The United Nations has declared February 11 to be the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It's kind of like Galentine's Day, but with science, and, unfortunately, no amazing handmade gifts from Leslie Knope. The UN noted that "science and gender equality are both vital" for international development, but, sadly, women and girls are still largely excluded from the scientific arena. In fact, a study the UN conducted across 14 countries found that women are less than half as likely as men to earn a degree in science-related fields. This, obviously, is a bunch of crap. Women and science are both rad! And they're rad together! Their intersection should be celebrated, today and every day. So here are seven fabulous women in STEM (but there are so, so many more).
Unfortunately, if asked to name three women scientists, the average person would probably list Marie Curie and those two broads from The Big Bang Theory, because neither women nor scientists tend to get much attention, and women scientists — they're like unicorns, right? Nope! Although it's true that women are vastly underrepresented in many scientific fields, there are some awesome ones out there (besides Madame Curie), both presently and throughout history. Here are just a handful of awesome women scientists you should get to know (and then teach your daughters about):
Marie Maynard Daly, Ph.D.
Marie Daly was born in New York in 1921, the eldest child of Ivan Daly, a postal worker who was born in the British West Indies. Ivan had always dreamed of a career in science, and had received a scholarship to Cornell University, but had to drop out after just one semester because he couldn't afford room and board. Ivan imparted his love of science to his daughter, and she was further encouraged by her teachers at Hunter College High School, a girls' school with an all-female faculty. She went on to study chemistry at Queens College and earned a bachelor of science degree, magna cum laude. After graduating, she worked as a lab assistant to put herself through New York University. She earned her masters in just a year, and then went on to Columbia Univeristy, becoming the first black woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1947.
A year later, she received a grant from the American Cancer Society to research how proteins are constructed in the body. In 1955, she returned to Columbia as a biochemist, and worked with Dr. Quentin B. Deming, eventually discovering the relationship between high cholesterol and clogged arteries, and the correlation between smoking and lung disease. Their work uncovered how diet can affect heart health. She went on to become a professor of biochemistry and medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. In 1988, she started a scholarship fund at Queens College for minority students studying physics or chemistry.
Mary Anning was a self-taught paleontologist who discovered the first fossilized Ichthysaurus at only 11 years old. Growing up in the seaside town of Lyme Regis on England's southwest coast, Mary assisted her father, Richard, in collecting, cleaning, and selling fossils to tourists (the town was once a seabed, according to Encyclopedia.com, and so the local beach was rich with fossils of ancient sea creatures). When Richard died in 1810, it was up to Mary to provide for her family. And provide she did: discovering not only the Ichthysaurus, but also the first complete Plesiosaurus (and several more after that), a Pterodactylus macronyx, and many other fossils. Although Anning never received any formal education, she did receive grants from the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as an honorary membership to the Geological Society of London and the Dorset County Museum.
Although she was born in 1818 (not a great era for women), Maria Mitchell's parents were Quakers, who thankfully believed that girls should be educated as well as boys. Her father was an amateur astronomer and taught her how to survey the skies. By the age of 14, she was navigating for local whalers in her hometown of Nantucket, Massachusetts. At 17, she started a math and science school for girls. In 1847, her discovery of a comet earned her a medal from the King of Denmark, and she became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This brought her fame, and she traveled Europe for a time, meeting and learning from other scientists. She eventually returned to the United States in 1865 and became the first female astronomy professor in the United States, when she was hired by Vassar College.
When engineer Isis Wenger's face showed up on public transportation ads for her employer, OneLogin in 2015, the internet blew up with people who assumed that she wasn't really an engineer because she's an attractive woman. This inspired Wenger to start the campaign #iLookLikeAnEngineer, standing up to cyberbullies who doubt that a woman can actually have a career in STEM.
Wenger told Today that she's run into many people during her career who are "unable to see past my external appearance." She added that, "When I was first starting out in the industry, people were very condescending [and] had pretty low expectations of me — which has ended up working in my favor because I end up surpassing them exceedingly." She's also about to launch a website that will serve as a platform where women in tech can connect and share their experiences relating to diversity in their field.
Born in Austria in 1878, Lise Meitner completed high school at 14, but she was unable to attend college at the time because she lacked a penis, which the Austrian government felt was necessary for book-learnin'. So, she studied under a tutor and was eventually allowed to attend University of Vienna, where she earned a doctorate in physics. She traveled to Germany and began working with Otto Hahn studying radioactive elements, but she was forced to work in the basement because she was Austrian, Jewish, and again, the no-penis thing.
She fled Germany when the Nazis rose to power, settling in Sweden and working with her nephew, Otto Frisch, while secretly continuing to collaborate with Hahn. There, she discovered (and named) nuclear fission, publishing a paper titled "Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: A New Type of Nuclear Reaction" in the journal Nature with Frisch on Feb. 11, 1939, according to Wired. Hey, happy anniversary, Lise! Unfortunately, Hahn also published the findings and left Meitner's name off of it. Guess who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry? Hahn. Real nice.
Meitner's discovery eventually gave way to the invention of the atomic bomb, to her dismay. She was invited to work on the Manhattan Project, but declined. She was later quoted as saying, "You must not blame scientists for the use to which war technicians have put our discoveries."
Dr. Helen Taussig
Born in 1898, Dr. Helen Taussig had a brilliant educational career despite her dyslexia, studying at Harvard Medical School, Boston University, and eventually Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Just three years after graduating, she was appointed head of the Children's Heart Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital pediatric unit. By this time, she'd also lost much of her hearing, and relied on hearing aids and lip reading to communicate.
Taussig discovered the cause of anoxemia (or "blue baby syndrome"), a congenital defect that prevents the heart from receiving enough oxygen. Along with her colleagues Dr. Alfred Blalock and surgical technician Vivien Thomas, Taussig pioneered a surgery to correct the condition. She was subsequently awarded a full professorship at Johns Hopkins University, founded the subspecialty of pediatric cardiology, was elected as the first woman president of the American Heart Association, and received the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson. It doesn't get much more badass than that.
A corporate scientist with 3M, Jayshree Seth holds over 50 patents. Seth told Do Something that she "grew up in a university town and was surrounded by engineers,” and that “[i]t was almost assumed that we would pursue science-based careers!” While employed as a senior product development specialist for 3M, she was approached and invited to begin teaching their technical employees. While the move was out of her comfort zone, Seth's mentor, Joaquin Delgado, pointed out that she'd "done lots of things without doing them before,” citing the fact that her Ph.D. is in plasma processing, yet she worked with diapers and adhesives. She took the leap, and now enjoys teaching and being a mentor to her students. One reportedly even told Seth that Seth had changed her life.
As co-chair of the Brain Research Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, neurobiologist Cori Bargmann is tasked with discovering the causes of such conditions as Alzheimer’s, autism, and depression, according to Popular Science. In an interview with Nature, she recalled the moment that she first realized that science could be fun: when she and her classmates stole sodium and used it to blow up a toilet.
And she's still having fun with it today; in order to understand the connection between genes, brain function, and behavior, she manipulates roundworm genes to make them bad at sex. No, seriously! She mutated the worms' nemotocin receptors (their equivalent to humans' oxytocin receptors) and discovered that without nematocin, they became "sexually confused," or basically, forgot how to do one of the most basic things required of living creatures. Bargmann believes that figuring out roundworms' relatively simple nervous systems is the key to eventually figuring out the human brain. And it's probably also very entertaining to watch.
Kimberly Bryant has been employed as a biotechnology engineer in leadership roles for various Fortune 100 companies. She has said she experienced cultural isolation in school, because nobody else looked like her. As a result, she founded the nonprofit Black Girls Code, which offers girls of color opportunities to learn skills in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Bryant serves on the National Champions Board for the National Girls Collaborative Project, and the National Board of the NCWIT K-12 Alliance. She's been a recipient of the Jefferson Award for Community Service and was named a Champion of Change by the White House.
Did you know that Bones is a real person? If you're not into awesome TV shows, a quick introduction: the Fox series Bones is about Dr. Temperence Brennan (nicknamed Bones), a forensic anthropologist who works with the FBI and also enjoys a side job writing bestselling novels about a fictional version of herself. Bones is based on a series of bestselling novels written by Kathy Reichs, who is a real-life forensic anthropologist. So yeah, Bones is real, and she's awesome. Trained in bioarcheology, Reichs originally worked with ancient skeletons, she told the Huffington Post, but law enforcement kept approaching her for help with their cases.
She helped catch serial killers, exhumed mass graves, identified Sept. 11 victims and World War II soldiers. She testified at both the Casey Anthony trial and at the United Nations tribunal on genocide in Rwanda. She's one of only 82 forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. She's a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. And, yet, she still found time to write two book series (she cowrites a young adult Bones spinoff series with her son, Brendan), and produce a hit TV show. Presumably, she sometimes also sleeps, but I couldn't say when.
Jennifer Eberhardt is an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University. She works directly with law enforcement to help them change their approaches to move away from techniques that are more "heavy-handed" to techniques that require community involvement and communication, according to a Stanford news article.
In her research, she evaluates race and crime — specifically, the way people profile others based on their race, according to Business Insider. Her most recent research sounds crucial to conversations about disproportionate police brutality against black people, according to her Stanford website:
My most recent research focuses on how the association of African Americans with crime might matter at different points in the criminal justice system and how this association can affect us in surprising ways.
These are just a few of the amazing women in STEM, and they are just a few who have paved the way for women to enter the traditionally male-dominated space.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to recognize the enormous contributions of women of color to STEM fields. An earlier version of this post overlooked those contributions, and we deeply regret that error.