Women are notoriously underrepresented in STEM fields. In fact, as recently as last year, the National Science Foundation reported that women make up only 29% of the science and engineering workforce.
Despite our low numbers, women have been making major contributions in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math for centuries.
In honor of the women who came before us, blazing a trail into academia and STEM, let’s look back at five courageous women whose achievements are too often overlooked, forgotten, or uncredited.
Nettie Stevens, 1861-1912
Nettie Stevens was a biologist from Vermont whose work ended a long-standing debate between heredity and environmental factors.
Stevens earned a doctorate degree in biology from Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia in 1903. Working at Bryn Mawr as an associate in experimental morphology, she studied the regeneration processes of organisms.
While performing experiments with mealworms, Stevens made a groundbreaking discovery about sex determination. She found that an organism’s sex is dictated by it’s a combination of X and Y chromosomes, establishing the first link between heritable characteristics and a particular chromosome.
Lise Meitner, 1878-1968
Austrian physicist Lise Meitner made a discovery in the field of physics that changed the world, though she was not given credit for her work.
After earning a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Vienna, Meitner teamed up with chemist Otto Hahn and together, they discovered nuclear fission.
Specifically, they found that the splitting of a uranium atom’s nucleus results in a large release of energy. This pioneering work laid the foundation for the creation of nuclear weapons like the atomic bomb, as well as nuclear reactors that generate electricity.
Meitner was also the first woman to become a full professor of physics in Germany. However, as a Jewish woman, she lost her position in the 1930’s and eventually fled to Sweden.
In 1944, Hahn alone was awarded a Nobel Prize in recognition of their discovery. Many scientists have since called the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to leave out Meitner “unjust” and, to honor her work, in 1997 chemical element 109 was named “meitnerium.”
Emmy Noether, 1882-1935
The work of Emmy Noether, a mathematician from Germany, impressed even Albert Einstein.
Noether earned a doctorate degree in mathematics from the University of Erlangen in 1907. As a lecturer, she was forced to teach under the name of one of her male colleagues after objections from faculty members.
Nevertheless, she went on to make many advancements in the field of algebra, including the discovery of a relationship between a physical system and its conservation laws, named the “Noether Theorem”, which has proven to be a key to theoretical physics.
Noether also helped explore the mathematics behind Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
In 1919, she formally became an academic lecturer. However, in 1933, when she and other Jewish professors were dismissed, she left Germany and came to America where she continued her research at Princeton University.
After her death, Einstein wrote, “Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”
Cecilia Payne, 1900-1979
Cecilia Payne achieved many “firsts” in academia as well as in the field of astronomy.
Originally from England, Payne made her way to America and attended Harvard University in 1925, becoming the first person in the school’s history, male or female, to earn a doctorate degree in astronomy.
Her thesis, titled Stellar Atmospheres, answered the question, “What are stars made of?” Unlike Earth, she found that stars consist mostly of hydrogen and helium, profoundly changing the way scientists viewed the universe.
At Harvard, Payne was the first female professor, as well as the first woman to head a department when she became the chair of the Department of Astronomy.
Marie Maynard Daly, 1921-2003
In addition to being the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate degree in chemistry, Marie Maynard Daly made significant contributions to the understanding of heart attacks and lung disease.
A native of New York City, Daly attended Columbia University, earning a Ph.D. in 1947. She then began work at the Rockefeller Institute of Medicine, where she was the only black scientist, male or female.
In 1955, Daly became a biochemist associate at Columbia University where she studied the metabolism of arterial walls of the heart. Among her discoveries, she found a relationship between high cholesterol and heart attacks, a correlation between smoking and lung disease, and how kidneys affect metabolism.
In addition to teaching, Daly was an investigator for the American Heart Association, as well as an active recruiter of minority students to the fields of science and medicine.
Ashleen Knutsen is a science writer and editor in Los Angeles. After a decade of experience in engineering and research, she decided to pursue a career in science communications to not only spark women and girls’ interest in STEM, but to let them know that they too can change the world.