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5 Female Scientists You Should Know

Actress Mary Anderson as ancient mathematician Hypatia
Actress Mary Anderson as ancient mathematician Hypatia
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The U.S. Commerce Department launched an investigation in 2011 into a career pattern among women that didn't quite add up. Despite women making up 48 percent of the U.S. workforce as of 2009, they claimed only 24 percent of jobs in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- fields [source: Beede et al.]. Moreover, that 24 percent figure didn't budge from 2000 to 2009, meaning that STEM industries, although they typically pay more than non-STEM sectors, hadn't attracted any more women into the fold.

How to increase the number of women pursuing STEM careers is a qualitative and quantitative problem that has puzzled experts and academics for years now. Although 50 percent of science and engineering graduate students are women, implying intellectual interest in science and math among young women, they tend to drop out of STEM after turning their tassels [source: National Science Foundation]. For that reason, some prominent female scientists and mathematicians today have argued for greater visibility of established STEM women to serve as role models for future female generations [source: Francl]. After all, one of the earliest big names in mathematics was a woman.

Born around A.D. 350 in Alexandria, Egypt, Hypatia was the daughter of Alexandrian Museum president Theon of Alexandria [source: Deakin]. Hypatia followed in her father's intellectual footsteps, excelling in mathematics and astronomy. In her adulthood, she became a prominent mathematics, astronomy and philosophy instructor and possibly contributed to Ptolemy's "Almagest" text that outlined his Earth-centered model of the universe [source: Zielinski].

All the five female scientists you'll meet have left behind significant legacies like Hypatia. From a centenarian brain expert to a mistress of Voltaire, each has an incredible story, driven by insatiable curiosity about science, math and the invisible elements that bind everything together.

Emilie du Châtelet
Emilie du Châtelet, the mathematician who happened to have a famous lover
Emilie du Châtelet, the mathematician who happened to have a famous lover
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Although best known in popular history as Voltaire’s mistress, the French genius accomplished far more than wooing the Enlightenment thinker. Born Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil in 1706, she took advantage of her family’s wealth to pay for private mathematics and linguistics instructors. In her adulthood, the married du Châtelet focused her mathematical explorations on the concept of energy and what comprises it. In the late 17th century, Isaac Newton had proposed that an object’s energy equaled the product of its mass and velocity, or speed. One of du Châtelet’s best-known accomplishments was translating Newton’s hefty tome “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” from Latin into her native French. Studying the revolutionary text alongside Voltaire, du Châtelet confirmed that the velocity in the energy equation should be squared.

Her research proved instrumental in 1905 when Albert Einstein derived the mass-energy equivalence formula, e=mc². By the time Einstein began tinkering with his signature formula, physicists had already adopted the square of speed when calculating an object’s moving energy, thanks in large part to the theoretical groundwork established by du Châtelet. Therefore, in that landmark equation, though “c” stands for the speed of light, the understanding to square the speed of light traces directly back to du Châtelet’s prior work [source: Bodanis]. No wonder Voltaire wrote of his mistress, who would die after childbirth at the age of 40, “She has a genius that is rare/ Worthy of Newton, I do swear” [source: Weingarten].

Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin's research was instrumental in discovering DNA's double helix.
Rosalind Franklin's research was instrumental in discovering DNA's double helix.
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Chemist Rosalind Franklin began her short-lived scientific career studying coal and ended it researching the anatomy of viruses, but her major -- and most controversial -- contribution came while she was trying to decipher the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Although the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for discovering the DNA double helix structure, they may not have claimed that victory without the aid of Franklin's work [source: NPR].

Born in 1920, Franklin wanted to be a scientist from a young age, but it was considered a male-only occupation at the time. However, her persistence and intelligence won out, and Franklin landed a research assistant position at King's College in London after earning her doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge University. The King's College laboratory focused on decoding DNA, and Franklin went to work photographing fine strands of it using X-ray diffraction, a technique that creates structural images by bouncing X-rays off molecules.

Tense relations between Franklin and her lab mate, Maurice Wilkins, ultimately allowed Watson and Crick to leap ahead in the DNA race. Without Franklin's knowledge, Wilkins showed the diffraction photos to Watson, providing a crucial clue to unraveling the double helix arrangement. In 1953, Watson and Crick published their landmark DNA paper in the journal Nature, and Franklin never received any recognition for her fateful contribution. In fact, the only DNA praise given to Franklin has come posthumously, since she died of ovarian cancer at age 37.

Lise Meitner
Physicist Lise Meitner with her research partner Otto Hahn
Physicist Lise Meitner with her research partner Otto Hahn
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Physicist Lise Meitner, also known as the "mother of the atomic bomb," was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1878 [source: San Diego Supercomputer Center]. After studying physics at the University of Vienna, Meitner teamed up with Max Planck and Otto Hahn to research radioactivity. In 1918, Hahn and Meitner, who would continue their collaboration for years afterward, discovered the element protactinium. Then, in 1923, Meitner deduced the Auger effect, when an atom spontaneously drops one or two electrons in order to stabilize itself [source: Atomic Archive]. The process is named, however, for French physicist Pierre Auger, who identified the atomic reaction two years later, marking the first of Meitner's scientific accomplishments that would be blatantly overlooked.

As her career developed, Europe became politically radioactive, erupting in World War II, which sent Meitner packing for Stockholm after Germany annexed Austria in 1938. By that point, Meitner was experimenting with tossing neutrons at atomic particles, and in 1939, Meitner and Otto Frisch, who was both her nephew and lab partner, named the process of nuclear fission and published a paper on the topic. Splitting atoms apart via nuclear fission would be the key to developing the atomic bomb, but Meitner didn't have a hand in the Manhattan Project, despite her nickname. Although Meitner first discovered nuclear fission, her old research partner Otto Hahn took home the Nobel Prize in chemistry for it in 1944.

Meitner never won a Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking work and died in 1968. Nevertheless, her legacy lives on in the periodic table. In 1992, a newly discovered radioactive element was dubbed meitnerium, symbol Mt, for the Austrian physicist [source: San Diego Supercomputer Center].

Shirley Ann Jackson
Physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, once described as "a national treasure"
Physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, once described as "a national treasure"
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Shirley Ann Jackson, born in 1946, is known for a series of firsts. The theoretical physicist earned her bachelor's and doctoral degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the first black woman to do so. That academic accomplishment in 1973 also made her one of only two black women in the United States to receive a doctoral degree in physics [source: The New York Times]. In 1995, President Clinton appointed Jackson to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the first woman to hold the position. In addition, her stellar resume and public policy work advocating for STEM funding and innovation paved the way to her becoming the first African American woman to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering, to receive the Vannevar Bush award for lifetime achievements in science and to lead a top-50 national research university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute [source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute].

Of course, her accolades and achievements didn't come without intensive focus and intellectual rigor. After graduating from MIT, Jackson conducted a wide range of physics research at AT&T Bell Laboratories from 1976 to 1991. As Jackson's career developed, her public role as an advocate for science, education and innovation in the United States evolved as well. A year after she was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2004, Time magazine described her as "perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science" [source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute]. With the ripple effects of Jackson's tireless research and public outreach reaching from the AT&T laboratories to the White House, the magazine's assessment is almost an understatement.

Rita Levi-Montalcini
Rita Levi-Montalcini was one of the oldest living Nobel laureates.
Rita Levi-Montalcini was one of the oldest living Nobel laureates.
Morena Brengola/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Rita Levi-Montalcini not only was one of the world's preeminent brain scientists, she was also the oldest living Nobel laureate until her death on Dec. 30, 2012. Born in Italy in 1909, Levi-Montalcini attended medical school despite her father -- an electrical engineer and mathematician -- initially forbidding her from pursuing higher education [source: Levi-Montalcini]. After she earned her degree in medicine and surgery in 1936, Levi-Montalcini decided to concentrate on neurology, rather than practice medicine. The disruption of World War II forced the brilliant Italian to dodge dangerous military zones and continue her research in hiding, even serving briefly as a military medical doctor.

After the dust settled from the war, Levi-Montalcini and her research partner Stanley Cohen sought to figure out how an embryo's nerves proliferate throughout a growing body [source: Abbott]. In the process, they discovered nerve growth factor, the key protein that stimulates neural development and growth. The breakthrough garnered the pair a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1986; Levi-Montalcini was 77 years old. On the eve of her 100th birthday in 2009, she told the Times of London newspaper that she still showed up for work at the European Brain Institute, which she founded, every day [source: Owen]. Asked for advice on how to reach that centenarian threshold, Levi-Montalcini recommended a three-part regimen of minimal sleep, limited food intake and always keeping the brain active and interested [source: Owen].


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  • Atomic Archive. "Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)." (Sept. 9, 2011)
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