February 10, 2021

Women in STEM: Celebrating Influential Figures on this International Holiday

Paul Patterson

Communities around the world celebrate February 11th as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. With the goal of highlighting women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), this holiday also serves as a candid reminder that gender stereotypes still exist.

One of many women in STEM working in a laboratory setting

Fortunately, many strong and influential researchers in STEM fields have shattered glass ceilings by making revolutionary discoveries and achieving some of the highest honors.

Here’s everything you need to know about women and girls in science!

Influential Women in STEM

Although women throughout history have driven scientific progress, it wasn't until the 20th century that they regularly found their way into STEM fields. Since then, countless other brave professionals have made significant leaps in science and technology.

Mae Jemison

Certainly an influential figure and role model, Mae Jemison has worked to help others and promote innovation for most of her life. After receiving a Doctorate in Medicine from Cornell in 1981, Jemison served in the Peace Corps as a Medical Officer.

In 1987, Jemison took on a new challenge when she applied to NASA’s astronaut program. After years of hard work and preparation, she became the first African-
American woman to go to space on a mission in 1992.

Carol Greider

As a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in 1984, Carol Greider worked under Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn at the University of California – Berkeley. Together, these two women in STEM discovered telomerase, a revolutionary genetic enzyme.

In 2009, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and now-Dr. Carol Greider would share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery more than two decades prior.

Faiza Mohammed al-Kharafi

Faiza Mohammed al-Kharafi is a Kuwaiti chemist who champions education. In 1993, al-Karafi would be named president of Kuwait University to head up to reconstruction in the aftermath of the First Gulf War. Her appointment made her the first female president of any Middle Eastern university.

In addition to her impressive academic career, al-Kharafi also works for causes like sustainability, innovation, and women in STEM. Her passion and hard work have earned her spots on the boards of organizations like the Kuwait Foundation of the Advancement of Science and the Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and the Environment.

Katherine Jin

During the height of the Ebola crisis in 2014, Katherine Jin attended Columbia University. When she learned more about the virus, she realized she couldn’t really do much from her virology classroom.

Video courtesy of the United Nations

While still in school, Jin and a few of her colleagues developed a product called Highlight — a colored disinfectant powder to help professionals adequately clean surfaces. During their senior year, a grant of more than $500,000 enabled them to finish Highlight and go to West Africa to put it in action.

Jane Luu

In the wake of the Vietnam War, Jane Luu and her family moved to Southern California. After high school, she attended Stanford University and eventually MIT, where she received her Ph.D. in Planetary Astronomy.

Luu’s crowning achievement came in 1992 when she worked with her mentor, David Jewitt, to discover the Kuiper Belt. As a result of this discovery, Luu was awarded the Shaw Prize and the Kavli Prize — two of the most prestigious awards in astrophysics.

Alison Miller

Homeschooled in upstate New York, Alison Miller excelled at math from a young age. Eventually, her skill and hard work won her a spot on the U.S. team at the International Mathematical Olympiad in 2004. In that competition, Miller won the gold medal and became the first American woman ever to do so.

Since then, Miller has continued in the pursuit of her passion: mathematics. After attending Harvard as an undergraduate, she studied at Cambridge University for a year and then earned her Ph.D. from Princeton.

The Future of Women in STEM

Since the dawn of time, men and women have been making scientific progress. However, women’s contributions have only been truly recognized in the last 100 years. Over the last century, many women in STEM have seen success, but they’ve had to fight sexism to do so.

“To rise to the challenges of the 21st century, we need to harness our full potential. That requires dismantling gender stereotypes.” António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

The world faces many scientific challenges, not the least of which is climate change. We should be able to focus wholly on the issue without being distracted by antiquated racist, sexist, and other prejudiced biases.

For more on empowering scientists and sustainable change, follow us on social media!

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