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Photo by: Rachel Klaus
November 29, 2017
With the end of the semester quickly approaching, I thought it was time to
mention five important women in STEM history.
The first word that comes to mind when I hear Rosalind Franklin’s name is
The British chemist was born in London in 1920 and earned a Ph.D. in
physical chemistry from Cambridge University.
In 1951, she used X-ray diffraction techniques to study the DNA structure.
She, alongside her student Raymond Gosling, took pictures of ‘B’ form DNA, which
became known as Photograph 51. The photograph provided evidence that DNA was
a double helix structure. Unfortunately, Franklin didn’t receive any credit for her
discovery. Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s colleague, leaked Photograph 51 to James
Watson, a competing scientist who was working on a DNA model. It was then, in
1953, when Watson and Francis Crick published their famous model of DNA.
Franklin developed ovarian cancer in 1956 and passed on April 16, 1958.
Marie Curie was a Polish-born French physicist born in modern-day Poland
in 1867. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and first person ever to win
two Nobel Prizes in two separate sciences.
In 1903, Curie shared her Physics Nobel Prize for the discovery of
radioactivity with French physicist Henri Becquerel and her husband Pierre Curie.
In 1911, Curie won her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of radium
During World War I, Curie worked to develop portable X-ray machines so the
French army could have closer access to radiological services closer to the
battlefield. These machines were nicknamed “Little Curies.”
Curie passed on July 4, 1934 from aplastic anemia, which was believed to
have developed from her exposure to radiation.
Mae C. Jemison:
Mae Jemison was an astronaut, physicist and doctor born in Decatur, Ala. in
1956. She was the first African-American woman to be admitted into the astronaut
program and the first African-American woman to fly into space.
Before applying for the admissions to NASA’s astronaut program, Jemison
earned a Bachelor’s of Science in chemical engineering and a M.D. from Cornell
University Medical College. She worked as a general practitioner and was a Peace
Corps medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia. As a Peace Corps medical officer,
Jemison taught and did medical research.
Upon the Endeavour on mission STS47, Jemison earned the position of
science mission specialist and was responsible for conducting experiments on
weightlessness and motion sickness. She spent eight days on the space shuttle from
Sept. 12, 1992 to Sept. 20, 1992.
After her historic space mission, Jemison advocated for societies recognition
of women and minority groups. She wanted society to give these underrepresented
groups an opportunity to succeed.
Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American nuclear physicist born in China in
1912. Her inspiration was Curie so, while studying at National Central University,
Wu changed her major from mathematics to physics.
After graduation, Wu came to the University of California at Berkley for her
graduate studies and earned a Ph.D. In 1942, Wu moved to the east coast and
worked at Smith College before being offered a faculty position at Princeton
University. She became the first female instructor hired by Princeton.
In 1944, Wu joined the Manhattan Project at Columbia University and
developed a process that would produce large quantities of uranium. The uranium
was then used as fuel for atomic bombs.
After leaving the Manhattan Project in 1945, Wu’s experiments with beta
decay and weak interaction physics disproved the law of parity. Similarly to
Franklin, Wu was not awarded the Nobel Prize; instead the prize was awarded to
Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang.
Wu was an advocate for promoting female involvement in STEM programs.
Wu passed on Feb. 16, 1997 from complications of a stroke.
Antonia Novello was born in Puerto Rico in 1944. In 1965 she graduated
from University of Puerto Rico with a B.S. and in 1970 she obtained her M.D. from
the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine at San Juan.
Novello spent time in Michigan, Washington D.C. and Virginia completing
residency and fellowships. As a physician, she focused on pediatric nephrology.
In 1990, former president George H.W. Bush appointed Novello as the first
female and Latina U.S. Surgeon General. As surgeon general, she focused on the
health of women, children and minorities. She particularly focused on underage
drinking, smoking and AIDS. Novello wanted national attention for health problems
that were prevalent in the Hispanic community, such as smoking and diabetes. It
was during this time that she launched the Healthy Children Ready to Learn
After stepping down from her position as surgeon general in 1993, Novello
became the United Nations Children’s Fund special representative for health and
All these women made it easier for other women in STEM programs, whether
in school or in the job field, feel empowered by their choice. It’s difficult for women
to pursue careers in male-dominated industries but these women showed that
nothing’s impossible. Like Neil Armstrong once said, “That’s one small step for man,
one giant leap for mankind.”