea with her friend George Antheil. Antheil, a composer and pianist helped her synchronize a miniaturized player-piano mechanism with radio signals to achieve just that. Based on this device, they designed a frequency-hopping system that they patented in 1942. They donated it to the Navy in the hopes of aiding the war effort but the Navy was reluctant to take ideas from outside the military and, despite the technology’s potential, it was difficult to implement. It was not until 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, that a version of their technology was adopted by Navy ships
In addition to its military importance, the frequency-hopping technology Lamarr & Antheil invented served as the foundation of “spread-spectrum” wireless communications that form the backbone of today’s Wi-Fi, GPS, and other wireless systems.
In recognition of her contribution Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014. An actress and a composer developed a technology that greatly shapes our modern world. So think you need to be an “academic” to be in STEM? Think again!
Some scientists find their life’s passion exploring the vast unknowns of the galaxies; others, like this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Marie Tharp, find themselves drawn to mysteries at the bottom of the ocean. Working with a fellow geologist, Bruce Heezen, Tharp created the first scientific map to cover the entire ocean floor, and, in doing so, discovered a deep rift in a long chain of underwater mountains called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Tharp meticulously mapped this rift valley and interpreted it as strong evidence that the continents became separated by the movement of tectonic plates in earth’s outer layers – as the plates move apart, magma rises from deeper layers, leading to the formation of mountains like those composing the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Tharp’s map was at first widely disputed because, at the time (the 1950s), the theory of continental drift was highly controversial. In fact, Heezen himself initially dismissed Tharp’s support of a continental drift hypothesis as “girl talk.” Nevertheless, Sharp persisted in analyzing as much information on the ocean’s floor as she could get her hands on (she initially wasn’t allowed on data collecting expositions because she was a woman, so she had to depend on data Heezen and others collected). As Heezen and other geographers engaged in lively, often heated, debates, Tharp worked tirelessly in the background. The more she analyzed the data, the stronger her conclusions became, and Heezen and the rest of the scientific community eventually came around to accepting the continental drift theory, propped up by the confirmation of Tharp’s work by National Geographic-funded explorations.
Tharp was born in Michigan in 1920 and received a degree in English from Ohio University in 1943, followed by a Master’s in petroleum geology from the University of Michigan. She started a job in micropaleontology in Oklahoma, but found the work tedious so she took night classes to earn another degree in mathematics. Three degrees in hand, she took a job at Columbia, where she began her longtime collaboration with Heezen and performed her ground-breaking work. Despite remaining largely in the background through much of her career, Tharp eventually received recognition for her findings - the Library of Congress named her as one of the four greatest cartographers of the 20th century; Google Earth added a layer to view her historical map; and she received Columbia’s first annual Lamont-Doherty Heritage Award. Tharp died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 86, but not before she was finally given opportunities to go on data-gathering explorations.
Photo credit: Bruce Gilbert
Alice Ball developed the first truly effective treatment for leprosy (Hansen’s disease), but you likely haven’t heard of her. In fact, after her tragic early death, a colleague continued her work and published her findings without giving her credit until another colleague called him out. Even then, it took decades before the University of Hawaii (UH)(then known as the College of Hawaii), where she conducted her groundbreaking work, honored her contributions, despite Ball being the university’s first African American chemist, researcher, and teacher as well as the first woman to earn a master’s degree from UH (in 1915).
Ball was born in Seattle in 1892 and received degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy from the University of Washington before pursuing a masters in chemistry from UH. A Hawaiian public health officer, Dr. Harry Hollman, learned about her master’s thesis work extracting the active chemical from awa roots and approached her with a proposition. For years, the oil from chaulmoogra trees had been used as an ointment to treat leprosy, but with limited success. Hollman asked her to work on extracting the active components in the oil to create an injectable medicine. Ball was successful and her work revolutionized leprosy treatment, allowing patients to be discharged from hospitals and released from leper colonies. This treatment would remain standard until the advent of new drugs in the 1940s.
Despite the unquestionable value of Ball’s work, she almost didn’t receive any credit for it. After she died before the chance to publish her work, the president of the college, Arthur Dean, continued her work, publishing it without crediting her. The techniques she developed became known as “Dean’s method” and until 1922, when Dr. Hollman wrote an article exposing the true story, and referring to the method as “Ball’s method”. And it wasn’t until 2000 that UH memorialized her with a dedication plaque at the base of the campus’s sole chaulmoogra tree, largely due to the detective work and advocacy of Paul Wermager, a retired Science/Technology Reference Department Head at UH, and colleagues. In 2007, UH awarded Ball a posthumous Medal of Distinction, and they later announced a scholarship in her honor.
Although the particulars of Alice’s story are unique, she is far from alone in the multitudes of women scientists, especially women of color, who have been forgotten or ignored by history. Let’s help shine light on the lives of these amazing women and prevent their stories from being buried.
Next month, people will turn their (guarded) eyes to space to see the solar eclipse. This week, we look back in time to celebrate a woman who loved looking at space as well, astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921). Henrietta was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and fell in love with astronomy at the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women (later Radcliffe College). A serious illness interrupted her studies and left her profoundly deaf, but she found that she didn’t need her hearing to contribute to science and explore the depths of outer space. Meticulously examining hundreds of pictures of stars at Harvard College Observatory (first as a volunteer and later for 30 cents an hour) she noticed that a certain type of star, Cepheid, changed brightness at a rate based on their intrinsic properties including mass, density, and surface brightness (not just differences in how we observe them). This observation allowed her to develop the Cepheid variable period-luminosity relationship (also known as Leavitt’s law). This relationship allowed scientists to calculate distances to distant galaxies and proved vital to the work of many of the more “famous” astronomers including Edwin Hubble, who used Leavitt’s law to help show the universe is expanding.
Additionally, Henrietta developed and curated the Harvard Standard, a photographic measurement standard that orders stars based on their brightness. Because of her gender, Henrietta was considered a mere “computer” and wasn’t given the freedom to pursue research on other topics that interested her, but neither sexism nor deafness could keep her from contributing to science as fully as she could. A Swedish scientist attempted to nominate her for the 1926 Nobel Prize in Physics, only to learn that she had died of cancer several years earlier. She did receive other honors, however, including membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Additionally, an asteroid and a moon crater are named after her in honor to all of the deaf scientists who have contributed to astronomy.
Every day, scientists use math – whether it’s doing simple algebra by hand to determine concentrations of a solution or entering strings of data into complex algorithms that do the calculations for them. But how often do we stop to appreciate the mathematicians who have worked to make our quantitative view of the world possible? This WiSE Wednesday, we’re asking you to do just that, in memory of this week’s honoree, Maryam Mirzakhani, who died of breast cancer last weekend.
In her short life (40 years), Maryam contributed greatly to the field of mathematics, conducting research on dynamics and geometry of complicated surfaces. However, she didn’t come to the attention of the wider public until 2014, when she became the first woman and first Iranian to win the Fields Medal (the highest award for mathematics). Ground-breaking firsts were nothing new to Maryam, who was also the first female Iranian to win the International Mathematical Olympiad (1994) and the first Iranian to receive a perfect score and take home two gold medals the following year.
Born in Tehran, Iran in 1977, she attended Sharif University of Technology before coming to the US for doctoral studies at Harvard. She later taught at Princeton and then became a professor at Stanford. Maryam was an inspiration to many and will be deeply missed.
Have you ever felt guilty “bothering” a scientist with your questions? Don’t! As this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, molecular biologist Nettie Stevens once told a student, “How could you think your questions would bother me? They never will, so long as I keep my enthusiasm for biology; and that, I hope will be as long as I live.” Powerful words from a powerful woman whom we lost much too soon.
Nettie was born in Vermont in 1861, a time when education for women was rare. Fortunately, she was able to save up enough money through teaching to attend the teachers’ college Westfield Normal School, after which she taught more to save up for higher education, getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford followed by a PhD from Bryn Mar. Always interested in pursuing research, she didn’t have the opportunity to work in a lab until she was in her 30’s (never too late!). Once she started however, nothing could stop her and she had a tremendously productive 11 years, working at Bryn Mawr, the Carnegie Institute of Washington and European research institutions. Studying mealworms, she made the key discovery that sex is typically chromosomally inherited, with fathers providing the determining factor, a chromosome she termed “Y”. Around this time, a researcher named Edmund Wilson made a similar discovery, and Nettie’s work is therefore often overlooked.
Looking to pursue further research, Nettie wrote to Charles Davenport to see if she could work with him at Cold Spring Harbor. Sadly, she died of breast cancer in 1912, before she even had the chance to work here. Although her life was short, she made a significant impact on those around her and contributed greatly to scientific knowledge.
Photo Credit: Carnegie Institution of Washington
Now recognized as one of the most brilliant astronomers of the twentieth century, credited with determining what stars are made of, this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Cecilia Payne, was born in Wendover, England in 1900. She entered Cambridge University interested in a broad array of sciences, but was unsure which field to specialize in until she heard a public lecture from the astronomer Arthur Eddington and was hooked. She had the chance to talk with him at an event for the public at the Cambridge Observatory, after which he literally opened doors for her, allowing her access to the Observatory’s vast library resources. Cambridge did not offer degrees to women at that time, however, so Cecilia set her sights on the U.S., where she was the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Harvard’s Radcliffe college, for work that would revolutionize the field of astrophysics.
By attaching spectroscopes to their telescopes, scientists can spread out wavelengths contained in light coming from stars. As the light travels through the star’s atmosphere, some of it is absorbed by chemical elements. Different elements absorb different wavelengths of light, so the resultant spectrum provides valuable information about the composition of the star. Because the spectra of starlight were similar to the spectra of elements in earth’s crust, most astronomers believed that earth and stars had similar compositions. However, in her groundbreaking PhD thesis, Cecilia showed that, when temperature was taken into account, the spectra of starlight showed that stars are almost entirely composed of the two lightest elements: hydrogen and helium. This finding was so unorthodox that a prominent Princeton astronomer, Henry Norris Russell told her that her conclusion was “clearly impossible.” Nevertheless, Payne converted her thesis into a book, Stellar Atmospheres, in which she also presented a method to use starlight spectra to calculate the temperature of stars. Her work was shown to be accurate, and is now generally accepted. Even Russell came around, publishing similar findings several years later (he acknowledged Cecilia’s work, but he is often solely credited for the conclusion they independently reached).
After obtaining her PhD in 1925, Cecilia remained at Harvard until she retired from teaching in 1966 (although she continued to contribute to astrophysics). Despite performing the duties of a professor, gender discrimination prevented her from achieving professor status until 1956, when she became Harvard’s first female full professor and first female department head. While she was never elected to the National Academy of Sciences, Cecilia did have the ironic honor of receiving the Henry Norris Russell Prize.
Ada Yonath was born in Jerusalem in 1939 to a family that struggled financially but was determined for her to get a good education. As a child, she found comfort and excitement in books and she gave math lessons in lieu of tuition at a prestigious high school. She received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry followed by a master’s degree in biochemistry from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then earned a PhD from the Weizmann Institute of Science. After her PhD, she ventured outside of her homeland, completing postdocs at Carnegie Mellon and MIT, before returning to the Weizmann Institute, where she started Israel’s first protein crystallography lab – it would serve as Israel’s only such lab for almost a decade.
Interested in protein biosynthesis, she set out to determine the structure of ribosomes, molecular complexes that translate mRNA into protein. Many scientists around the world thought she was wasting her time, arguing that the structures were too large and complex. Undeterred, Ada persevered, splitting her time and energy between her lab at the Weizmann Institute and Germany’s Max Planck Institute. While crystallography is almost always difficult, determining the 3D structure of ribosomes came with extra challenges. Crystallography is best suited for molecules that are well-structured and rigid, but ribosomes contain multiple protein and RNA components, are flexible and unstable, and are internally asymmetrical. To confront these challenges, she had to get creative. An article about bears packing their ribosomes within cells before hibernation inspired Ada to seek out particularly stable ribosomes, finding such complexes in bacteria living in extreme environments such as the Dead Sea and thermal springs. Even with these hardier ribosomes, however, crystallography still posed a formidable challenge, and, if she was to be successful, Ada would have to develop innovative techniques.
In crystallography, powerful X-ray beams are targeted at molecules – upon contact, the beams are diffracted and scientists work backwards from the diffraction pattern to figure out the structure that gave rise to it. The powerful X-ray beams used can damage the particles they’re imaging, and this damage was hampering Ada’s progress in solving the ribosome’s structure, so she invented a technique called cryo-bio-crystallography, in which she froze her crystals at extremely low temperatures prior to imaging. This technique paid off and, along with other methods Ada developed, is currently used in crystallography labs around the world. In 2000 and 2001 Ada published complete structures of both subunits of bacterial ribosomes. These structures helped Ada elucidate the mechanisms of protein synthesis and determine how a variety of antibiotics targeted bacterial ribosomes, valuable information for the development of targeted drugs.
In 2009, she received a Nobel Prize for Chemistry (shared with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steiz) for this work, breaking a 45-year all-male streak. She was the first Israeli woman to receive a Nobel Prize & the first Middle Eastern woman to win a scientific Nobel Prize. In addition to the Nobel, she has received multiple honorary doctorates and a long list of awards and she has been elected to numerous scientific organizations including the US National Academy of Sciences. She currently serves as the director of the Weizmann Institute’s Biomolecular Structure and Assembly center. While she has been invited to give scientific lectures around the world, perhaps one of her favorite invitations was from her 5-year-old granddaughter who invited her to talk about ribosomes to her kindergarten class.
Many people associate “Ph.D” with academia, but a scientific degree can be useful in a wide variety of professions, as evidenced by this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Cheryl Shavers, whose doctorate in chemistry propelled her to positions of power in industry and government.
Cheryl was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1953, where she was raised by a single mother. Money was tight, but, fascinated with forensic chemistry, Cheryl was determined to pursue a college education. A scholarship allowed her to attend a community college (Mesa), after which she transferred to Arizona State University (ASU) where, working night shifts at a data processing center to afford her tuition, she obtained a BS in chemistry. Her initial interest in forensic chemistry led her to an internship for the Phoenix PD’s crime lab, where she helped develop a technique for analyzing trace evidence called enzyme typing. Despite the technique’s successful use in a murder trial, Cheryl was subsequently relegated to menial tasks and, frustrated, she switched career paths, shifting her sights to industry. While working on semiconductors at Motorola, she began to pursue a doctoral degree in solid-state chemistry degree from ASU. After obtaining her PhD, she went to work as an engineer at HP, followed by engineering and managerial positions at other high-tech companies. Her scientific expertise and business acumen drew attention, and she was recruited by Intel Capital, where she led analyses of emerging technologies and advise investors. She has also served on boards for numerous companies and organizations.
In addition to her work in industry, she served in the US government as Under Secretary of Commerce for Technology from 1999 to 2001 (the first female African-American to hold the position) and she works as a Patent Agent for the Department of Commerce.
Dr. Shavers has an international reach, giving talks about technology, business, and policy around the world, but she has also been actively involved in her local community. In addition to serving on the board of directors for the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation, she wrote weekly “Women in Technology” columns for the San Jose Mercury News. As a board member of the Anita Borg Institute, she helps provide STEM opportunities for women and girls. In recognition of her work, Shavers was inducted into the International Women in Technology Hall of Fame in 1996.
Most of the women in science we have featured through WiSE Wednesday have done their work in a laboratory, but not all science occurs indoors, or even above water! On Melissa Cristina Márquez’s CV: NAUI Advanced SCUBA Diver, Night Diver and U/W Environment certifications. These qualifications are crucial for her work as a marine biologist focusing on shark biology and ecology. No doubt she’s spent plenty of time in the halls of academia (she earned a masters in marine biology from the Victoria University of Wellington) but her true passion lives in the field, where she studies chondrichthyans (sharks, skates, rays and chimaeras), with a focus on their conservation. Melissa believes these predators are widely misunderstood, and she is on a mission to help the public see the important roles they play in our oceans and why they need protection.
As an undergraduate at the New College of Florida, Melissa was interested in learning about the chondrichthyans in her local area, but realized there was no book to go to. This didn’t stop her – she decided to write one of her own, self-publishing Sharks, Skates and Rays of Sarasota Bay, Florida. This book is a great addition to academic chondrichthyan research but she knew that, if she wanted to get the fascinating information she learned out to the public, she would have to get creative. She started visiting local schools to teach about sharks and shark conservation, an initiative that blossomed into The Fins United Initiative (TFUI), an international organization whose mission is “to provide easy-to-access information on all sharks and their relatives worldwide through partnerships with educational institutions and other programs.” TFUI “unites fin lovers worldwide” through social media, interactive lessons, educational handouts and more. From humble beginnings in Florida, TFUI has expanded its educational services to all 50 states and over 12 countries, and Melissa has become a scicomm superhero, writing easy-to-read articles about chondrichthyan conservation, giving talks to the public and sharing information on Twitter @mcmsharksxx (check out #SharkSunday!). She is also a strong advocate for women in science, writing #STEMSaturdays blog posts for femSTEM. You can learn more about TFUI at http://www.finsunited.co.nz/tfui-origins.html and more about Melissa’s amazing journey at http://melissacristinamarquez.weebly.com/.