Women who STEM powered their dreams

February 11, 2021

They all had a dream. And it led them to ignore ground reality.

These women of substance are not the usual one line-clinchers. They talk deep and question deeper. Physics, chemistry, math, bio-sciences, psychology and neuro-sciences are their respective arenas. While they work out groundbreaking theories or deduce new formulae to compute faster, what they actually wrestle with are gender stereotypes. Being a tall figure in what still remains a “man’s domain,” STEM, these women are every reason to believe: If you want to, you can.

The UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, aimed at celebrating women leaders in STEM, is a clear message from the world body that STEM avenues are now more open than ever before for women. This benchmark date attempts to slowly but surely fade out the unconscious bias nurturing gender inequality.

The age-old yoke that women must gravitate towards career options that allow a domestic routine as well, needs to be eroded. These, of course, are deep-rooted ideas embossed on the collective consciousness of successive milieus and will therefore take another set of successive milieus to delete forever. The silver lining is that change is underway.

We list below 12 inspiring women achievers who are reasons to STEM like a girl.

 

Linda B. Buck
(1947)

American Biologist

(Nobel Prize in Medicine (2004) for her work in the olfactory process)

Linda Buck is every reason to believe that one must have a distinctive nose for something.

“As a woman in science, I sincerely hope that my receiving a Nobel Prize will send a message to young women everywhere that the doors are open to them and that they should follow their dreams.”

Apart from being a puzzle-solver in childhood days, nothing about Buck suggested how life would unfold. In 1965, she enrolled for an undergrad psychology course at the University of Washington. Not sure of her choice, she took time to travel as college was happening in bouts and phases. A lecture in immunobiology sparked her interest and in 1975, 10 years after she enrolled, Buck graduated with a BS in microbiology and psychology.

Thereon, a PhD in immunology at the Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, led her to further trail the scent of what her brain thought was the ultimate puzzle.

“How could humans and mammals detect over 10,000 odorous chemicals and how could nearly identical chemicals generate different odor perceptions?”

— Buck stated post the Nobel honor.

The research took her to Columbia and to Richard Axel, a neuroscientist, working on the molecular structure in the nervous system of sea-snails. Three years of hard work led them to publish a paper in 1991 which established the 1,000 olfactory receptors in mice versus 350 such receptors in humans.

But she wanted to delve deeper to understand how does the brain relate a particular experience or memory to a specified smell and in turn how does that memory live the transient smell again or trigger attraction and aversion.

This time the light was focussed on the brain’s olfactory cortex. Years of hard work backed by tonnes of research papers led her to a full-time position at Harvard in 2001. In 2004, Axel and she were jointly awarded the Nobel for their work in understanding the olfactory receptors.

 

Donna Strickland
(1959)

Canadian Physicist

(Nobel Prize in Physics (2018) for developing Chirped Pulse Amplification)

Donna Strickland says she studied lasers as a Freshman at McMasters University, Ontario, because “lasers sound cool.” One of the three women in a class of 25 to have graduated in Physics in 1981, Strickland almost lived her mother’s dream. Way back in the 1940s, when her mother expressed her aptitude for the sciences as a university course, she was strongly dissuaded. Why?

Because “women are better served by taking arts.” Strickland is the third woman to have received the Nobel in physics. Her award came 55 years after Maria Goepert Mayer, whom Strickland referred to as “he” in her thesis and now laughs at her own ignorance. But even more, sneers at the ingrained gender inequity… for all serious stuff, a man it is.

Strickland went on to the University of Rochester, New York, to pursue a doctorate under Gérard Mourou, who was working on ultra-short high-intensity laser pulses.

“It is the one time in my life that I worked very, very hard!”

Together, the duo published their Nobel-winning research in 1985 and paved the way for the most intense laser pulses ever created. The study finds application in laser eye surgeries, machining of small glass parts used in smartphones, medical imaging and presents an entirely new spectrum into cancer studies.

Interestingly, even though she earned herself a PhD in Optics in 1989, a full-time job did not come her way till eight long years. Her scientific explanation for this unscientific trend is the “two-body problem.”

In an interview to nobelprize.org, Strickland explained that in a marriage between two academics, the unspoken principle is that women must put their career on the back-burner. She moved along with her Physicist husband Doug Dykaar wherever his work took him. Eventually in 1997, she was hired by the University of Waterloo.

 

May-Britt Moser
(1963)

Norwegian Psychologist and Neuroscientist

(Nobel Prize in Medicine (2014) for discovery of grid cells in the brain by which animals are able to navigate their environment)

May-Britt Moser comes from Hans Christian Andersen’s region and her childhood seems like a page out of a fairy-tale. Born in the small island town of Fosnavåg in west Norway, Moser does have the Elsa-Anna look. Only that, even as a little girl, she liked studying a snail’s behavior or watching the sheep on the farm for hours to understand what goes on in their minds as opposed to flitting about with butterflies or feeding squirrels.

“My father worked as a carpenter and my mother was a homemaker,” she reports, adding: “The one thing I did learn was that work keeps us happy”

After her under graduation in psychology at the University of Oslo, which she and her future-husband Edvard completed together. The duo notched a Master’s thesis mentored by the acclaimed Terje Sagvolden and Per Andersen. Rats, water-mazes, lesions, hippocampus, dorsal and ventral brain…. this was their world till their thesis was published in The Journal of Neuroscience .

This watershed moment brought the young couple much limelight in academia and also the force to persist in their study of the brain. Funding for two PhDs, marriage and two girls along the way, they kept going with university grants in London and Edinburgh.

Nothing was allowed to come in the way of their study to unravel cognitive processes (such as memory) and spatial deficits associated with human neurological conditions such as Alzheimer disease. Finally, in 2005, they arrived at what they were looking for! Grid cells in the brain that govern our understanding of spaces and directions and how we navigate our environment.

In several interviews, Moser recalls her school teachers who were crucial in encouraging “female students” to live their dream. At that time, all she wanted to be was a doctor and travel abroad.

To her credit, Moser is today a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Her theory is the guiding principle for many doctors. She travels across the world as a luminary in her field.

 

Cynthia Breazeal
(1967)

Roboticist and Professor at MIT

(Known for pioneering social robots and working on artificial intelligence)

Cynthia Breazeal is the archetypal gizmo queen. Armed with technical expertise, she works on secret life codes that breathe artificial intelligence into machines! Simply put, she creates robots which respond to the environment around them.

Star Wars with its iconic R2D2 and C3PO left an indelible impression on the mind of 10-year-old Breazeal. She went on to a postgraduate program in space robotics at MIT in 1992. Led by renowned roboticist Rodney Brooks, they focused on building small robots to work in the farthest reaches of space without direct human guidance.

Almost living her childhood dream, Breazeal threw herself into the subject but the focus came in 1997 after NASA landed a robot in space. And here she realized that motor skills-adept robots would remain servile to human commands till an emotional quotient is ingrained into their intelligence.

That is where her story really begins. Breazeal went on to create Kismet , the first humanoid robot to sense and respond to human feelings and emotions. Thereon, came Autom , which helps people stick to their diets and Aida , the driving assistant. And then the acclaimed Jibo , the family robot that functions as a member. All available at retail prices.

The lingering question if robots will ever find practical application is answered by statistics and changing needs. Ageing population, nuclear to monochrome set-ups and the world having gone through a virtual year, Breazeal’s concept of robots as adapting to and supplementing human needs may just be the next big thing.

 

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
(1943)

British Astrophysicist and Astronomer

(Known for discovering space-based Pulsars)

“You do not have to learn lots and lots. You just learn a few key things, and then you can apply and build and develop from those. He was a really good teacher and showed me how easy Physics was.”

— Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her physics teacher, Mr Tillott.

Had Mr Tillott not entered young Burnell’s life, it would perhaps have taken an entirely different route.

Born in Northern Ireland to a family of Quakers, Burnell’s parents were progressive and protested for an overturn of the local school’s policy which clearly delineated a curriculum for girls and boys. In the 1940s, cooking, baking and cross-stitching were among the core essentials of girls’ curriculum.

Her father, an architect, who helped design the Armagh Planetarium, and his library of books on astronomy sparked an early interest in Burnell. However, she did not fare well in academics and failed the high school entrance exams.

Undeterred, her parents sent her to a Quaker Boarding School in England. That little belief and encouragement in their daughter’s abilities made all the difference. In 1965, she graduated with a degree in physics.

The following year saw her pursue Radio Astronomy at Cambridge University. As a part of a team of students and researchers, she helped design a massive radio telescope to monitor quasars. Burnell was thereon assigned to analyze the recorded data. She noticed some anomalies in the usual quasar pattern and took her jottings to thesis advisor Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle.

The finding was a discovery! Over the next few months and in collaboration with Hewish, they were able to establish “neutron stars,” fast spinning stars too small to form Black Holes but nonetheless the ones that emit high frequency radio waves. The new entity was labelled, Pulsars. Undeniably, the pioneer remained Burnell. But what followed was sheer gender bias towards recognizing a woman’s achievement.

In 1968, Nature , published the findings. Six years later, in 1974, only Hewish and Ryle received the Nobel Prize for their work. “Student” Burnell’s work was overlooked. Many still await the fifty-year wait to open the archives to understand what went through the Nobel Awards Committee in deciding the year’s winners. Come January 2024, and being a woman would have proved another point. Even in Nobel circles.

 

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi
(1947)

French Virologist

(Nobel Prize in Medicine (2008) for discovery of the HIV which made possible anti-AIDS medication and management)

“We are not making science for science. We are making science for the benefit of humanity.”

— Françoise Barré-Sinoussi in the 1980s

Barré-Sinoussi words rang true in 2020 when all of humanity was left at the mercy of scientific research for a possible vaccine to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic.

Born in Paris, it was her summers spent in the idyllic countryside that shaped the mind to be. “I could spend hours just watching the smallest insects. ” Barré-Sinoussi liked to observe, record and deduce.

So, enrolling in the bio-medical science program at the University of Paris at 19 was more a calling of the heart. However, mere lectures did not interest her and she often bunked class to work at the Pasteur Institute. It was an active zone with Jean-Claude Chermann studying retroviruses in mice.

Barré-Sinoussi was awarded PhD in 1974 for a paper in retrovirology research. And this, after being dissuaded by a senior mentor: “A woman in science, they never do anything. They are only good at caring for the home and babies. Forget this dream.”

Years later in several interviews, this gritty face has been recorded saying:

“Thank God I had a dream.”

Perhaps it let her ignore the reality. After a brief stint at the National Institute of Health in the US, Barré-Sinoussi returned to join the lab with Luc Montagnier in Paris. Sometime in 1982, a “new alarming epidemic” targeting homosexual men was rattling medics and virologists across the world. It was here that her work gained momentum.

A fortnight later, Francoise and her team isolated the rogue. What was later labelled as HIV, her identification led to blood tests to detect the infection and to anti-retroviral drugs. AIDS was no longer a death sentence. The Luc-Francoise jury overturned the penalty into a chronic malaise.

Barré-Sinoussi continues to study possible cures for AIDS. Over a dozen national and international awards for her crusade in HIV research, she heads a lab for anti-retroviral therapy at Pasteur Institute.

— Quotes taken from mosiacscience.com.

 

Ana Caraini
(1985)

Romanian-American Mathematician

(Research subjects include algebraic number theory and Langlands program)

While Romania scores high with more women than men in gymnastics, the tally is a gross reverse in mathematics. Ana Caraini is only the second woman apart from Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea to have vaulted high in math.

In 2001, when Caraini was 16, she came into the limelight when she bagged the silver medal at the International Mathematics Olympiad. For Romania, this accolade came after 25 years.

The following two years saw her bag gold medals. After high school, she took the Bucharest-Princeton route that most Math wizards from her country took. While still an undergrad, she won the Putnam Fellow Mathematical Competition twice. Again, she was noticed as the only woman to have notched the laurel more than once.

The degree in 2007 came with an undergraduate thesis in Galois representations. Thereon, a doctorate from Harvard in 2012 and awards and recognitions were just a matter of time. Caraini bagged the Whitehead Prize of the London Mathematical Society in 2017 and emerged one of the winners at the European Mathematical Society in 2020.

Caraini is a “to watch out for” the Fields Medal. The only other woman to have been conferred the honor was Maryam Mirzakhani in 2014.

 

Uma Chowdhry
(1947)

American Chemist

(Specializes in the science of ceramic materials and polymer technology)

Born and brought up in Mumbai, Uma Chowdhry graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Bombay in 1968. Like most bright Indian kids, it was the US calling for higher studies.

All set to take on nuclear physics, Chowdhry’s preference changed allegiance and she took on Chemistry instead. After graduating from the University of California in 1970, she worked for a brief stint at the Ford Motor Company. Driven by a mind keen to explore, she went on to earn a PhD in materials science from MIT in 1976.

Chowdhry joined the chemical giant, DuPont, in 1977 as a research scientist. An interdisciplinary field, materials science draws on the principles of physics, chemistry, metallurgy and engineering to create performance-efficient materials or improve upon existing options.

She focused chemistry on ceramics, a known non-conductor of electricity. She researched and developed ceramics that conduct electricity even better than metals do.

“I had the courage to dream the impossible,” is how she summed up her feat.

This superconductor found potential uses in computers, batteries, and other electrical devices. The technologies she contributed to at DuPont are now a part of electronic packaging, photovoltaics, batteries, biofuel, and many sustainable products that fundamentally change the way we use everyday things.

Picking up awards and publishing papers on newer findings became the norm for quest-driven Chowdhry. It was just a matter of time that she was promoted to the management at DuPont, a position which she held for 33 years till her retirement in 2010.

Kudos to this researcher and woman business leader for living up STEM possibilities in corporate sectors.

 

Persis Drell
(1955)

American Physicist

(Best known for her expertise in Particle Physics)

Persis Drell grew up on the Stanford campus in one of the original 12 homes built for the faculty by Leland Stanford. Her father, Dr Sidney Drell, was a famous physicist of his times and their home, often a brainstorming hub with like-minded luminaries dropping-in.

“I never did anything by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work.”

Interestingly, Drell scored low in math and physics in school. But that did not deter her. A bright kid and with academic support at home, she went on to graduate in the same two subjects from Wellesley College.

“I owe a lot to Professor Phyllis Fleming. She inspired me to pursue physics. I took every course Miss Fleming taught.”

Poised on the springboard of an accomplishment was just the jumping point into further depths. A PhD in atomic physics and thereon postdoctoral work in high-energy physics from Berkeley National Laboratory followed suit.

Her career mapped its way from a teaching role at Cornell to administration at Stanford in 2002 and eventually in 2014, she was named dean of Stanford School of Engineering. She was the first woman to have ever held that post. In 2017, she became Provost at Stanford.

Dr Drell is known for her questions. On public forums, she has often debated on “urgent versus interesting” research. To her credit, Stanford changed from being a solely high-energy-physics-focused enterprise to a leader in multiple scientific disciplines. It was under her stewardship that the Linac Coherent Light Source, the world’s first X-Ray free-electron laser, came online.

Today researchers are using it to formulate better blood pressure drugs, study crystal formation and shockwaves in diamond.

 

Rita Levi Montalcini
(1909-2012)

Italian Neurobiologist

(Nobel Prize in Medicine (1986) for discovery of nerve growth factor NGF)

Rita Levi Montalcini must have had nerves of steel to steal her own way with nerves. When asked by Scientific American in 1988, why she became a scientist, she answered:

“The love for nerve cells, a thirst for unveiling the rules which control their growth and differentiation, and the pleasure of performing this task in defiance of the racial laws issued in 1939 by the Fascist regime were the driving forces.”

When Montalcini died at the age of 103, she was a veritable tome. All rolled into her were annals of history and aerial bombardments, chronicles of culture and racial persecution, fleeing through conflict-stricken geographical boundaries as opposed to modern-day countries and, of course, the story of being a Jewish girl growing up only to raise her own family.

As a teenager, Montalcini admired Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf and wanted to become an author. In her autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection, she writes how seeing a close family friend lose life to cancer, changed it all. The University of Turin Medical School happened only after a persistent fight with her Jewish background.

The university course brought Montalcini under the wings of neuro-histologist Giuseppe Levi and helped the young student clearly identify her stream — the nervous system. When she graduated in 1936, the then Italian education system did not require a Masters or PhD. She was now a certified MD who chose to remain Levi’s assistant at the university.

However, two years later, Mussolini’s 1938 Manifesto of Race clipped the young researcher’s aspirations. Laws barring Jews from academic and professional careers were strictly enforced.

Did Montalcini give up? No.

She was barred from working at the laboratory. But the laboratory could always work at home! In her autobiography again, Montalcini pens the narrative of looking around for eggs to “feed her little ones at home.” No one would ever suspect that a woman would cycle the heavily-Nazi police patrolled streets looking for eggs to carry out experiments at home.

With such grit and determination, little wonder then that after World War II, Montalcini went to the University of Washington in St. Louis. There she isolated and identified the “nerve growth factor,” a discovery which earned her and research partner Stanley Cohen the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Montalcini’s discovery elucidated how embryonic nerve cells grow into a totally developed nervous system and, in general, how a damaged nervous system could be repaired.

 

Sandra Faber
(1944)

American Astronomer

(Credited with establishing that the brightness of galaxies is related to speed of stars within. Also, co-designed the Keck telescope. Sandra Faber’s studies are a key to tackling global warming and conservation of earth)

As a young adult, the only thing Faber was sure about was learning where the universe came from. The formation of galaxies and the jig of many such fast-circling entities fitting into the structure of the universe is what she wanted to unravel. A passionate cosmologist even as a child, Faber recalls reading and spending summers in a worthwhile hands-on learning experience.

Much later, in 1972, she went on to complete a PhD from Harvard specializing in Optical Observational Astronomy. Later that year, she found herself as a faculty at Lick Observatory at the University of California, thereby becoming the first woman on staff.

This was a turning point because hence far, she was confused about:

“How could a woman be a scientist. A high school science teacher was just as far women could go…. And a woman scientist in the 1940s and 1950s, was a single woman. I was confused.”

But once enabled with the position, Faber took her dreams higher. To observe space, one needed the tools and funds. Her credibility was fast picking up with the many research papers published and at seminars where she delivered lectures.

In 1983, Faber’s original research negated previously held notions of “dark matter” being composed of fast-moving neutrons. Grants from NASA and National Science Foundations kept the work going.

Mastering the techniques of observational recording, data collection and fine calibrating a computer to meet the requirements of her work, Faber spearheaded the construction of the Keck telescope in Hawaii in 1985. Alongside, in the same year, fundamentals worked out by her were used in building the first wide-field planetary camera for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Awarded with many national and international awards, Faber was honored with the National Medal for Science by President Obama in 2013.

 

Barbara Liskov
(1939)

American Computer Scientist

(Pioneering computer languages and system design)

Ever wonder how net banking works? Or how do systems in the office orchestrate many devices into one large hub? The world owes a big thank you to Barbara Liskov who developed the language of veritable computer communities.

If Charles Babbage is the father of the modern-day computers, Liskov is undeniably the one who made possible its infinite uses. Without specialized coded languages Argus, CLU and Thor, desktops would have remained mere sophisticated office filing systems to store, compute and retrieve data.

In 1961, when Liskov earned an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from Berkeley, she was the only woman in a class full of men. Keen on studying further, she applied to Princeton and Harvard.

Interestingly, at that time, Princeton was not accepting women in math. Though accepted at Berkeley, she went on to work for a year at Mitre Corporation and returned to a programming job at Harvard.

By now, Liskov recognized her forte was the coded world of computer languages. Keen on learning more, in 1968 she became the first woman in the United States to have earned a PhD in computer sciences.

The thesis on chess-endgames was mentored by John McCarthy. In 1971, she was offered a faculty position at MIT, which she holds till date. Publisher of over 100 papers on technical subjects, the A.M. Turing Award came her way in 2008. Liskov was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2012.

About Author
Farah Hussain is a trained teacher, who had a stint as a features writer before settling at the newsdesk as a copy editor. She likes words and wordplay. Having lived in different cities across India, the dynamics of regional culture, tossed in geopolitics of the state is what she likes to follow. She likes to keep a tab on news, enjoys cooking and gardening.

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