11 February marks the international day of Women in Science. From mathematics, astronomy, and biology to software engineering, women have revolutionized every scientific field. As a tribute to the brilliant minds which lead to the progress of the world, here is a list of remarkable women in science:
1. Hypatia (350–370 AD)
Hypatia was a philosopher and mathematician born in Alexandria, Egypt. She lectured on the writings of Plato and Aristotle to students from all around the Mediterranean. Hypatia also constructed astrolabes and hydrometers and was involved in politics. A religion and politics related plot resulted in her gruesome murder, a shocking fate for a female philosopher. Centuries after her death, she was converted into a martyr, a Catholic opponent, and a feminist icon. Some of Hypatia’s writings still exist today to remember the young philosopher caught in a scandal that had cost her life. If you want to know more about Hypatia, Agora (2009) might be a good start.
2. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)
Maria Sibylla Merian was a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator who studied insects and published many papers derived from her direct observations. At the age of 52, Merian self-sponsored her scientific expedition to Suriname, in South Africa, to catalog the native animal species. She discovered new animal species that lived there – such as iguanas, local snakes, plants, etc. Her illustrations and classifications are still relevant today. Sir David Attenborough considers her as one of the most influential entomologists of all time.
3. Mary Somerville (1780-1872)
Mary Somerville was a Scottish science writer, mathematician, and astronomer. Among her contributions in various fields, in 1842, she predicted planet Neptune’s discovery in 1846. Somerville’s works in mathematics and geography were used as textbooks until the end of the 19th century. In her efforts to polarize science, Somerville wrote about atoms, the microscope, and the ecosystem. For her multilateral contributions, Mary Somerville remains one of the most important women in science.
4. Jeanne Villepreux-Power (1794-1871)
She was a French marine biologist who started out as a dressmaker. Upon marrying and moving to Sicily, she started to study natural history and proceeded to inventory the island’s entire ecosystem. Moreover, her pioneering work resulted in the aquarium’s invention for experimenting with aquatic forms of life.
5. Mary Anning (1799-1847)
Mary Anning was an English fossil collector and dealer and an early palaeontologist. Among her discoveries are an ichthyosaur skeleton, the first two nearly complete plesiosaur skeletons, and a pterosaur skeleton. Although she couldn’t join the Geological Society of London because of her gender, Anning became known worldwide for her discoveries. She was almost killed by a landslide while searching for fossils, and she struggled financially, but she continued her pioneering work until her health declined, leading to her untimely death. Anning’s work changed the general view of prehistoric life, thus deserving her place among the most prominent women in science.
6. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, was an English mathematician and writer. What makes her one of the most important women in science is her contribution to the computing machine’s development. Her translations and notes published in 1843 include the first known computer algorithm, making Ada Lovelace the first computer programmer.
7. Nadezhda Suslova (1843-1918)
She was the first Russian female medical doctor, specializing in gynecology and pediatrics. After studying in Zurich, she returned to her home country and gave free medical assistance to the poor. More interested in making a difference than gaining fame, Nadezhda Suslova built a library and school in Alushta. Her dissertation paper and further studies were about the muscular reflexes of frogs. As you can see, Suslova was not only one of the greatest women in science, but also a philanthropist.
8. Tu Youyou (born in 1930)
Tu Youyou is a Chinese pharmaceutical chemist who discovered the medicine against malaria, thus saving millions of lives worldwide. She is the first Chinese who received the Lasker Award in medicine in 2011 and the Nobel Prize for medicine four years later. She suffered from tuberculosis in her high school years, but the disease made her pursue an academic degree and career in medicine. Tu Youyou fought against prejudices and political oppression during Mao’s regime, thus becoming one of the most significant women in science of the 20th century.
9. Jane Goodall (born in 1934)
Dame Jane Goodall is a British primatologist and anthropologist. She started to study wild chimpanzees in Tanzania in the 60s, and now she is the world’s foremost expert in this field. Jane Goodall advocates for wildlife conservation and is a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Her pioneering work in the jungle and use of sometimes controversial techniques has enriched the understanding of chimpanzees’ social and family dynamics, making Jane Goodall one of the most influential women in science.
10. Margaret Hamilton (born in 1936)
She is an American computer scientist and systems engineer. She is best known for developing onboard flight software for NASA’s Apollo program. In other words, she decisively contributed to the mission’s success. Thanks to her programming and groundbreaking work, the term ‘software engineer’ has become a new engineering field. In 2016, Margaret Hamilton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to the USA’s effort to conquer the space. Thus, she became one of the most influential women in science, whose legacy transcends the Earth.
11.Valentina Tereshkova (born in 1937)
Valentina Tereshkova is a Russian engineer and former cosmonaut. She is the first woman to woman to have flown in space with a solo mission in 1963. She spent three days aboard Vostok 6. Tereshkova was selected for the space program due to her skydiving experience, and she began the special training, which included isolation and centrifuge tests, among the compulsory military training. Even today, Valentina Tereshkova remains the only woman who completed a solo mission in space, making her one of the most remarkable women in science.
12. Salima Ikram (born in 1965)
Salima Ikram is a Pakistani professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. Ancient Egypt aficionados might recognize her from BBC and History Channel documentaries, in which she explained various customs and religious matters. I recently watched her in The Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb (2020), which I gladly recommend. A less known fact about Salima Ikram is that she was an advisor on the set of the Mummy (1999), one of my favorite feel-good movies.
13. Liliana Quintanar Vera (born in 1975)
Liliana Quintanar Vera is one of the most important contemporary women in science. She is a Mexican chemist with a Ph.D. from Stanford University. Since 2005, she has been studying the proteins associated with neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. Her work is crucial in understanding the etiology of these conditions and finding a cure.
None of these great women in science could have achieved their potential without courage, curiosity, the love for education, and perseverance. May we learn about these women in science, may we become like them, and may we support others to follow in their footsteps!