Five Women in STEM You Should Know
During Women’s History Month 2017, I shared the stories of some important, but lesser known, women in STEM. This year, I did more research and found five compelling women in STEM whom I’m eager to introduce you to.
Although credited with important discoveries in genetics, cancer research and the polio cure, Henrietta Lacks was not a scientist. Rather, she was a poor, uneducated woman with a remarkable cell line. Her cells were harvested from a cancerous tumor and, unlike other cells, thrived in a lab setting. This opened the way to important new research. That said, Lacks herself passed away from the cancer and she had never given consent for her immortal cell line to be used for research. Henrietta’s family only learned of her important contributions to science recently thanks to a science journalist. Her story creates teachable moments regarding the ethics of STEM work.
You can thank Lynn Conway for the speedy computers we use today. She played a critical role in developing the powerful microelectronic chips that run our computers. She not only reinvented chip architecture at IBM, she reinvented herself. Biologically identified as a boy at birth, she was raised as male. She was fired from her successful role at IBM as she announced her intention to transition to her true gender identity. Lynn had to relaunch her career as a low-level contractor, but her brilliance shined through. She went on to become an early player in Silicon Valley’s burgeoning tech scene in the early 1980s and played a key role at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). She later wrote a book that’s been called the Bible for chip designers and she taught in more than 100 college engineering programs.
Of all STEM majors, women are most underrepresented in physics (as well as engineering and computer science). You can imagine, then, that the number of Native American women who receive physics degrees is quite small. (Actually, you don’t need to imagine. Check out this old data.) Rosyln LaPier is a member of the Blackfeet Indian tribe. She also hold a PhD in environmental history and works as an ethnobotanist. She combines the traditional knowledge of her tribe members with an academic study of the environment. You may have heard her name in 2017 when she was one of the organizers of the March for Science.
Although the idea of an astronomer peering at the cosmos through a telescope is an old-fashioned one, we still assume that astronomical discoveries rely on visual clues. Wanda Diaz-Merced proves that assumption wrong. A passionate astrophysicist, she is also blind. After losing her sight, she came up with the idea of translating data points into audible signals instead of visual ones. With her team’s help, she was able to make this a reality and she now advocates for greater accessibility in STEM fields, in addition to doing her own scientific research.
Jedidah Isler was the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in in Astrophysics from Yale. Her academic and research work focuses on blazars, “supermassive, hyperactive black holes.” She is also well-known for her advocacy work to inspire a diverse new generation of STEM leaders. Along those lines, check out her live monthly web series, Vanguard: Conversation with Women of Color in STEM.
As educators and parents, we are mentors and role models. We must not let issues of poverty, race, ethnicity, physical ability, or gender identity prevent our students from pursuing STEM careers. Learn more about women, minorities and people with disabilities in Science and Engineering in this 2017 National Science Foundation report.