March 8th is International Women’s Day, a global day to recognize and celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. It is also a call to action to reinforce a commitment to women’s equality.
This year, we’re celebrating International Women’s Day by shining a light on the women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) who overcame tremendous odds and paved the way for women and girls in STEM today. While some of the names will be familiar, there are many others whose achievements were overlooked even though they were considered leaders in their fields and made groundbreaking discoveries.
We recommend using this list to engage and inspire your classroom and promote gender equality and equal access to opportunities for everyone in STEM.
In no particular order, here’s our list of influential women in STEM:
1. Marie Curie
As the only woman to win two Nobel Prizes, Marie Curie’s contributions to science are familiar to most. Curie is most famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity and the discovery of two new chemical elements, polonium and radium. Her research found that radium can destroy diseased cells faster than healthy cells and championed using radiation to treat tumours. Curie also promoted the use of X-rays in World War I which enables surgeons to operate on wounded soldiers more accurately.
2. Katherine Johnson
Before calculators and computers, agencies like the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA) relied on people to act as human computers.
Katherine Johnson was one such human computer, and her brilliance in math, especially geometry, made her an invaluable member of the team working on early space exploration. Her work directly contributed to the first man-in-space mission Project Mercury and the moon landing for Apollo 11.
Before passing away at the age of 101, Katherine received the Congressional Gold medal for her significant contributions to space exploration.
3. Inge Lehmann
Scientists in the 1930s believed that the Earth’s metallic core was made of molten liquid, but data from earthquakes had seismologists puzzled. Earthquakes produce two types of waves, and the behaviour of longitudinal P-waves didn’t line up with the belief that the Earth’s core was molten.
Danish seismologist and geophysicist Inge Lehmann developed mathematical models to show that the Earth has a solid inner core and a liquid outer core. The P-waves refract and reflect a solid inner core rather than molten liquid and later computer calculations proved her findings correct.
4. Chien-Shiung Wu
After immigrating to the U.S. from China, Chien-Shiung Wu was recruited to join Columbia University as a senior scientist on the Manhattan Project, a classified government project to develop the first atomic bomb. Her research and experiments identified the process of separating uranium metal through gaseous infusion, which transformed a bomb into an atomic bomb.
In 1956, Wu was approached by theoretical physicists, Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, to develop an experiment to prove a theory of theirs. Her experiment, now known as the “Wu experiment”, ended up proving their theory correct, earning the two theoretical physicists a Nobel Prize in Physics the following year, leaving out her contributions. Wu is now known as the “First Lady of Physics” and the “Chinese Marie Curie”.
5. Mary Anning
Mary Anning was the first person who discovered a complete dinosaur fossil, and she accomplished this at the tender age of 12. In 1811, after her brother discovered a skull, Anning uncovered the rest of the fossilized skeleton of what turned out to be an ichthyosaurus and dating back 200 million years.
In the years following, Anning went on to unearth more complete skeletons and introduced the world to plesiosaurus and pterodactylus fossils. Her contributions to the field of paleontology were during a time when the scientific community was hesitant to recognize the work of women, especially a poor and uneducated woman like herself. Her male counterparts would leave out her name in their scientific papers, even when discussing her groundbreaking ichthyosaur find.
6. Alice Augusta Ball
In the mid-1910s, the chemist Alice Augusta Ball developed the first successful treatment for Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. Prior treatments used oil from the chaulmoogra tree with mixed results, and Ball’s technique, known as the “Ball Method”, made the oil injectable and absorbable by the body. This remained the preferred treatment until sulfonamide drugs were developed in the 1940s.
Due to her untimely death the following year, Ballw as unable to publish her findings, and Arthur L. Dean, the president of the University of Hawaii and a chemist, took credit for her discovery and published the findings as his own.
7. Hedy Lamarr
Born in Austria, Hedy Lamarr was working in Hollywood as an actress when World War II started. She teamed up with George Antheil, a composer for MGM, and the two of them created a new communication system to guide torpedoes to their targets. The system used “frequency hopping” technology to prevent radio waves from enemy interception which became the basis for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS communications systems.
It wasn’t until 1997 that Hedy and George received public recognition for their invention, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation awarding the pair the Pioneer Award. She was the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award and was later inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2014.
8. Marie Maynard Daly
In 1947, Marie Maynard Daly was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in chemistry. Daly was working as a biochemist and researching the biochemistry of cells and helped to discover the link between high cholesterol and clogged arteries, which changed our understanding of heart disease. One of her research papers on histones, which is a type of protein that provides the structural support for a chromosome, contributed to our understanding of the structure of DNA.
9. Grace Hopper
Known as the “Queen of Code”, Grace Hopper was a military leader, mathematician, and computer programmer who helped build one of the world’s earliest computers, Mark I. She also invented the first programming language to use English words rather than binary code, called COBOL.
Hopper is also credited for creating the term “debugging” when the programming team removed a moth that was found to be disrupting the computer’s processing.
10. Ada Lovelace
Augusta Ada King, countess of Lovelace, more popularly known as Ada Lovelace, is considered the first computer programmer. During her friendship with mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage in the 1840s, she wrote extensive notes for an article on his proposed machine called the Analytical Engine. Her notes, three times longer than the article itself, explained the machine’s functions and potential for calculations. Based on her notes and explanations, Lovelace’s writing is considered the first computer program.