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Incredible, Brilliant Women Who Left a Mark on Science

Mar 8 2017 - 7:45am

With the current Trump administration, it's become increasingly clear to women all over the country how important is to make their voices heard. The Women's March [1], which took place in several cities and countries all over the world on Jan. 21, was only the beginning of that movement. Scientists are planning their own march on Washington [2], and the Women's March organizers are asking women to strike on March 8 [3] (International Women's Day), calling it "A Day Without Woman." Whether you're striking or looking to find inspiration from past groundbreaking women, look no further than these female scientists who had to overcome various struggles and obstacles to achieve their dreams.

We're paying respect to Marie Curie and other women who left their mark on modern life through science. These women prove that physics, wireless technology, and computer programming aren't just traits of a boys' club and that science is the coolest subject of all.

— Additional reporting by Nicole Nguyen and Ann-Marie Alcántara

Hedy Lamarr

A contracted MGM actress, Hedy Lamarr was initially known for her beauty and roles opposite legendary actors including Clark Gable. She grew bored of the Hollywood scene and spent her time with science experiments. In an effort to help the Allies during World War II, Hedy and a friend presented the US Navy with their patent on a "spread-spectrum radio" [5] designed to guide torpedoes accurately. It's now looked at as a precursor to today's wireless technology.

Rosalind Franklin

British scientist Rosalind Franklin was one of the foremost pioneers in molecular biology. She photographed x-rays of DNA [6] strands, an important contribution to the solution of the DNA structure. Rosalind's most famous image is known as "Photo 51," [7] a picture that was shown to Cambridge University's Watson and Crick without her knowledge. You may know this duo as the team that won a Nobel Prize for revealing the structure of DNA. Rosalind was very close to coming to the same conclusion herself, and died just four years before Watson and Crick earned their Nobel Prize.

Sally Ride

As the first American woman in space [8], Sally Ride inspired girls of the '80s to pursue their science dreams. She traveled to space twice, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 and 1984. An honoree in the National Women's Hall of Fame [9] and the Astronaut Hall of Fame [10], Sally's also written numerous children's books on science.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson is a NASA mathematician [11] who helped calculate the trajectory for the Mercury and Apollo missions. Without her, John Glenn might’ve not boarded the Friendship 7 [12]. Her work, and that of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, was recently brought to light in the film Hidden Figures.

Marie Curie

Marie Curie was the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes [13], for her contributions in physics and chemistry, and the first woman given the Nobel honor. Her discovery of the elements radium and polonium are among Marie's lasting legacies, as well as opening doors for women in the sciences and academia.

Grace M. Hopper

Not only did Grace Hopper volunteer to serve in the US Navy during World War II, but she also came to the military as a Vassar faculty member [14] and recipient of a PhD in mathematics from Yale. Who knows what websites would be today without Grace's invention of the compiler, the computer program [15] used to translate human instructions into computer source code.

Ada Lovelace

Meet the "enchantress of numbers," [16] otherwise known as Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Ada was a champion for Charles Babbage's calculating machine [17], the Analytical Engine, when no one else was. She is celebrated for having the foresight that an instrument of this kind had endless practical and scientific uses. Looking at how much technology is integrated into our lives today, we'd say she was absolutely right.

Ada drafted a plan of how the Analytical Engine might calculate Bernoulli numbers [18], a plan that is now considered the first "computer program."

Henrietta Lacks

She may not have been a scientist by trade, but Henrietta Lacks became one of the most influential people in the history of modern medicine [19]. While she was being operated on for cervical cancer at age 30 in 1951, a doctor took a piece of Henrietta's tumor without her permission [20], and those cells became crucial to the development of the polio vaccine. She was never formally recognized for her contribution to science, but Henrietta's HeLa cells [21] (pictured above) were also used in the research for cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization.

Hypatia, Mathematician and Astronomer

Galileo and Ptolemy come to mind when one thinks of early astronomy. But Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415 BC), who was the first known female mathematician [22], contributed significant commentaries on many works by Ptolemy, Diophantus, Perga, and others, is often overlooked.

Hypatia, who followed in her father's footsteps as a mathematician, enjoyed privileges living in Egypt that others did not — like driving her own chariot. In 415 BC, Hypatia was murdered and the Great Library of Alexandra, which included many of her works, was burned. Today, Hypatia is honored by the asteroid belt and lunar crater that bears her name.

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