Despite the many challenges encountered by women in the scientific world, there are those who withstood the tests and changed the future of the modern world.
While the STEM fields continue to be plagued by gender biases, the world is privileged to enjoy the benefits of these brilliant minds. From ancient Chinese medicine, women had made significant contributions to science, devising life-altering inventions and producing breakthrough research.
As a pharmacology student, Youyou studied medicinal plant classification, how to extract active ingredients and determine their chemical structures. Early in her career she spent years in the rainforests of South China, studying the devastating consequences of malaria and ancient medical texts about traditional Chinese treatments for the disease.
After years of research, Youyou and her team found a reference to sweet wormwood, used in China around 400 AD to treat intermittent fevers, a symptom of malaria. They extracted the active compound, artemisinin, tested it and published their findings. Today the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends artemisinin combination therapy as the first line of defence against malaria.
In 2015, Youyou and two colleagues were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, making her the first Chinese Nobel laureate of this category and the first Chinese woman to receive a Nobel Prize in any category.
Kiara Nirghin the 19-year old winner of the global 2016 Google Science Fair, created a super absorbent polymer which can retain over 100 times its mass, revolutionising water conservation and sustaining crops through periods of drought. It is low-cost and biodegradable, made of orange peels and avocado skins.
From South Africa (SA), Nirghin’s journey led her to the speaker’s podium at the United Nations (UN) Observance of International Women’s Day in 2019. Her discovery has all the makings of erasing food insecurity.
She continues her research and studies at the University of Stanford in the USA and advocates for young girls to pursue their STEM interests, lending her voice to UN Women’s I am Generation Equality campaign.
Katherine Johnson WAS a mathematician whose calculations had been essential to U.S. space exploration. As a NASA scientist, she calculated trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths used to fly the first U.S. astronauts into space and Earth’s orbit.
Despite facing discrimination because of her race and gender, she was the first African-American woman to attend her graduate school and one of few African-American women to work on the NASA space program. Until her death in 2020, at 101 years old, Johnson was a steadfast proponent of women and girls in STEM.
“Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing,” Katherine Johnson (at age 101)
Marie Curie was a physicist and chemist whose radioactivity research laid the foundation for modern nuclear science, from X-rays to radiotherapy for treating cancer. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and the first person of any gender to win two Nobel Prizes in different sciences.
Curie attended university in her native Poland and received her Doctorate from the University of Paris. Working with her husband, they discovered two radioactive elements, polonium and radium. She also founded a medical research institute in Warsaw and invented mobile X-ray units which helped more than one million wounded soldiers in World War I.
Curie was unaware of the risks of her research. She died of a radiation-related illness, but her discoveries continue to save lives today. Her legacy continues to inspire women and girls in STEM today.
Marcia Barbosa is a Brazilian physicist known for her research on the complex structures of the water molecule. She is also known for the development of a series of models of water’s properties to improve our understanding of how earthquakes occur, proteins fold, cleaner energy is generated and diseases are treated.
In addition to her remarkable research, Barbosa is committed to levelling the playing field for women and girls in STEM. She had organised a number of conferences for women in physics, authored papers on geographic and gender diversity in science and taught seminars on the lack of women in the field. In 2013, she was awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science
Segenet Kelemu, aplant pathologist in Ethiopia’s cutting-edge research is dedicated to helping smallholder farmers grow more food and rise out of poverty.
Despite being raised in an impoverished area, she had one dream and that was to go to university. Following that dream through hardship, her success in her studies let her back to Africa to lead a new generation of scientists.
“I think investment in African agriculture, in African research is actually investment for mankind as a whole”- Segenet Kelemu
Kelemu was awarded a L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science in 2014, named one of the 100 most influential African women by Forbes Africa and elected as a Fellow of The World Academy of Sciences in 2015.
Growing up in war-torn Tehran, Maryam Mirzakhani dreamed of becoming a writer. In high school she discovered her talent for mathematics which captured her creativity and intellect for the rest of her life.
In 1994, Mirzakhani became the first female Iranian student to win the gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad, scoring 41 out of 42 points returning the next year to win with a perfect score.
With a PhD from Harvard University, she became a leading scholar on the dynamics and geometry of complex surfaces. In 2014, she became the first female winner of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics.
Mirzakhani passed away in 2017, but her invaluable contributions to the maths field live on and her trailblazing career had paved the way for many women mathematicians.