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Female scientists everyone should know this International Day of Women and Girls in Science

By Pamela Freeman, February 8 2022—

Feb. 11 marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Despite increased representation in recent decades for women across all aspects of science, inequalities are widespread and persistent. Here, I’d like to celebrate eight women who have been highly influential in modern physics, astronomy and space sciences. This is not a complete list of influential scientists but a great place to start researching more diverse scientists from around the world.

Dr. Emmy Noether:

Dr. Emmy Noether was a mathematician who changed physics, famous for the theorem of her namesake. Noether, living in Germany in the early 1900s, attended the University of Erlangen. She was not allowed to enrol officially, as women studying with men was thought to “overthrow all academic order.”

However, she could audit courses and succeeded in passing the graduation exam this way. This exclusion was lifted and she completed her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1907. In 1915, Noether was invited to work at the University of Göttingen with David Hilbert and Felix Klein.

Here, she would prove two influential theorems. The more famous — now known as Noether’s theorem — shows that every symmetry in nature has an associated conservation law and vice-versa. With this, she solved problems with the newly incepted concept of General Relativity and helped it become commonly accepted. In 1922, Noether became an untenured associate professor at the University of Göttingen, which lasted until she and other Jewish academics were dismissed by Germany’s Nazi government in 1933.

Noether’s theorem remains widely applicable in physics and was notably used in the development of the standard model of particle physics. Noether has a legacy that cannot be summarized in a short biography.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu:

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was the inaugural recipient of the Wolf Prize in Physics. A top student, Wu received a physics degree at the National Central University in China and then a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in the United States.

Wu worked in the Radiation Laboratory studying beta decay — where a neutron or a proton transforms into the other in an unstable atomic nucleus and emits a beta particle, either an electron or positron. After graduating, Wu worked her way to become a professor at Columbia University.

Wu is notably known for the Wu experiment, conducted to establish whether conservation of parity — meaning a process proceeds the same way in an inverted coordinated system — applied to the weak nuclear force as it did for the electromagnetic and strong forces. 

Theoretical studies from her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang encouraged Wu to perform an experiment using her expertise on beta decay, finding that beta particles emit asymmetrically and violate conservation of parity. For this, Lee and Yang won the 1957 Nobel Prize while Wu was not publicly recognized until receiving the Wolf Prize in 1978.

Alongside her research, Wu was also passionate about political issues in China and gender discrimination in physics. Wu’s pivotal work had her informally nicknamed the First Lady of Physics and formally bestowed too many honours to list.

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson:

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, where she worked in theoretical elementary particle physics. Early in her graduate career, after an undergraduate degree described by isolation and resilience, Jackson recognized she was in a position to help marginalized groups and helped form what would become MIT’s Black Students’ Union.

After her Ph.D., while working at Bell Laboratories, Jackson later switched research areas — showing her broad capabilities — to focus on condensed matter systems. Specifically, Jackson studied how electrons cluster within layers of crystals and how these patterns affect material properties with changes in temperature.

She has since worked for the Clinton and Obama administrations and became president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Jackson was awarded the prestigious Vannevar Bush Award, 45 honorary doctoral degrees and countless other awards. Time magazine quite aptly described Jackson as “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science.”

Mileva Marić Einstein:

Mileva Marić Einstein was Albert Einstein’s wife and valued collaborator. They met studying at the Polytechnic Institute of Zurich, where Mileva excelled at experimental physics. They had similar marks, although Albert was the only one to earn a degree.

They collaborated on articles that were published in his name, possibly in part to help him be taken seriously on his job hunt. They worked together, solving problems, reading and discussing, during the years he is known for developing ideas on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion and special relativity.

Her contributions, up until their split in 1914, have been noted in personal letters and accounts from relatives. When Mileva threatened to claim recognition for her work when divorce settlements turned sour, Albert wrote to Mileva a sentiment that encompasses how women were treated: 

“When someone is completely insignificant, there is nothing else to say to this person but to remain modest and silent. This is what I advise you to do.” 

Mileva is just one of the sisters, daughters and wives of well-known scientists who were integral to their success, via typing, editing, computing, assisting with research and homemaking. Occasionally, these women were recognized in the acknowledgement sections of the men’s work — given marginal credit for their invaluable contributions.

Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced:

Dr. Wanda Diaz Merced lost her sight early in her scientific career, leading her to develop sonification techniques to study astronomical objects. Diaz Merced has shown that astrophysical data, containing the brightness and frequency of incoming electromagnetic radiation, can be converted to sound and the resulting pitch, volume and rhythm can be analyzed. This allows astronomers to detect signals that may be missed visually. In her Ph.D., she showed that the combination of visual and sound data allows for better detection of signals. 

Diaz Merced explains this technique using solar rays as an example — they interact with a magnetic field of an exoplanet and emit radiation variably in frequency and by listening to this data one can detect signals from the entire frequency range at once, missing in other techniques that separate frequency components. Diaz Merced is currently a researcher at the European Gravitational Observatory exploring the sonification of gravitational waves. She says about her personal hopes, “I want my field not to underuse, misuse or neglect the human potential we all have for exploration and inquiry and to trust that we all may contribute just as we are.”

Dr. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin:

Dr. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s interest in astronomy began after a lecture about solar eclipses and general relativity at Cambridge University. Upon completing her studies there — although not receiving a degree because she was a woman — her career options were limited to teaching.

Payne looked abroad and received a National Research Fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. at Radcliffe College of Harvard University. Payne’s thesis concluded that hydrogen and helium are the dominant components of stars, going against the common belief that stars had about the same elemental composition as Earth.

Payne’s painstaking work-related a star’s spectrum to its physical conditions using a theory developed by physicist Meghnad Saha. Astronomers disagreed with her findings, causing her to add a caveat saying the results were unlikely

A few years later, Henry Norris Russel verified Payne’s results, although Russel is often credited for this discovery. After her Ph.D., Payne stayed at Harvard in a research capacity, eventually becoming the first woman professor and the first woman department chair at Harvard. Payne influenced young astronomers and physicists alike, including Helen Sawyer Hogg, Frank Drake and Joan Feynman.

Dr. Claudia Alexander:

Dr. Claudia Alexander’s passion for planetary science began in high school when she interned at NASA’s Ames Research Center. She was originally in the engineering department — to pursue something “useful” — however, her interest in space at Ames landed her a position in the Space Science Division. She completed a Ph.D. in space plasma physics at the University of Michigan before returning to NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

Alexander worked on the Galileo spacecraft as a science coordinator, then as project manager. Galileo’s orbit of Jupiter was the first of an outer planet and made numerous discoveries of Jupiter’s moons and atmosphere. 

Next, she became a project scientist with the ESA’s Rosetta mission, leading NASA’s contribution to the comet-orbiting spacecraft. Alexander won several accolades, including the Emerald Honor for Women of Color in Research and Engineering and “Woman of the Year” by the Association for Women Geoscientists. Her fascination with and dedication to scientific exploration made her exceptional, however, she was, in her own words, “pretty much a normal person doing science.”

Dr. Joanne Cohn:

Dr. Joanne Cohn is a theoretical cosmologist at UC Berkeley. Her influence is widely felt in science thanks to a project she started as a postdoctoral fellow — an email list sharing paper pre-prints with her community of string theorists. Cohn told Physics Today “by sharing preprints, people who were younger, less well-connected […] got access more quickly than they otherwise would have.” 

Her sense of responsibility and the willingness of senior colleagues to participate, drove the email list forward. This practice became automated soon after by Cohn’s colleague, Paul Ginsparg, as the ArXiv — pronounced “archive” —  pre-print server. ArXiv is now described as a “curated research-sharing platform open to anyone,” covering several different disciplines in science. As a free, open-access site with a quick turnaround time, it is a cornerstone of modern science — although not without its own problems. Nevertheless, the “rapid sharing [has been] democratizing.”

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