October 11th marks the International Day of the Girl and this year we have compiled a selection of women who have made remarkable advances in STEM throughout history. The women we have selected have been trailblazers in their fields and have made discoveries that have changed the world.
From award-winning scientists to stellar mathematicians, these ladies are inspiring role models who challenged traditional gender roles to become top of their fields. Each day, we will be sharing a profile of a famous woman who made a difference in the STEM industry.
First up, Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-American inventor and an actress on the Silver Screen. She pioneered the technology which would become the basis for modern-day Wi-Fi and Bluetooth communications.
Her most innovative work came as the United States prepared to enter World War II. In 1940, Hedy met George Antheil and began to create ideas which would help the Allies. The two came up with a communication system used for guiding torpedoes to their targets. The system involved ‘frequency hopping’ amongst radio waves, with both the transmitter and the receiver ‘hopping’ to new frequencies together.
It wasn’t until years later that Hedy received recognition and awards for her inventive work. She is now dubbed the ‘mother of Wi-Fi’ and other communication systems like Bluetooth and GPS.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie was a scientist, teacher and professor who worked in radioactivity and her work has been vital for humankind. She is the only woman to have ever won two Nobel Prizes.
Throughout her life, Madame Skłodowska-Curie worked on many breakthroughs, including promoting the use of radium to relieve suffering and during World War I, she devoted herself to remedial work. She established a radioactivity laboratory in her home city, with a generous donation from President Hoover, for the purchase of radium for use in the laboratory.
The importance of Marie Skłodowska-Curie’s work is very clearly reflected through the many awards bestowed on her.
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist who discovered the first radio pulsars with a radio telescope that she helped construct while still a graduate student.
In 1967, Jocelyn was working with Anthony Hewish, an astronomer at Cambridge who wanted to find more quasars, which are the distant, extremely bright cores of galaxies. But to do so, he needed a new radio telescope, which led to Jocelyn building one and then monitoring and running the telescope.
After weeks of analysis, Jocelyn noticed some unusual markings on her charts that were the result of a radio source too fast and regular to be a quasar. The first sign of something strange was a squiggly portion of data on her readouts. Hewish, her advisor, labelled the pulses LGM-1 for Little Green Men, as he was convinced the signal was artificial. Jocelyn, who had been tracking the data for months, knew it was not. In February of 1968, news of the discovery made by Jocelyn was published.
Florence Nightingale was a nurse, social reformer, and statistician, and is considered to be the founder of modern nursing.
During the Crimean War, Florence and a group of nurses were sent overseas and were horrified by the conditions of the field hospital when they arrived. Based on what she saw and her own actions in Crimea, Florence wrote a book which sparked a restructuring of the War Office’s administrative department.
With the support of Queen Victoria, Florence helped to create a Royal Commission into the army’s health, employing lead statisticians to analysis mortality data. It was Florence’s ability to change the data into a visual format, now known as the Nightingale Rose Diagram, which made an impression. She became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society and was named an honorary member of the American Statistical Association.
She funded the establishment of St. Thomas’ Hospital, and within it, the Nightingale Training School for Nurses. Florence became a figure of public admiration and made nursing into an honourable vocation. Remaining an authority and advocate on healthcare reform, Florence spent the rest of her life working from her bed as a result of her illness.
Rosalind Franklin was a British scientist who pioneered research into the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), contributed insight into the structure of viruses, providing an introduction for the field of structural virology.
She attended the University of Cambridge, studying physical chemistry. After she graduated, she received a fellowship to research physical chemistry, however when World War II broke out, she gave it up to investigate the physical chemistry of coal and carbon for the war effort. She used this research for her doctoral thesis, and she received her doctorate from Cambridge in 1945.
In 1951, she joined the Biophysical Laboratory at King’s College London, focusing her research work on DNA, its structure, and its chemical makeup. From 1953 to 1958, Rosalind worked in the Crystallography Laboratory at Birkbeck College, London. Rosalind’s involvement in cutting-edge DNA research was cut short by her untimely death in 1958, at the age of 37.
Meet Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer. She wrote an algorithm for a computing machine in the early 1800s.
When Ada was 18, she began a mentorship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, which the modern computer is based on. She famously translated an article written by Babbage about an invention, adding her own thoughts to the piece. Her notes ended up being three times longer than the article itself.
Ada created and introduced many computer concepts and as such, is considered to be the world’s first computer programmer.
Katherine Johnson was a NASA mathematician whose trajectory analysis and manual calculations were essential to sending men into space.
Katherine worked on the trajectory analysis for the Freedom 7 flight and co-authored a report on the equations used. It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received author’s credit on a research report.
In 1962, Katherine did the calculations that would become what she is best known for. In preparation for John Glenn’s orbital flight in Friendship 7, computers had been programmed with the calculations that would control the capsule’s trajectory. However, the astronauts were unsure of trusting their lives to computers, so John Glenn said, ‘get the girl [Katherine]’, and she proceeded to run the equations that the computers had done, manually. Katherine remembers John Glenn saying, “If she says they’re good… then I’m ready to go.”
Katherine was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by President Obama, at 97.
Finally, Amelia Earhart was an American aviatrix who set many records and championed for the advancement of women in aviation. She passed her flight test in 1921 and set several records in the following years, including becoming the first woman to fly solo: across the Atlantic Ocean, across the US and from Hawaii to the US-mainland.
Amelia worked consistently to promote opportunities for women in aviation and helped to create ‘the Ninety Nines’, which still exists today and represents women flyers from around 44 countries.
On June 1, 1937, Amelia took off from Oakland, California, with her navigator Frank Noonan, on her second attempt to fly around the world. On July 2, they departed for Howland Island for a refuelling stop on their journey home. It was the last time they were seen alive. They lost contact with the US Coast Guard and disappeared on the way to the island. President Roosevelt authorised a massive two-week search, however, on July 19, 1937, they were declared lost at sea.
Her plane wreckage was never found and to this day, her disappearance remains one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th Century.