In recent years, interest in achieving gender equity in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce has grown. In part, this is because women who do not pursue STEM careers are missing out on lucrative possibilities.
To help increase opportunities for women, many organizations are working to level the playing field in both STEM education and the STEM workforce. For example, there is no shortage of organizations that sponsor STEM clubs for college women to encourage their participation in these majors.
Organizations that sponsor these clubs include the Association for Women in Science, the Society of Women Engineers, the Association for Women Geoscientists, the Association for Women in Mathematics, the American Medical Women’s Association, Women in Science and Engineering, and Scientista.
Now we can add another organization working to promote women’s accomplishments in STEM, the National Women’s History Museum. Recently the museum has drawn attention to four impactful women in STEM. Read on to learn more about them.
1. Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson is known as the mother of Earth Day. Her scientific work focused on the short-term and long-term dangers of pesticide use to both the environment and human beings. She was a marine biologist who published her famous book Silent Spring in 1962. The work focused attention on the United States government and environmental protections. A 1963 CBS documentary about Carson and her book helped launch the global environmental movement.
According to a biography published by her undergraduate alma mater, the Carson Institute at Chatham University (formerly known as the Pennsylvania College for Women), she was also known for three other books on the environment. These were Under the Sea-wind; National Book Award-winner The Sea Around Us; and The Edge of the Sea. Her career with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spanned 15 years and saw her become editor-in-chief of all publications by this agency. Her work in writing and editing focused on making complex scientific topics easy to understand for the general public.
2. Gertrude Belle Elion
A winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988, Gertrude Belle Elion graduated with honors in chemistry from Hunter College, having enrolled in 1933. Unfortunately, she was unable to gain funding to attend PhD programs in the field due to gender discrimination at the time.
She persisted in her education by earning a master’s degree from NYU while working full time. When she finished her education during the WWII years, she benefitted from the lack of a domestic male work force in STEM fields due to overseas deployments. As a result, she landed employment in her field.
During her scientific career, Elion came to focus on biochemistry, eventually developing a new way of creating medicinal drugs. Some of the conditions impacted by her findings include leukemia, organ transplantation, malaria, lupus, hepatitis, arthritis, and gout. For this work, Elion was awarded a 1/3 share of the Nobel Prize along with her research partners George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black, who won for their contributions to the medical field.
3. Ellen Ochoa
The first Hispanic female U.S. astronaut, Ellen Ochoa, flew in four NASA flights to total more than 970 hours in space. She rose through the NASA ranks to become the director of the Johnson Space Center and won NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal, Exceptional Service Medal, and Outstanding Leadership Medal. She also served on the President’s Commission on the Celebration of Women in America in the late 1990s.
According to her official NASA biography, Ochoa earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from San Diego State University. She went on to earn both a master’s degree and a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University.
Her research at Sandia National Laboratories and the NASA Ames Research Center focused on optical systems, and she is co-patent holder on three inventions. Ochoa also earned the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for federal government workers who reach the senior executive ranks.
4. Chien-Shiung Wu
Chien-Shiung Wu played an important role in the WWII-era Manhattan Project, a U.S. government project to develop the atomic bomb. Educated as a physicist in both China and the United States, Wu earned her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. She was on the faculty at both Princeton University and Smith College before becoming a nuclear researcher at Columbia University.
In 1957, her research contributed to the Nobel-prize-winning work of two male colleagues, although her impact was not formally recognized. Despite the sexism she faced, she became the first woman to become president of the American Physical Society.
According to a biography published by the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Wu is best known for her work on beta decay and on the measurement of nuclear radiation. Her research has been applied to the treatment of sickle cell anemia.