As we at WiSE experienced firsthand teaching neuroscience to Girl Scouts last summer, sharing the joys of science with children can be an immensely rewarding experience for the teachers and an exciting, even inspirational, experience for the participants. Thanks to this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Girl Scouts across the US are being introduced to chemistry at a young age and earning a merit badge in the process.
Betty Harris was born in 1940 in Louisiana. After earning an BS in chemistry from Southern University and MS in chemistry from Atlanta University, she taught chemistry and math for ten years before continuing her own graduate studies. She earned a PhD in chemistry from the University of New Mexico, then worked as a research chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. While there, she performed diverse hazardous material research, developing methods to de-contaminate hazardous waste sites, synthesize safer explosives, and detect trace amounts of explosives (she received a patent for a test used at crime scenes). Having spent time in academia and governmental research, she next set her sights on industry, becoming chief of chemical technology for Solar Turbine Incorporated (STI). At STI she managed research on a different type of investigation – the case of the corroding gas turbine engines – the culprits turned out to be sulfuric acid & soot). She then returned to government service, finishing her career with eleven years as a certified document review at the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Classification, where she helped determine what DOE information should be classified and what could be released.
Harris has been a strong advocate for comprehensive STEM education, and thanks to her work with the Girl Scouts, girls are learning first-hand that chemistry is fun and exciting, not boring or scary!
Photo credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory
Isabella Karle (1921-2017). Last month we lost another great woman in science, crystallographer Isabella L. Karle, who helped develop methods to determine the structure of biological molecules. Isabella was born in Detroit in 1921 and received a PhD in chemistry from the University of Michigan, where forced alphabetical seating in a class led her to meet her future husband, Jerome. During WWII Karle worked on the Manhattan Project before joining Jerome at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Southwest Washington in 1946.
At the NRL’s Laboratory for the Structure of Matter, the Karles performed revolutionary work. Jerome and mathematician Herbert Hauptman formulated a theoretical technique, “direct methods,” that would dramatically reduce the amount of time required to determine the structure of molecules. While Jerome and Herbert did most of the theoretical work, Isabella made the theoretical possible, teaching herself crystallography and devising ways (including her influential “Symbolic Addition Procedure”) to apply “direct methods” to actually solve structures. Without Isabella, “direct methods” were purely theoretical and therefore met with skepticism; her success in translating the complex mathematics into atomic-resolution structures allowed the technique to gain widespread recognition. It has since been used to help solve tens of thousands of structures, aiding in drug development as well as basic research.
Jerome and Hauptman were awarded the 1985 Nobel Prize in chemistry – an award we might add that can be shared three-way… (Jerome himself was devastated that Isabella was looked over). Nevertheless, Isabella did receive other honors, including the National Medal of Science bestowed upon her by Bill Clinton in 1995. Karle and her husband retired in 2009, after a combined 127 years of service.
Throughout her life, Karle faced gender discrimination. In high school, a female chemistry teacher helped fuel her scientific ambitions, allowing her to push aside criticism from other teachers including one who told her that chemistry was not an appropriate subject for women. Karle sure proved that teacher wrong, going on to have a long, incredibly successful career in science and serving as an inspiration for women around the world as well as within her own household (her three daughters are all scientists). Karle died of brain cancer October 3, and her death has been deeply felt.
Photo Credit: Naval Research Laboratory
This special WiSE Wednesday, we revisit one of our past honorees as she visits us! Jane Richardson is a true “Renaissance Woman;” born in New Jersey in 1941, her highly productive career has included work in the areas of astronomy, philosophy, biophysics, art, and computational biology (just to name a few). As a biophysicist and structural biologist, she worked with her husband, David Richardson, to solve some of the first protein structures. Jane knew that these structures held key information about how the proteins worked, but the high concentration of atoms in the models made them hard for a specialist, let alone an outsider, to interpret. Therefore, she began drawing representations of these structures that highlighted just the major structural features. These so-called ribbon diagrams not only enabled those outside of the biophysical field to appreciate structural biology, but also allowed researchers to identify structures that were conserved between different proteins. This had major implications for understanding the function and evolution of these molecules.
She made her original diagrams by hand - it was fascinating to hear her discuss the care she took to get the details right, including wrapping mailing tubes in tape to see what helixes look like from different angles. This painstaking work has given her an unbeatable talent for moving seamlessly between 2D and 3D computer graphical representations, a talent she has graciously shared freely with the public (she uploads her work, open license, to WikiMedia Commons and she is proud to have convinced the RCSB PDB to make their “Molecule of the Month” graphics similarly accessible).
Jane is still an active scientist today in her lab at Duke University, where her many projects include developing software to aid in the solving of molecular structures. One such piece of software, MolProbity, uses knowledge of the biophysical properties of molecules to allow structural biologists to locate and fix problems in their models. While some may debate over the benefits of science versus the humanities, Jane Richardson shows that the two are not mutually exclusive – in fact, they can be quite complementary. This was reflected in a great piece of inspiration she left us with: "There's no such thing as photorealism for macromolecules - so we're free to seek the best alternative representations."
In a room dominated by men, Jane could sure hold her own, answering questions and offering insights with a brightness of mind and wit. It was a great honor to meet her.
There are some scientists who can capture an entire room; one such person is this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Dr. Joan Steitz, whose enthusiasm for science I had the honor of witnessing this past weekend. As one of the key figures in research of mRNA splicing, she visited Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as co-organizer of a special meeting: 40 years of mRNA splicing: from discovery to therapeutics.
40 years ago, it was discovered that, unlike bacterial proteins, which are coded for by uninterrupted DNA sequences, eukaryotic proteins have more complicated instructions, containing regulatory regions called introns that have to be removed to produce the final messenger RNA (mRNA) that gets translated into protein. Steitz discovered complexes of protein and RNA called small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) that carry out this process (termed splicing). Furthermore, she found that the RNA in these snRNPs bound to complementary sequences at splice-site junctions, providing an explanation for splicing specificity. These are just a couple of her many landmark discoveries, but she never expected to become the “science superstar” she is.
Steitz was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After receiving an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, she planned to enter medical school. Wanting to pursue her love of science, she saw medical school as an “available” option for a woman, whereas, not seeing any female scientific professors, she saw academia as a men’s domain. However, after a research experience the summer before she was due to start at Harvard Medical School, she determined that the lack of women in science shouldn’t keep her from seeking a research career. She transferred her acceptance from Harvard Med to Harvard’s biochemistry graduate program, where she was the only woman in the class and faced gender discrimination (one professor refused to take her on in his lab reasoning that it would be a waste of his time to train a woman who’d just leave and start a family). After a postdoc at the University of Cambridge in England, Joan and her husband (and fellow biochemist) Thomas took positions at Yale, where they remain to this day, and Joan continues to research the many roles RNA plays in cells. Joan has received many honors including a National Medal of Science and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator.
Hearing Steitz talk, you would never imagine that, as a college student, she doubted she had the enthusiasm for research required for the demands of life as a scientist. And, knowing about her decades of success at Yale, it’s heartening as an insecure grad student to learn that she had trouble picturing herself as a professor (let alone one whom starstruck grad students would be asking to take a picture with). In addition to being an amazing scientist, Steitz is a strong champion for women in science, advocating for resources including flexible childcare options. It was an honor to meet her.
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