International Women’s Day: SciTech Editors share their science role models

By Emma Clarke, and

In honour of International Women’s Day 2024, the SciTech team has chosen to feature some women in STEM who inspire them.

Dorothy Hodgkin

(University of Bristol via Wikimedia Commons)

Dorothy Hodgkin was an English chemist who is the only British woman ever to have won a Nobel prize in any of the three sciences. In her early life she fought against rules at her school that stated only boys could study chemistry, then went on to obtain a degree in chemistry from Oxford University. After graduating and then getting a PhD she focused her research on using X-ray crystallography to visualise structures, and showed that X-ray crystallography was an incredibly powerful tool moving forward in science.

She had a huge impact on medical science because she determined the structures of essential molecules like insulin and vitamin B12. Visualising their structures helped manufacture these substances which can be used to treat life threatening diseases like pernicious anaemia and diabetes. She also detailed the structure of penicillin, meaning it could be synthesised much more quickly and made more accessible and cheaper to save many more lives.

-Emma

Hedy Lamar

(Unknown via Wikimedia Commons)

Hedy Lamar, born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, is well known for being both a starlet of Hollywood’s Golden Age and a keen inventor who made groundbreaking contributions to radio communications that in turn shaped much of the wireless technology that is essential to us today. Her career in film spanning from 1930-1958 won her many accolades, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but perhaps her most lasting achievement was her development of a technique known as frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) during World War II, with the help of her composer friend George Antheil. The basic idea of this technique is that during data transmission, the transmitter and receiver rapidly switch between predetermined frequencies within a designated frequency band. Despite opposition from the National Inventors Council, a US government organisation who apparently told her that “she could better serve the country by trading on her status as a celebrity to sell war bonds”, she received the patent in 1942, and her technology would eventually be found to be extremely useful in the decades after this. Specifically, this technique laid the groundwork for inventions such as GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, an achievement that was recognized in 1997 with the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award.

-Maddy

Katherine Johnson

(GPA Photo Archive via Flickr)

Katherine Johnson, born Creola Katherine Coleman, was one of the mathematicians who meticulously calculated by hand the complex equations for some of the first ever space missions, including trajectories for the first Americans in space and orbit and rendezvous paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and command module. She did this painstaking work as part of NASA’s ‘computer pool’, a group of African-American women who did the complex calculations before the machines we call computers today were around. As a Black woman, she lived through much discrimination and her achievements were not properly recognized by many at the time, but in the 2010s she finally began to get the recognition she deserved, being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2015. You may already know of her because of the 2016 film Hidden Figures, in which she was played by Taraji P. Henson. She turned 100 years old in 2019, an impressive feat in itself, then passed away in 2020 at 101. This remarkable woman will always be remembered for her incredible mathematical capability and contributions to space exploration.

-Maddy

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

(GPA Photo Archive via Flickr, adapted from a photo from Smithsonian)

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin is credited with the discovery of the chemical composition of our Sun. In her 1925 doctoral thesis titled ‘Stellar Atmospheres; A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars’, she proposed that stars, and the Sun, were primarily made up of hydrogen and helium. This contradicted the accepted theory of the time that predicted that the Sun would have a similar, almost identical, composition to the Earth. However, when publishing her thesis, her advisor Henry Norris Russell advised her against making such a bold conclusion and thus she added a section to her thesis calling her results ‘spurious’. Years later, Russell undertook and published his own research that agreed with Payne-Gaposchkin’s findings. Unsurprisingly, Russell was generally credited for the conclusions Payne-Gaposchkin made four years earlier. It is now our duty to credit Cecilia for such important findings that have shaped modern astrophysics into what it is today.

-Pippa

Image credit: This is Engineering via Unsplash

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