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Let´s Dare Together

From time to time in human history, women have had to face with bias and prejudices, often it was forbidden for them to study and to pursue their goals, especially in scientific areas. Who were the founding ‘mothers’ of our modern scientific era?

Dear readers,

Do you remember me?! In my first blog Finnish wood I have shortly introduced my project related to cellulose promising to tell you about froth flotation in the new one; ready for it?!….Well I am not, not yet! I want to leave you hanging there for a while.

What I would like to point out today is the extra mile women have given to the scientific community, who unfortunately, even with their great contributions to science they mostly haven´t been fairly awarded or somehow, they have been put aside.

We often hear about a lack of female role model in science, this is whether true or because women are not strongly hyped as men. Indeed, we’re not taught about them in school, not at all in history class.

These days, I came across Women winning a Nobel Prize; do you have an idea how many they are? Could you think of at least five women winning the Nobel Prize?

I will give you the answer soon! Since 1901 when the first Prize assignment took place, there have been only 20 women Nobel Prize winners, it could sound like a great number, but, no longer if we consider that 596 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to men.

From time to time in human history, women have had to face with bias and prejudices, often it was forbidden for them to study and to pursue their goals, especially in scientific areas. Even though the society overwhelmingly subjugated women, many of them were brave enough to overstep the boundaries striving for a bright scientific career. After reading not only about Nobel Prizes, but also every single contribution and awards that women have accomplished in science, I became truly astonished at their brilliant endeavors, and that is why I would like to make you feel inspired as well.

Unfortunately, for time reason I will not be able to mention all of them; therefore, I apologize in advance to all the great women I will not cite in this post, however, I will share some interesting links by which you can know more about them and their life.

Considering that I am a chemist pursuing a PhD in engineering I will focus more in those women who gave the extra mile in major like Physics and Chemistry, because those are my biggest passions.

Now, here we are! Guess who will be the first one I am going to talk about?… Of course, Marie Curie, I am pretty sure that we all know at least a little bit about her.

Maria Curie Skłodowska

She was born in Warsaw, 1867. She was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. Marie Curie has been not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she was the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice and in two scientific fields. She was honored of the first Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1903, jointly with Pierre Curie (her husband) and Antonie Henri Becquerel for discovering and developing the theory of radioactivity.

Influenced by two important discoveries done from Wilhelm Roentgen (1895) regarding the existence of X-rays and Henri Becquerel (1896) concerning uranium salts emitting rays, Curie decided to investigate uranium rays as a possible field of research for a thesis. She started off by studying a variety of chemical compounds that contained uranium. She discovered that the strength of the rays that came out depended only on the amount of uranium in the compound. To prove their discovery, the Curies sought to isolate polonium and radium in pure form, trying to separate out radium salt by differential crystallization. Marie Curie succeeded in isolating pure radium metal (1910); unfortunately, she never isolated polonium. The discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable elements allowed her to win the second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.

Irène Joliot-Curie

The daughter of Marie Curie and Pierre Curie was born in Paris in 1897. She was chemist, physicist, and a politician of Polish ancestry. She was one of the first three women to be a member of a French government, and one of the six commissioners of the new French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in 1945. Irène, a passionate member of the feminist movement, continuously fought for the even admission of women in scientific organizations as the Academy of Science. She also played a big role for the French contingent at the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace, which promoted the World Peace movement.

Jointly with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity; this has made the Curies family with the most Nobel laureates to date. The artificial radioactivity is based on the use of radiation to make a previously stable material radioactive, it was achieved by bombarding boron, aluminum, and magnesium with alpha particles to create radioactive isotopes. The Joliot-Curies showed that when lighter elements, such as boron and aluminum, were bombarded with α-particles, the lighter elements continued to emit radiation even after the α−source was removed; this radiation consisted of particles carrying one unit positive charge with mass equal to that of an electron, now known as a beta particle. After winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry Irène Curie was awarded a professorship at the Faculty of Science. She died in Paris on 17 March 1956 from an acute leukemia linked to her exposure to polonium and X-rays, the same disease that had killed her mother.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer

Maria Goeppert was born in Germany in 1906. She studied Mathematics and Physics at the University of Göttingen, where, in 1930, she earned her Doctorate in Philosophy. Her doctoral thesis “two-photon absorption in atoms” described the process in which two or more photons are absorbed by an atom simultaneously. Her work was considered a masterpiece of clarity and concreteness by Eugene Paul Wigner, a Hungarian physics with who she shared the Nobel Prize in 1963. Her work was purely theoretical and only in 1960 the concept was proven and since that her name Goeppert-Mayer (GM) has been used as measurement unit for the two-photon absorption cross section. For the first time in 1962 after developing the laser, the first experimental verification of two-photon-excited fluorescence was detected in a europium-doped crystal. In 1942, she moved to Argonne National Laboratory, where she developed the nuclear shell model; a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells. For this research she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, jointly with J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Wigner. Goeppert-Mayer was the first woman to receive the award for her contributions in physics after 60 years. Goeppert Mayer died in San Diego, California, on February 20, 1972; after her death, the American Physical Society (APS) created the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award to honor young female physicists at the beginning of their careers.

Dorothy Mary Crowfoot

Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin was born in Cairo in 1910. She was a British chemist, who advanced the technique of X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of biomolecules. Her first approach to this outstanding technique was at the young age, she was only 16 years old, when her mother gave her a book on X-ray crystallography, developing a great passion for science. She won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for discovering the structure of vitamin B12, becoming the third woman winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Vitamin B12 had first been discovered at Merck, but the structure at the time was almost completely unknown, which was then fully determined by Hodgkin using x-ray crystallography analysis. She deduced the presence of a ring structure because the crystals were pleochroic, a finding which she later confirmed using X-ray crystallography. Back in 1945, before the Nobel Prize, she gave a great contribution discovering respectively together with C.H. (Harry) Carlisle the structure of the cholesteryl iodide and the structure of penicillin (previously surmised by Edward Abraham and Ernst Boris Chain) together with Barbara Low. Dorothy Hodgkin was very committed against social inequalities and armed conflicts, for which she became president of the Pugwash Conference from 1976 to 1988 and awarded of the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet government in 1987 in recognition of her work for peace and disarmament. She died in July 1994 after a stroke.

Ada E. Yonath

Ada E. Yonath was born in Jerusalem in 1939, she is an Israeli crystallographer best known for her pioneering work on the structure of the ribosome. She graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a bachelor´s degree in chemistry in 1962 and a master´s degree in biochemistry in 1964. Her PhD thesis at the Weizmann Institute of Science concerned the X-ray crystallographic studies on the structure of collagen. After completing her postdoctoral research (1969,Carnegie Mellon University; and 1970, MIT), she returned to the Weizmann Institute of Science, where she established the first biological crystallography laboratory in Israel, where she is currently the director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly. Among all her great outcomes, Yonath contributed to determine the complete high-resolution structure of ribosomal subunits, elucidate mechanisms of drug resistance and synergism; moreover, she developed a number of new techniques, one of these is cryo-bio-crystallography. Despite all the disbelief, skepticism and unsuccessful predictions from the international community, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 after over two decades of studying the process of protein biosynthesis, together with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz. Yonath became the first Israeli woman to win the Nobel Prize out of ten Israeli Nobel laureates, the first woman from the Middle East to win a Nobel prize in the sciences, and the first woman in 45 years to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Donna Strickland

Donna Strickland was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 1959. She studied at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and obtained her doctoral degree at the University of Rochester in 1989, under the supervision of Gérard Mourou. In 1985, Strickland and Mourou succeeded in creating ultrashort high-intensity laser pulses without destroying the amplifying material, which lead them to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018. She is the third woman to win the physics Nobel and the first one since Maria Goeppert Mayer was honoured in 1963. In a telephone interview with the Royal Swedish Academy, Strickland was unaware only two women had won the prize before her, thereafter she claimed: “We need to celebrate women physicists because we are out there, and hopefully in time it will start to move forward at a faster rate. I am honoured to be one of those women”.

Strickland and Mourou have developed the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever created by mankind, towards a new technique of chirped pulse amplification. This method is able to stretch out each laser pulse and amplifying it, then compress each pulse back to its original duration, generating ultrashort optical pulses of terawatt to petawatt intensity. Nowadays, chirped pulse amplification is widely exploited for corrective eye surgeries. Strickland has held positions in different scientific program and organizations, as: Sloan Research Fellowship, Optical Society, International Society for Optics and Photonics and many others; she is currently a full professor at the University of Waterloo.

Frances Hamilton Arnold

Frances Hamilton Arnold was born in Pittsburg, in 1956. She studied mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University, then earned a doctorate in chemical engineering in 1985 at the University of California, Berkeley and became deeply interested in biochemical processes.

In 1993, Arnold conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyze chemical reactions. Directed evolution is a method used in protein engineering that mimics the process of natural selection to steer proteins or nucleic acids toward a user-defined goal. Protein engineering can be exploited both as an alternative to rationally designing modified proteins, as well as studies of fundamental evolutionary principles in a controlled, laboratory environment. In 2018, Frances H. Arnold received a one-half share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, with the other half jointly awarded to George Smith and Gregory Winter; she is the fifth woman to win the award in its 117 years of existence.

Arnold is credited for pioneering the use of directed evolution to create enzymes with improved and/or novel functions, such as production of renewable fuels and pharmaceutical compounds with less harm to the environment. Besides the Nobel Prize, Arnold received many others awards, including the Millennium Technology Prize and the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize, she is co-inventor of 40 US patents and in November 2018 she was listed as one of BBC´s 100 Women. From 2017 on going she is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Of course, we shouldn’t forget about all the other women winning science Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, hereby I will quickly list them so you can also know their name.

  • 1947 Gerty Theresa Cori, for the discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen;
  • 1977 Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones;
  • 1983 Barbara McClintock, for the discovery of mobile genetic elements;
  • 1986 Rita Levi-Montalcini, for the discoveries of growth factors;
  • 1988 Gertrude B. Elion, for the use of innovative methods of rational drug design for the development of new drugs;
  • 1995 Christiane N Nüsslein-Volhard, for the discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development;
  • 2004 Linda B. Buck, for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system;
  • 2008 Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, for their discovery of HIV, human immunodeficiency virus;
  • 2009 Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol W. Greider for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase;
  • 2014 May-Britt Moser, for the discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain;
  • 2015 Tu Youyou, for the discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria.

If you wish to know in detail the research that has driven these women towards the Nobel Prize I highly recommend to check this website https://www.nobelprize.org/; for some of them there is also the chance to join their speeches during the Nobel Prize assignation event.

I hope I could inspire you a bit more, especially all the young girls and women who are reading this blog. Unfortunately, we are still living in an unbalanced society, where the role of the woman is still underrated; indeed, frequently we do not receive the same benefits neither an even recognition. Back in the past; many of those brilliant researchers did not receive any salary for a while and it took a lot of time for their awards after misbelief and prejudices from the scientific community. Besides all the disadvantages they had to go through, my aim was to emphasize all their efforts and strong passion, which have driven those women being successful scientists. Science needs commitment and new ideas; however, novelties occur sharing knowledges and collaborating. We need to cooperate and jointly let´s be brave for tackle all the troubles both the society and science put in front of us, so let´s dare together!

Some interesting TED Talks for you to check out!