Spotlight on female scientists whose stories deserve more recognition

A homage to just three of the many women who have fought against all odds to bring diverse voices and contributions to STEM

Writer and Artist: Sophie Maho Chan
Editor: Eva Lymberopoulos

Having a role model girls can look up to is key to breaking gender stereotypes in STEM. A survey conducted on 2,000 professionals in STEM indicates that 73% of women are inspired by role models of the same gender.

Peering into history, there is no shortage of inspiring scientific heroines. More impressive is that these women persevered in the face of startling pay gaps (or even ‘volunteer’ work), discriminatory funding and stolen credits. Indeed, many pioneering female researchers are only starting to gain recognition for their work, some decades after their passing. 

Here is an introduction to three influential female scientists with inspiring stories of perseverance.

Rosalind Franklin 

While Rosalind Franklin is cited as a classic example of gender discrimination in science, her exceptional career is rarely celebrated in its entirety. 

Born in 1920 to a Jewish family in London, Franklin studied chemistry at Cambridge University. Through a scholarship, she joined the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where her work would earn her a PhD and continue to inform carbon fibre technology today. Thereafter, Franklin moved to Paris where she mastered X-ray crystallography — a technique that would steer her career.

As a research associate at King’s College London in 1951, she became colleagues with Maurice Wilkins and the now well-known scandal unfolds. Using X-ray crystallography, she produced the iconic Photo 51, capturing the double helix structure of DNA. Without her knowing consent, Wilkins showed the image to James Watson and Francis Crick; Photo 51 became the “final clue” that facilitated Watson, Crick and Wilkins’ Nobel prize win for the discovery of the structure of DNA, four years after Franklin’s passing from ovarian cancer. 

While her work on the double helix is well recognised, the victimisation often overshadows the rest of her career. The last five years of her life were dedicated to virology, starting with her work on the tobacco mosaic virus. Using X-ray crystallography, Franklin showed that viral proteins form a hollow spiral tube with RNA wrapped around it and evidenced the single-stranded nature of RNA. In her final year, she began research on polio. Despite battling cancer, Franklin secured funding for her team to continue research and two members, John Finch and Aaron Klug, eventually published seminal work on the virus’ crystal structure, in memory of her. She also largely influenced Klug’s Nobel prize in 1982 for protein-nucleic acid crystal structures. The inscription on Franklin’s grave reads: “her work on viruses was of lasting benefit to mankind”. 

Chien-Shiung Wu

Born in China in 1912, Chien-Shiung Wu migrated to the US to do a PhD at University of California Berkeley and teach physics at Princeton University, where she became the first female faculty member in the department. In 1944, Wu joined the Manhattan Project at Columbia University, working towards the creation of the novel atomic bomb. Chein-Shiung’s research included improving Geiger counters for detecting radiation and enriching uranium. 

Wu is most known for experimental work on parity symmetry, which maintains that particle processes (collisions or decays) should happen in the same way if mirrored. After the war, in 1956, theoretical physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Yang Chen-Ning showed that parity symmetry may not hold true in weak nuclear force, including radioactive beta decay. Lacking concrete evidence, they asked Wu to put this idea to the test. Designing an experiment involving atoms of beta-radioactive cobalt-60 atoms at cryogenic temperatures in a constant magnetic field, she indeed evidenced the violation of parity symmetry. Sadly, this only led to Lee and Yang sharing the Nobel prize in 1957.

While denied a Nobel prize, Wu was in no way a silent forgotten figure in history. She was the first female president of the American Physical Society and the first recipient of the Wolf Prize in Physics. In 1990, she even had an asteroid named after her (2752 Wu Chien-Shiung). She was also remarkably vocal about sexism; at a symposium held at MIT in 1964, Wu asked the audience “whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment”.

Alice Ball

While leprosy is completely curable with antibiotics today, as recently as the early 20th century, patients were arrested and quarantined in ‘leper colonies’ for fear of contagion. Alice Ball, quite literally, revolutionised leprosy treatment.

Born in 1892 in Seattle, Ball was not only the first woman and African American to receive a master’s from the University of Hawaii, but also the university’s first female chemistry professor. At the time, chaulmoogra oil was the sole treatment for leprosy, despite mixed results. At the age of 23, Ball developed a technique to isolate ethyl ester compounds from the oil, turning it into an effective, absorbable extract with minimal side effects. This isolation technique came to be known as ‘the Ball method’. 

Her research was cut short by her tragic death at 24 and she never got to publish her results. The college president Arthur L. Dean, however, continued her work and soon chaulmoogra injections became globally sought after (until new drugs in the 1940s). Ball’s work facilitated safe leprosy treatment at home, saving thousands from exile. Sadly, Dean never credited her — only now is she receiving long-overdue recognition. In 2000, the University of Hawaii put a plaque dedicated to Ball under its only chaulmoogra tree and February 29th is officially celebrated as Alice Ball Day. 

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