International Women's Day: 5 women who changed the game

International Women's Day: 5 women who changed the game

International Women's Day on March 8 is an opportunity to remember that, although invisible for decades, women too have participated in scientific advancement. Mathematics, physics, paleontology, they have broken the glass ceiling to conquer all fields. Here are a few portraits of these scientists.

Mary Anning was born on May 21, 1799 in England. Coming from a poor family, she spent her childhood looking for fossils to sell to tourists.

One day while digging on the coast of Lyme Regis in the South of England, Mary Anning discovered the very first complete skeleton of ichthyosaurus, a marine reptile dated 200 million years ago that has completely disappeared today. She was only 12 years old at the time of this discovery.

Later, she exhumed other major fossils: the first plesiosaurus skeleton, also a marine reptile, which had a long neck, and the first skeleton of English pterosaurs, a flying reptile. She also went on to discover the first fossil of squaloraja, an extinct genus of cartilaginous fish, close to today's sharks.

 

Remember, this was during an age and time wherehe concept of evolution did not yet exist, and it was believed that species did not change over time, that they were and remained as God had created them. But the discovery of these fossils materialised  the hypothesis of the extinction of species, a theory proposed by Georges Cuvier at the end of the 18th century, which hypothesizes that species eventually disappear. So, in addition to uncovering new species that have populated our earth, Mary Anning paved way for the genesis  of great concepts of paleontology. While during her lifetime she was unfortunately rarely credited for her discoveries, today she is considered a must in the history of vertebrate paleontology.



But Mary Anning is far from being the only woman to have been overlooked in her field. As an African-American woman living in the midst of segregation, Mary Jackson also struggled in her career. Born in 1921 in Virginia, she received her bachelor's degree in math and physics in 1942. It wasn't until 1951 that she joined NASA in a calculator group. At that time, electronic machines and computers did not exist, and calculations, generally long and tedious, were done by hand. The success of these calculations depended on the success of space flight.

Wanting to become an engineer, Mary Jackson managed to enter a school reserved for just white folks at a time when blacks could not normally enter this profession.

In 1958, Mary Jackson became the first black woman engineer at NASA.

Her research focuses on supersonic flight, she analyzes the effects of thrust (the result of gas ejected backwards) and drag (a force that goes in the opposite direction to movement and acts as friction). She goes on to write  no less than a dozen studies on the subject.

 

In addition to making significant scientific advances in the field of physics, Mary Jackson was also an activist for black women. She was head of the Women's Program at NASA's Office of Equal Opportunity. To honor her, her name will be given at NASA headquarters in Washington.

Not just in paleontology and physics, but women have outperformed in many different fields, in basic and applied research. Tu Youyou is a must mention!  Born in 1930 in China, following a a bachelor's degree at the University of Medicine in Beijing, she took courses on the theory of traditional Chinese medicine. Her research was oriented towards pharmacochemistry, a field that consists of preparing compounds that will be used to make medicines, and pharmacognosy, a science that studies the biological or mineral substances that will be used to make medicine.

 

During the Vietnam War, an epidemic of malaria broke out, killing more people than the war itself. The North Vietnamese turned to China to find a cure for the disease. It was in 1972 that Tu Youyou found a medicine made from the Artemisia plant, used in traditional Chinese medicine. Today, it is still one of the most effective medicines against malaria. By combining ancient and modern medicine, Tu Youyou managed to save millions of lives.

 

Here’s something that might shock you! Did you know that originally, , IT was a considered a female sector? Digging a little deeper, it is easy to find many women who have been instrumental in the advancement of this field. Grace Hopper and Lynn Conway are both Americans, born in 1906 and 1938 respectively.

 

In 1934, Murray Hopper received his Ph.D. in mathematics. Enlisted in the U.S. Navy, she produced a textbook on the principles of operation of a computer machine. In 1951, she also designed the very first compiler, a program that transforms source code (written in a simple programming language) into object code (a computer language for the computer).

She was heavily involved in the design of the COBOL language, which allows computer programs to be written in a language close to English rather than in a language close to that of machines, shortly after her arrival at IBM (International Business Machine corporation) in 1957.

A few years later, in 1960, it was Lynn Conway's turn to join the company. Lynn Conway propelled advancements in  recognizing the order in which instructions are executed in a processor thus improving its performance. However, she was fired from IBM in 1968 after making her coming-out, and had to restart her career as a simple programmer. She also revolutionized VLSI, very large scale integration, which is a technology that allows many components to be put on a chip. This work paved the way for modern chips. Lynn Conway is also an activist for transgender rights and against discrimination in employment.

 

These are a few of the many remarkable women who propelled us to where we are today.. Inventor Hedy Lamarr, astrophysicist Chanda Prescott-Weinstein, engineer Mae C. Jemison, mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, are noteworthy names in a (sometimes forgotten) list of  women who have advanced science. 

 

Why continue to mention them if there are so many of them? 

Because even today, despite their brilliant results, women are still excluded from STEM fields, and gender bias is still prevalent. This is why portraying women scientists remains essential, in order to inspire generations of future women researchers in all fields.