On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we look back at five STEM women who have made their mark on history
Women have been historically underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) studies, which is why UNESCO dedicated 11 February to the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It is a claim that has made the term STEM spread rapidly, with many outreach and awareness campaigns, and has helped to very gradually reduce the gap in access to these specialties.
At Kaila we would like to pay our particular tribute to several of the women who have broken the mould and stereotypes in a field that has been dominated by men, and who have championed the presence of women in the STEM world.
HYPATIA (355-415 AC)
The famous school of Alexandria, the centre of Hellenic science, culture and art, was led in the early 5th century AD by the Greek philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Hypatia. She was an advocate of the legacy of Plato and Aristotle and her wisdom led her into many fields of science, although she was particularly motivated by the movement of the stars.
Her reasoning led her to invent the hydroscope (an instrument for weighing liquids) and to design a celestial planisphere. The Christian intolerance of the time towards pagan philosophy led to her being violently murdered by a mob.
AUGUSTA ADA BYRON (1815-1852)
This British mathematician was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, and is considered to be the first computer programmer in history.
Better known as Ada Lovelace, she was the first researcher to realise the capability of computers beyond number crunching.
She united the functionalities of the analytical machine invented by Charles Babbage with the Jacquard loom to process data, starting a new science: the computation of information. Thanks to Ada Lovelace, the foundations of modern computing were laid, a hundred years before it hatched.
ELLEN SWALLOW RICHARDS (1842-1911)
Not as well known as her fellow STEM scientists but equally pioneering, the American chemist, astronomer and ecologist Ellen Swallow Richards is the mother of environmental engineering. She was the first woman to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and also the first woman to study at a science university, although she was not allowed to earn a PhD.
Ellen specialised in sanitary engineering and the analysis of drinking water, wastewater and air quality. She was a pioneer in raising awareness of the effects of pollution on our health and the planet. She is considered the founder of environmental hygiene and her social concerns were always so wide-ranging that she also devoted herself to studying the nutrition of the working classes.
MARIE CURIE (1867-1934)
Undoubtedly, she has been the STEM woman of the first times. This Polish scientist and physicist, with French nationality, holds the great honour of being the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes in different scientific fields, physics and chemistry, as well as being the first woman to win this prestigious award. She was also the first woman professor at the famous Sorbonne University, a pioneer in radioactivity and the researcher who discovered two new elements, polonium and radium. Her prolonged exposure to radioactive compounds, to study them as a source for treating disease, led to her death from leukaemia. Her full name, Marie Skodowska Curie, has named the European Union’s most important fellowship programme for young scientists and scientists.
MARGARITA SALAS (1938-2019)
She was undoubtedly the leading Spanish researcher. This Spanish biochemist achieved many milestones throughout her career, many of them at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). A disciple of the famous scientist Severo Ochoa, Margarita Salas was the discoverer of the DNA polymerase of the bacteriophage phi29 virus, which has a crucial application in biotechnology because it allows DNA to be amplified simply, quickly and reliably. Used in archaeology, oncology and forensic medicine, among other specialities, her discovery has been the CSIC’s most profitable patent.
Although many wanted to overshadow her career by pitting it against that of her husband, also a biochemist, Margarita Salas was, in addition to being a researcher, a teacher, a marquise and an academic, as she was a member of the Royal Spanish Academy and helped to promote scientific vocabulary.