5 Trailblazing Women in STEM History

March 23, 2022

March is International Women’s History Month and we want to celebrate five trailblazing women in STEM history. According to Census.gov “Women made gains – from 8% of STEM workers in 1970 to 27% in 2019 – but men still dominated the field. Men made up 52% of all U.S. workers but 73% of all STEM workers.” Ina male-dominated sector, it’s important to acknowledge to contributions of women in STEM fields, past, present, and future.

Mission: Ignite is proud to have two modern-day female STEM leaders on our board as well as a female executive director, program director, and program trainers who are leading the charge to bring digital equity to WNY! Here are five leaders who helped path the path forward:

Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)

Elizabeth Blackwell is no stranger to blazing new trails. She became the first woman in America to receive an M.D. when she graduated from New York’s Geneva Medical College in 1849. Blackwell faced discrimination and obstacles in college: professors forced her to sit separately at lectures and often excluded her from labs; local townspeople shunned her as a “bad” woman for defying her gender role. Blackwell eventually earned the respect of professors and classmates, graduating first in her class.

She spent her life championing medical education for women and careers for women in medicine. She established the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 and published a number of widely respected books on the topic, including “Medicine as a Profession for Women” in 1860 and “Address on the Medical Education of Women” in 1864.

Marie Curie (1867 - 1934)

Marie Curie is one of the most well-known women in the history of STEM fields. She is, so far, the only woman in the field of science to win the Nobel Prize in two separate scientific fields: physics and chemistry. In her time, she was the first female scientist to win a Nobel Prize.

Why the notoriety? Well, she developed and coined the theory of radioactivity, which she used to invent mobile radiography units. These units then allowed her to help alleviate the suffering of French soldiers during World War I. Curie completed research with her husband based on radioactivity that allowed them to uncover two elements: polonium and radium. Curie developed methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues in sufficient quantities to allow for its characterization and the careful study of its properties.

The importance of Curie’s work is reflected in the numerous awards bestowed on her. She received many honorary science, medicine, and law degrees and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout the world. There was a movie made in 2018 about her life and work titled “Radioactive” where she’s portrayed by academy award nominee Rosamund Pike.

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)

Chien-Shiung Wu has been dubbed the “First Lady of Physics.” Born in China in 1912, she graduated from the National Central University of Nanking in 1936 before traveling to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies. She studied physics at the University of California-Berkeley, earning a doctorate in 1940.

Wu was a Chinese-American particle and experimental physicist who made significant contributions in the fields of nuclear and particle physics. She later joined the Manhattan Project at Columbia University during World War II — the U.S. Army’s secret project to develop the atomic bomb. After the war, she continued her research at Columbia where she and two male colleagues disproved a law of symmetry in physics called the “principle of conservation of parity.” Both of her male colleagues went on to receive a Nobel Prize in 1957, while Wu’s contributions went unrecognized.

Katharine Burr Blodgett (1889-1979)

Katharine Burr Blodgett was an American physicist and chemist known for her work on surface chemistry, in particular, her invention of "invisible" or non-reflective glass while working at General Electric. She was the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cambridge, in 1926.

She was also the first female scientist hired at the General Electric research lab. She worked on wartime technology improving the effectiveness of smoke screens, and she helped with meteorological sciences by developing a device to measure humidity. A renaissance woman, Blodgett also enjoyed gardening and acting in plays.

Gladys West: (1930 – Present)

If you’ve ever used a GPS to get anywhere, you have Gladys West to thank. West is a mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth and her work on developing the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System.

When Mrs. West started her career at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in the US state of Virginia in 1956, just three people of color worked alongside her, and only one of them was another woman.

"I carried that load around, thinking that I had to be the best that I could be," she said in an interview with the BBC. "Always doing things just right, to set an example for other people who were coming behind me, especially women. I strived hard to be tough and hang in there the best I could."

Mrs. West not only equipped the world to navigate the world with a GPS system but showed us how to better navigate the world of STEM as a more inclusive space for all.

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