Now more than ever, there is a push for girls to become more involved in STEM fields. The overrepresentation of men in STEM has lead to a lack of women’s voices in terms of thoughts, ideas, and innovations. To fight this, initiatives have been introduced to get girls more interested in science by showing more and more examples of prominent women in the field. I spent all thirteen years of my public school education in STEM programs. I went to a Math, Science, and Technology elementary and a STEM Academy for high school. However, in all my time immersed in the STEM field, I have only heard two female names mentioned: Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin.
Now, I have no intention of diminishing the impact these two powerful women have made in their fields. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first and only woman to win two Nobel Prizes, and the only person ever to win two Nobel Prizes in two different fields. Her discovery of radioactivity and its components was revolutionary to the field of physics and chemistry. Rosalind Franklin was the brilliant chemist that was able to take pictures using X-Ray crystallography techniques to show the double helix structure of DNA. Without her photograph, Watson and Crick would not have been able to draw such accurate conclusions on DNA structure. Unfortunately, Franklin died before being considered for a Nobel Prize herself. These women are pioneers in their fields with brilliant minds and the perseverance to excel despite the odds. But young girls need more.
Young girls need more than two examples of great women scientists, especially when faced with hundreds of great male scientists. It’s not good enough to say “Here you go! Here’s two great women. Now go be scientists!” Young girls need more than two women to become convinced that women are fundamental and necessary components of science. Here is a list of a few notable women you probably haven’t heard of whose contributions to their field have been extraordinary.
Mary Anning was an 18th century English paleontologist who would search for dinosaur bones along the shore to collect and sell for a living. Her discoveries include many fossilized fish, the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be identified, and the discovery of the first plesiosaur. Her fossils she discovered were revolutionary to the field of paleontology and changed the way scientists think of the history of Earth. She has even been described as “the greatest fossilist the world has ever known.” Unfortunately, Anning was banned from the scientific community for being poor and a woman. Her contributions were not taken seriously until long after her time.
Barbara McClintock was an American cytogeneticist who is the only woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in 1983 for her discovery of transposons, the components of the DNA responsible for turning genes on and off. Though well respected in her field, many of her colleagues shunned her and called her “mad” for her discoveries. It wasn’t until thirty years after her initial discovery and many men were able to confirm her findings that she was acknowledged for her brilliance in the genetic structure of maize. Now, she is one of the most decorated women in the field of genetics.
Brenda Milner is a British neuropsychologist who worked with Patient H.M., a man who had sections of his brain called the hippocampus removed from both sides. The operation contributed to the inability to form new memories or to remember old memories as far back as five years before the operation. It was her work with H.M. that solidified the ideas that the hippocampus is responsible for the formation and consolidation of memories. Not only this, but she was able to distinguish that there are multiple forms of memory that are not all processed the same, such as motor memory and working memory. Often dubbed the “founder of neuropsychology”, her work is revolutionary to our understanding of the brain, memory, and how psychological methods can be used to understand the neural functioning of brain structures.
This is not an exhaustive list of notable women in science, by any means, but it’s a start. Women’s contributions need to be displayed in every field of STEM. Every science has a woman who has made significant advancements that are often unjustly overshadowed by the accomplishments of her male peers. How do we expect young girls to want to become scientists if we hide these stories from them, thus perpetuating the idea that women’s accomplishments can be disregarded, no matter how revolutionary. In order to get girls interested, passionate, and dedicated about science, we need to share women’s stories, accomplishments, and passions. Show them that women don’t have to be overshadowed by their male colleagues on the sole basis of gender. When girls feel empowered that they can make a difference, there is nothing that can stop them.
Author’s Note: The cover photo was shot by my wonderful Adan Arroyo. Check out his Instagram for more fantastic work. Thank you for all your support, babe.