7 Women Scientists Who Defied the Odds and Changed Science Forever

As with many industries, science has a woman problem. Only around 30 percent of researchers around the world are women according to UNESECO, and those who do work in science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) fields are often paid less than their counterparts.

Women who excel in STEM subjects defy the odds stacked against them. To mark International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at just a handful of women who have changed our world for the better.

Rachel Carson, marine biologist and writer

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Rachel Louise Carson pictured at around age 55 in 1961.JHU SHERIDAN LIBRARIES/GADO/GETTY IMAGES

Born in rural Pennsylvania in 1907, Carson was a marine scientist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 16 years. She is credited with launching the global environmental movement, partly thanks to her book Silent Spring, which laid bare the harm caused by pesticides.

“When it comes to identifying a single individual who has changed the face of science and our lives forever, my mind immediately goes to Rachel Carson,” Christa Kelleher, Professor, Syracuse University, assistant professor of Earth Environmental Science told Newsweek.

“Carson’s legacy encourages us all to recognize that we can have profound and deleterious impacts on the global environment, a recognition that singularly rings true today as we work to combat global climate change. Carson’s work equally reminds us to recognize the beauty that exists in the world around us, and that preserving nature is indeed worth fighting for.”

Tu Youyou, pharmaceutical chemist and malariologist

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Nobel Medicine Prize 2015 co-winner Chinese Youyou Tu pictured with her medal during the 2015 Nobel prize award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall on December 10, 2015.CLAUDIO BRESCIANI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In 2015, Tu won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on the creation of an anti-malaria medicine, despite not having a doctorate or medical degree. She has also never worked overseas, earning her the nickname “three noes” in China. Her win made her the first person from mainland China to be awarded a Nobel Prize for science.

She became a researcher at the Academy of Chinese Traditional Medicine after studying pharmacology in Beijing, and was made the head of Communist leader Mao Zedong’s secret Mission 523 to cure malaria in the late 60s.

Her team read ancient Chinese medical texts and harnessed an active compound in the sweet wormwood plant to create a treatment for malaria. She was the first person to take the drug, telling the Chinese media she felt responsible as the head of the research group.

Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett, viral immunologist

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U.S. President Joe Biden (left) listens to Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett (right) as he tours the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, on February 11, 2021.SAUL LOEB / AFP

The scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines and Immunopathogenesis team at the National Institutes of Health, Corbett co-developed the Moderna vaccine that has been given to millions of people around the world. Last month, her hometown of Hillsborough named January 12 after her. In her spare time, she fights vaccine misinformation online.

“It’s one thing to hear about history and the impact of trailblazers like Winifred Burks-Houck [an environmental organic chemist] or [mathematician] Katherine Johnson, but to be a living witness to history in the making is inspirational,” Ashley J. Wallace, assistant director of education and outreach at the University of Pennsylvania who has a PhD in chemistry, told Newsweek.

“The pandemic exposed layers of racial disparities in medical treatment and clinical research, resulting in conversations surrounding the effects of how COVID-19 disproportionately infects and kills people of color,” said Wallace. “Dr. Corbett is not only advancing science but she is also using her voice and platform to contribute to these conversations.”

Barbara McClintock, cytogeneticist

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Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock pictured in 1980.GETTY

McClintock won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for her discovery of so-called jumping genes, or how genetic elements can move in chromosomes in a way that turns neighboring genes on or off. The discovery changed the way scientists think about how genetic patterns are passed on.

Joanne Tornow, assistant director for biological sciences at the U.S. National Science Foundation, told Newsweek: “Pushing the boundaries of science and proposing novel ways of understanding the world can be difficult and theories can be doubted or ridiculed; this has been especially true for female scientists.

“As a young female scientist just starting my career in biology and genetics, I was inspired by Barbara McClintock not only by her brilliance in discovering transposable elements (or ‘jumping genes’) but by her courage in proposing their existence, in defiance of all of the conventional wisdom at the time about genetic mechanisms.

“The resistance to her theories caused McClintock to stop publishing in 1953, but those same theories would result in her winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983—the only woman to receive an unshared prize in that category to date.”

Susan Band Horwitz, biochemist

Susan Band Horwitz
Susan Band Horwitz helped to develop a cancer drug.ALBERT EINSTEIN COLLEGE OF MEDICINE

Horwitz, distinguished professor emerita in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine is known for taking molecules from the natural world to create treatments for cancer.

She contributed to the development of the drug Taxol, which is derived from the yew plant. The FDA-approved drug has been used to treat more than a million patients with conditions including breast, ovarian, and lung cancers.

Marina Holz, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, told Newsweek Horwitz has saved “countless lives” with her work.

Sally Ride, astronaut and physicist

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Sally K. Ride communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck of the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Challenger.GETTY IMAGES

Ride made history by becoming the first American woman and the youngest American to enter space on June 18, 1983, aboard the Challenger STS-7 shuttle where she was the flight engineer. She was aged 32 at the time, and is still the youngest American astronaut to travel to space.

In 1977 she responded to a NASA newspaper ad recruiting young scientists to work as mission specialists in space flights, and was one of only five women accepted.

Kristina J. Halona, an aerospace engineer at Northrop Grumman Corporation, told Newsweek: “Sally Ride broke many barriers as a female in the astronaut core, but also in her studies.”

Isabella Akyinbah Quakyi, immunologist

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A stock image shows a scientist at work.

Quakyi has devoted her four-decade-long career to tackling malaria, across fields including immunology and vaccine development. She is currently professor of immunology and parasitology of the School of Public Health, College of Health Sciences, University of Ghana. In 2019 she won the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Clara Southmayd Ludlow Medal for her work on tropical medicine.

She has published more than 80 articles in 100 peer reviewed journals, and has sat on a number of national and international committees and boards, including as the UNESCO Chair for Women in Science and Technology in West Africa Region.

Quakyi helped to develop what are known as peptide vaccines, partly by cloning a protein secreted by the malaria parasite.

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