Written by Dr Jill Margerison – Amazing People Schools

Science is for girls. This kind of statement has gained strength and validity over the past decade as the spotlight shines on stronger gender equality and recognises the role that science plays in our workforce. Curiosity, intelligence, persistence, and strength of conviction contribute to the mindset of a scientist and regardless of gender, the pathway for success in this field requires dedication, and passion for discovery.

There has been much prejudice against women in STEM over the decades. Marie Curie was unique in being able to stand tall as a scientist and succeed. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for her pioneering work on radioactivity. In fact, she is the only woman to have won the Nobel Prize twice. That was over a hundred years ago and whilst she set the benchmark for achievement by women scientists, it is perhaps disappointing to see that today women are typically given smaller research grants than their male counterparts in science. These statistics are taken from the United Nations and their observances of global practices in academia. Organisations like the UN and UNESCO remind us that only 12 percent of members of national science academies are women. Also, only one in five professionals in the field of artificial intelligence are women.  

To support and encourage the work of women scientists the UN celebrates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. At Amazing People Schools, we also recognise the contributions of women in STEM fields and we add our voice to not only advocate for change in gender equity in the sciences, but also reflect upon the amazing work that has already been achieved (historically and in modern-day by amazing women scientists).

Three female scientists who are leading the field

1)         Cynthia Kenyon

The work of Cynthia Kenyon is both aspirational and inspirational.  A molecular biologist that is working on lengthening the lives of humans, a pioneer in ageing research.

I have often wondered what controls aging and am drawn to health-related articles that discuss better ways to live longer, healthier lives. So, when I came across this scientist who is researching hormone receptor mutation in worms, to explore impact in life expectancy, I was amazed.

Kenyon has found that the daf2 hormone receptor mutation doubled the lifespan of a worm without impacting the quality of the worm’s life. Kenyon was then able to replicate this experiment with another species. Using mice, perhaps because they are mammals, she is looking at the implications and possibilities for us as humans. So many people in the past have tried to find the elixir to long life. Perhaps, modern scientists have found a solution. But this does raise the question, would you like to live longer?

Currently, Kenyon is working at Google’s Calico; a research and technology institute that explores challenging questions about science. I have to confess that I had never heard of Calico before, but as I scrolled through their website, I couldn’t help but wonder what Marie Curie might have thought about such developments for women in science, a hundred years on? Science, technology and society has changed immensely.

If Curie had still been alive, she might have been intrigued to know that the principles of science have not changed. Innovation, integrity, courage, accountability, collaboration and generosity of spirit are still very much the kind of characteristics that she would have valued over a hundred years ago. Are these the kind of principles that are relied upon and discussed in your school setting when you think about how to tackle problems in STEM?

2) Nina Tandon

Another scientist that is changing the world of cell science is Nina Tandon. Tandon is a biomedical engineer who co-founded a company called EpiBone. The company grows bones for skeletal reconstruction. Again, her story is one that is spread through the platform of a TED talk. After listening to her talk, I wondered what someone like Florence Nightingale might have thought about the career pathway of being a tissue engineer. It is a long way from Nightingale’s ideas that revolutionised nursing in the 19th century, but in a similar way, Tandon is tackling new challenges that guide ways we think about health in the future. What Epibone and Tandon are doing is truly amazing and will have a significant impact on our lives and the lives of young scientists. I think what most inspired me about Tandon’s work is the way she speaks about reflecting our diversity through generating models of human tissue via the technology of induced pluripotent stem cells. New concepts, new ideas and new approaches to the way we think about science.

3) Jennifer Doudna

Finally, we come to the work of Jennifer Doudna. She is the inventor of a technology for editing genomes named CRISPR-Cas9. This technology allows scientists to make precise edits to DNA in cells. This will potentially help cure genetic deformities and diseases. In 2020, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with another amazing female scientist, Emmanuelle Charpentier.

Which amazing historic scientists could you imagine interviewing Jennifer Doudna? Of course, Marie Curie would have been intrigued by the advances in technology and impressed by Doudna’s dedication. But reflecting on other female chemists in history, I imagine that Rosalind Franklin, who contributed to the deciphering of the helical structure of DNA molecule, and is famous for Photograph 51, would have also been fascinated.

How can Amazing People Schools help inspire our scientists of the future?

Some of work of these modern-day inspiring women can be reached via their TED talks where they tell their own story. Stories are powerful tools for learning. At Amazing People Schools, we support women in science through strong narratives that are complemented by literacy activities.

When students hear about women scientists through storytelling, it changes their perception about the role and career path of a scientist. Amazing People Schools recognise that there is a male-dominated stereotype of science in traditional school settings, however, teachers are working hard to change this perception. There are some amazing educators that give time generously to setting up science clubs and coding classes, to address the needs of young learners and develop an inclusive environment that will encourage trailblazing women of the future.

We’d love to know which female scientists have inspired you. Comment below and let us know.

If you’d like to find out more about female scientists of the past and how your students can learn from their stories, contact us here at Amazing People Schools.

Leave a Reply