Top Five Women in Science You’ve (probably) Never Heard Of

By Lily Groom, Student Advisory Panel member (Graveney School, Year 12)

There are three reasons I want to be a scientist. The first is that I love it – obviously, I’m not going to want to spend the rest of my life doing something I hate with a fiery passion. Secondly (and this is going to sound dreadfully cliché) I want to “help people” and “make the word a better place” (I put those in quotes so you would hear the sarcasm in my voice and know that I am way too cool for good intentions). Finally, because I’m a feminist. It’s just a fact that women are under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers. So if I can get a good career doing something I love and stick it to the patriarchy at the same time? Win win, really.

Here are five women who have inspired me to go into the sciences, and not give a damn about anyone else (especially if that person thinks I’m inferior because I’m a woman).

Rosalind Franklin, 1920-1958: I really hope you’ve heard of Rosalind Franklin, as she is pretty famous. She is my ultimate feminist hero (after Batgirl). She was a member of the team that discovered the structure of DNA, and she even took the picture – photograph 51 – that showed it to be a double helix. Yet she didn’t get the recognition she deserved in her lifetime. Read James Watson’s book about the discovery – it’s a masterclass in how to completely devalue someone’s work by words alone.

Joan Clarke, 1917-1996: I’ll be honest with you, I only watched The Imitation Game because of Benedict Cumberbatch. But it ended up teaching me about a woman I’d known nothing about and now hugely admire. Clarke was a cryptographer at Bletchley Park, during WW2. She was denied a full degree from Cambridge in Maths (because they only awarded those to men until 1948, naturally) even though she got a first, and was paid less than the men working in Hut 8, despite rising to become its deputy head. She was one of many fantastic women code breakers in WW2 that no one knows about. I’m not saying Alan Turing wasn’t remarkable – just that there were plenty of just as remarkable women out there too.

Ada Lovelace, 1815-1852: While on the subject of computers, let’s talk about the woman who basically invented coding – before computers were even around. Ada Lovelace was Lord Byron’s daughter, and in an effort to make sure she was nothing like her tempestuous father, Lovelace’s mother taught her science and maths intensively. She rose to work with Charles Babbage, a pioneering inventor, yet her brilliant discoveries were kept unknown by his refusal to acknowledge her as an equal and the constraints of Victorian society on women.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, 1943-: Burnell was the first person to discover pulsars – a kind of rotating neutron star that emits a special signal. She was just a student at the time of her discovery. Her name was second on the paper that ended up being published, but was she awarded the Nobel Prize for her discovery? Of course she wasn’t. However, she has always made light of this contentious decision saying things like “students don’t get Nobel Prizes”. She has had a distinguished career in astronomy, and is a driving force in getting women into science.

Sophie Germain, 1776-1831: Germain gatecrashed the Ecole Polytechnique, a French school for brilliant scientists and mathematicians reserved for men, by taking on the identity of a former student. She was unmasked when her tutor demanded to know who this brilliant scientist was. She also corresponded with a famous mathematician Carl Gauss, and contributed to solving Fermat’s Last Theorem. She also entered a competition by the Institut de France, explaining the elasticity of metal plates. She was the only entry and yet still didn’t win! She had to submit her work three times to even get recognised. Even though her work was integral in building the Eiffel tower, she is not credited at all on the plaques around the base.

 

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