When I tell people I am a teacher, particularly that I teach high schoolers, I usually get met with responses of “You are so brave!” Then, when I tell them I teach science, I get, “Wow! You must be smart. I hated science.” or “Science never made sense to me.” These type of responses always hurt my science nerd heart! Science is for EVERYONE, especially women. We tend to think of women in science as a modern-day advance, but that isn’t true.
Chances are, there is a great woman in science standing behind a great accomplishment. And behind every great woman, is an even greater story. These stories are sometimes unaccredited during the time in which these women made their significant contributions. So, during National Women’s History Month, I would like to take the time to shine a light on some significant women in science!
Marie Curie was born in Poland, but studied in France. She was the very first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her study of radioactive elements, radium and polonium. She is the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes, and the only person to have won Nobel Prizes in two separate scientific categories. While in France, her love of science led to the love of fellow scientist, Pierre Curie. The two married and began studying radioactive elements – in fact, she coined the term “radioactivity.” Polonium is named after home country, Poland, and radium, derived from the Latin word for “ray.” Even after Pierre was killed in a tragic street accident, Marie carried on her scientific discoveries. She accepted a position that was originally intended for Pierre, and became the first woman professor at the University of Paris.
Rosalind was an incredibly bright young woman, even as a small child. While working in X-ray crystallography at King’s College in London, Rosalind Franklin studied the then-elusive structure of DNA. Due to her famous Photo-51, shown below, the helical structure of DNA was confirmed. Despite her critical contribution to the field of DNA structure, she was omitted from the Nobel Prize awarded to her male colleagues – Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins. In fact, she was not recognized for her contributions until after her death, at the young age of 37.
Katherine Johnson was born in 1918, when segregation was pervasive. Despite this, her propensity to math pushed her to be a top student, even skipping ahead to high school classes at age 13. After graduating from a black college, Katherine went into the field of teaching. However, she was chosen as one of three (and the only woman!) to attend West Virginia University as their first black students in a graduate program. Katherine ended up leaving the program to start a family with her husband, and eventually returned to field of teaching. However, when an opportunity to work at Langley arose, Katherine seized it. The mid 1950s heightened the “space race” with the launch of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik. Katherine analyzed trajectory data for the first-ever human space flight in 1961. She was also the first woman to be recognized as an author on a research report in the Flight Research Division of NASA. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2015, at age 97. Katherine Johnson lived to be 101, passing away In 2020.
There is no particular talent or skill required to be a successful woman in science – only curiosity! I encourage everyone to get out there and explore. Who knows, maybe one day someone will be telling YOUR story!