Today (March 8) is International Women’s Day and this year saw the launch of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (Feb. 11). Also, this year saw multiple Oscar nominations for Hidden Figures, which celebrates the previously unrecognized contribution of African-American women to NASA’s space missions.
In this vein, we decided to celebrate the role that women have played in science and its key discoveries, so we asked a group of our own female scientists for their inspirational scientists – here are their votes.
I’ll start … OK, so I cheated a little bit and picked two.
Firstly, Marie Curie, an incredible scientist who spanned both chemistry and physics and won two Nobel Prizes. She won the prize in physics for her research on radiation and subsequently the prize in chemistry for the discovery of radium and polonium – the only person to have won in two sciences. She was notable for her research and truly blazing a trail. Curie not only developed the theory of radioactivity, and discovered new elements, but she also set up research institutes to inspire the next generation. Sadly her dedication to her research was to prove costly, as she famously died from an illness brought on, in part, by carrying vials of radium in her pockets. She is buried in Paris in the Pantheon, which I have been privileged to visit.
My second choice is another Nobel Prize winner, but this time in a field closer to my own research – Barbara McClintock who won the prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of mobile genetic elements. This ground breaking work on gene regulation was very elegant and I remember being both excited and impressed in learning about this at college. Her work with maize revealed the presence of “transposons” which are mobile genetic elements. Her work was largely ahead of its time, and its importance was only recognized some time later, so that her Nobel Prize was awarded almost 30 years after her initial discovery.
Finally, if you haven’t yet seen Hidden Figures, go!
Now, here are some more inspirational scientists from women who inspire me every day:
My pick is Carolyn Bertozzi, a chemist who is one of the younger recipients to receive the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, aka “genius” award, and the first woman to receive the Lemelson-MIT Prize. She is the founder of the bio-orthogonal chemistry field and one of the inventors of nanoscale cell-injection systems. Carolyn is notable for introducing metabolic engineering for imaging glycans in various cells and organisms and her work in cancer immune therapy.
I had the privilege to meet and talk with Carolyn years ago at a conference. Not only was she well known and respected among those in bioorganic chemistry/glycan biology, she was a role model for all women determined to make their mark in a male-dominated field.
Rosalind Franklin was a chemist who made significant contributions in the fields of coal chemistry and virus structure. People are most likely to be familiar with her due to her role in unraveling the structure of DNA, which occurred in parallel to the work of Watson and Crick. Her x-ray crystallographic data was integral to their understanding of DNA structure, but she was not given credit for her contributions by them at the time. Her early death precluded her from being recognized by the Nobel Prize committee in 1962, although it is not a given that she would have been recognized amid the rampant sexism in the scientific community.
To add variety to the mix, I would like to mention Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw who is the pioneer of the biotechnology industry in India and the founder of the country’s leading biotechnology enterprise, Biocon.
Her rich contributions to research, innovation and affordable healthcare have been recognized by several national and international awards. The U.S.-based Chemical Heritage Foundation has conferred her with the ‘2014 Othmer Gold Medal’ and the Germany-based Kiel Institute for the World Economy has awarded her its coveted ‘2014 Global Economy Prize’ for Business. She has received two of India’s highest civilian honors, the Padma Shri (1989) and the Padma Bhushan (2005). Other prominent awards include, Ernst & Young Best Entrepreneur: Healthcare & Life Sciences Award (2002), The Economic Times Business Woman of the Year Award (2004) and Nikkei Asia Prize for Regional Growth (2009).
As a global influencer, she is ranked among ‘World’s 25 Most Influential People in Biopharma’ by Fierce Biotech, Forbes magazine’s ‘100 Most Powerful Women’ and Fortune’s ‘Top 25 Most Powerful Women in Asia-Pacific.’
Starting from initial capital investment of $150 in a garage of a rented house with two employees, she has come a long way and is truly an inspiration for every biotech entrepreneur in making.
Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, along with Jack Szostak, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for their discovery of telomeres and telomerase. Telomeres, which were discovered by Dr. Blackburn, are long strands of nucleotides that serve as a cap at the end of chromosomes to protect important genetic code from deteriorating.
Dr. Blackburn continued her study of telomeres with a graduate student working in her lab at UC Berkeley, Carol Greider. Together, these women discovered telomerase, an enzyme that replenishes telomere genetic code in order in order to maintain chromosome protection. Since its discovery, telomerase has been found to be play a role in how organisms age, cancer cell proliferation (suggesting it could be a potential target for cancer treatment), and numerous other rare diseases such as anemia.
I find these women inspirational for a number of reasons. Not only has their discovery helped advance the understanding of diagnosing and treating diseases, their successes have enabled them to continue to impact the scientific community in and outside of the lab. Both women serve or have served on various scientific advisory boards while working as professors and running their own labs to continue their research on telomeres.
Furthermore, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider are the only two female Nobel Laureates affiliated with UC Berkeley, my alma mater (though hopefully that will soon change with the work of Jennifer Doadna with CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing). Lastly, these women highlight the valuable working relationship between graduate students and advisors – a relationship that is encouraging for future PhD-candidate-hopefuls such as myself.