During March, I was enthused to see that my university celebrated International Women’s Day. However this got me thinking… When I, and probably many others, think of scientists, I think of very wrinkly, old men (sorry Darwin) and it is acknowledged to be a male-dominated field. In fact, the percentage of women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is horrifyingly small, with only 13% of the overall UK STEM workforce being women.
Considering this, as a female scientist, I sometimes feel even more pressure to prove myself and succeed.
There is often also a stereotype of female scientists; that to succeed you must be fully focused on your work, making it difficult to have a family or settle down. These views make it difficult to get women involved in science, and as a result there are many groups working to encourage female students to get involved in STEM including; WISE, Science Grrl and STEM Women. These are amazing groups that go into schools and give presentations to female students and hold workshops, all to show women that science is great, and that they have equal opportunities to their male counterparts.
For myself, I have found inspiration in many female scientists who made absolutely huge contributions to their fields and paved the way for women in the 21st Century. I thought that today, I would share a few of these with you all, in the hope that they can inspire all of you to go into science!
Nettie Stevens (1861-1912)
Nettie Maria Stevens was a geneticist who discovered the sex chromosomes. She noticed that male mealworms produced two kinds of sperm; one with a large chromosome (structures containing the DNA) and one with a small one. Female offspring were produced from fertilisation with sperm containing the largest chromosome where the sperm with the smaller chromosome produced male offspring. These became known as the sex chromosomes and later became known as ‘X’ and ‘Y’.
Alice Ball (1892-1916)
Alice Augusta Ball was a chemist who developed an injectable herbal extract (ethyl hydnocarpate) that was the most effective treatment for leprosy in the early 20th century. At the time, leprosy was highly stigmatised disease that had no chance of recovery, with sufferers being exiled to the Hawaiian Islands to die. Alice developed a technique that allowed chaulmoogra oil (which was a treatment that couldn’t be utilised effectively) to be injectable. This remained the main method of treatment for leprosy until the 1940’s. Alice was also the first woman to receive a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii and the first female professor there.
Rita Lev-Montalcini (1909-2012)
Rita Lev-Montalcini was a neurobiologist and Nobel laureate. She studied the growth of nerve fibres but her academic career was cut short by the introduction of laws barring Jews from having academic and professional careers shortly after 1938 during the second World War. However, she continued working in her bedroom after she lost her lab position and studied the growth of nerve fibres here, eventually going on to and discover the nerve growth factor (NGF) (a protein that causes cell growth). She survived the Holocaust with her family and eventually became a full professor in 1958, going on to found the European Brain Research Institute in 2002.
Gertrude Elion (1918-1999)
Gertrude Belle Elion was a biochemist and pharmacologist who received the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for developing drugs to treat major diseases including malaria and AIDs. At that time, there was mass gender bias in the sciences at the time, and 15 of her fellowship applications were rejected, but she persevered through various jobs and eventually began to work for what is now GlaxoSmithKline. Some of her developed research methods later lead to the development of the AIDS drug AZT. She developed the first immunosuppressive drug, Azathioprine, which is used in organ transplants, and the first successful antiviral drug, Acyclovir, for the treatment of herpes infection. She developed treatments for leukaemia, gout, malaria, meningitis, septicaemia and cancers.
These inspiring scientists motivate me to be the best scientist that I can be. I aim to be as dedicated as these incredible women, and hopefully one day I’ll be able to look back at my life and know that I made a difference.
Being a biologist is very rewarding, and no matter what you do in research, you know that you are helping improve understanding or awareness around illnesses or conditions. To any young women (or men!) out there reading this, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to pursue a career in the sciences. You can do anything you set your mind to and can carry on walking the path that all female scientists before you have paved.
Until next time,
P.S – If you enjoyed this post, then I would love to do a part 2, or even turn this into a mini-series of inspiring scientists!!