50 Most Important Women in Science

50 Most Important Women in Science
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

The gender gap in STEM is a complex issue with many interrelated causes. Some argue that there are fewer women that are genuinely interested in STEM careers. While there is some truth to this, we can never deny that discrimination and sexism are big hurdles. The case of Emmy Noether, an unsung hero in maths and physics, demonstrates this. Discrimination was so intense during her time that she was blocked from having a teaching position at the University of Göttingen by influential male members of the faculty. Nevertheless, she pushed on even teaching for free during her first years without holding any official position. Her lectures were promoted under DavidHilbert’s name and it was made out to be that she will only be “assisting”. Despite this being a constant theme in her life, even enduring an unpaid professorship position, she stayed the course and made great contributions to mathematics and mathematical physics.

This illustrates that the journey of women in science is one that is full of challenges. The road to success is paved with issues such as discrimination and sexism. As one author puts it, these issues were primarily driven by the assumed superiority of the male sex (Mozans, 2015). Moreover, women’s long trek to recognition in the scientific community did not begin in modern times. Hypatia, who lived between 350 to 370 CE, was one of the earliest recorded mathematicians in history (Ignotofsky, R., 2016). And, just like many of those who came after her, she paid the ultimate price for pursuing her science.

This document will take a deeper look at the 50 most important women in science since the 19th century in no hierarchical order. It will take into account their fields of expertise, their contributions that made a global impact, the recognitions they have received, as well as positions they have held or currently hold in their current organizations. It is also the goal of the article to promote equality between men and women in science, especially in the academe. Additionally, It aims to encourage young women to take career paths in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Most Important Women in Science

  1. Women in Natural Sciences
  2. Women in Formal Sciences
  3. Women in Applied Sciences

These days, the role of women in the scientific community has evolved from being ignored and undermined to one of recognition and fame. But women in science even today are far from achieving equal footing with their male counterparts in places such as the academe, where women applying for faculty positions still have problems competing with more accomplished men (Ceci & William, 2018). Still, this has not fazed female scientists from pursuing their goals, continuing to discover and innovate for the common good.

A majority of researchers in STEM are still men. Even with the increasing demand for more researchers in science, policies and programs encouraging women to take up careers in STEM are still limited. As such, only 29.3% of the total researchers in the world are female (full-time and part-time).

Source: UNESCO

Fortunately, many female scientists are already achieving great things in science while working alongside their male counterparts. They serve as role models for young female scientists to continue their careers in STEM. Below are the 50 most important women in science.

Women in Natural Sciences

1. Eugenie Clark (1922 – 2015) – Japanese-American Ichthyologist

Eugenie Clark

Area of expertise: Ichthyology

Major contributions: Eugenie Clark is known as The Shark Lady. Her work and research on shark behavior led her to produce more than 175 scientific articles that allowed her to dispel assumptions about sharks and promote the preservation of marine environments. She also conducted various studies of fish in the order Tetraodontiformes. Clark is also considered as the authority in scuba diving for research. 

Notable recognitions:

  • 1975 Gold Medal from the Society of Woman Geographers
  • 1986 Lowell Thomas Award for Undersea Exploration
  • 1987 NOGI Award in Science
  • 1989 – Inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame
  • 1993 Franklin L. Burr Award
  • 2015 HDS Diving Pioneer Award for her contributions to marine science (HDS, 2015).

2. Susan Solomon (born 1956) – American Atmospheric Chemist

Susan Solomon

Area of expertise: Atmospheric Chemistry

Major contributions: Susan Solomon, along with her colleagues in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the first to identify the chlorofluorocarbon free radical reaction mechanism as the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole. Her team measured levels of chlorine oxide, which is 100 times higher than expected. Her research had significant effects on various environmental policies around the world.      

Notable recognitions:

  • 1999 National Medal of Science
  • 2007 William Bowie Medal
  • 2009 National Women’s Hall of Fame
  • 2012 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award
  • 2012 Vetlesen Prize (shared with Jean Jouzel)

3. Donna Theo Strickland (born 1959) – Canadian Optical Physicist

Donna Strickland

Area of expertise: Physics, Optics, and Lasers

Major contributions: Donna Theo Strickland is considered as a pioneer in the study of pulsed lasers. Together with Gérard Mourou, she invented the chirped pulse amplification without destroying the amplifying material. Her various research on optics has led to contributions to various industries, including corrective eye surgery. By receiving the Nobel Prize for her work as a doctoral student, Strickland became the third woman to have ever won the illustrious prize in Physics (Goswami, 2018).

Notable recognitions:

  • 2000 Cottrell Scholars Award
  • 2008 – Named Fellow of The Optical Society
  • 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics (shared with Gerard Mourou and Arthur Ashkin)
  • 2019 – Named Honorary Fellow of The Canadian Academy of Engineering
  • 2020 – Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS)

4. Linda Brown Buck (born 1947) – American Biologist

Linda Brown Buck

Area of expertise: Biology

Major contributions: Linda Brown Buck, together with Richard Axel, made significant studies on olfactory receptors. She mapped the olfactory processes at the molecular level. This includes tracing the journey of odors from the cells of the nose to the brain. She published her findings on the organization of various odor receptors in the nose.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1992 Takasago Award
  • 1996 Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award
  • 2003 Gairdner Foundation International Award
  • 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Shared with Richard Axel)
  • 2015 ForMemRS 

5. Carol Widney Greider (born 1961) – American Molecular Biologist

Carol Greider

Area of expertise: Molecular Biology

Major contributions: Carol Widney Greider discovered the enzyme telomerase when she was a graduate student of Elizabeth Helen Blackburn. They pioneered the study on the structure of telomeres, which protects the chromosome. Along with Jack W. Szostak and Blackburn, they discovered that telomeres are protective from shortening by the enzyme. 

A professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Greider was awarded the Richard Lounsbery Award by the National Academy of Sciences in 2003.

Notable recognitions:

  • 2003 Richard Lounsbery Award
  • 2006 Lasker Award
  • 2007 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize
  • 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Shared with Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak)
  • 2019 Pinnacle Award from Association for Women in Science

6. Elizabeth Helen Blackburn (born 1948) – Australian-American Molecular Biologist

Elizabeth Helen Blackburn

Area of expertise: Molecular Biology

Major contributions: Elizabeth Helen Blackburn co-discovered telomerase, which is the enzyme that replenishes the telomere. She conducted the study with a fellow woman in science, Carol W. Greider. Both women conducted research on the telomere, which is a structure that protects the chromosome. She also worked in medical ethics.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1992 – Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS)
  • 2006 Meyenburg Prize
  • 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Shared with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak)
  • 2012 AIC Gold Medal (First woman to receive the prize)
  • 2015 Royal Medal from the Royal Society

7. Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 1943) – British Astrophysicist

Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Area of expertise: Astrophysics

Major contributions: Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell co-discovered the first radio pulsars back in 1967 when she was still a postgraduate student. It was thought to be one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century. While the discovery was recognized by the Nobel Prize committee, she was not one of the recipients of the award. 

Notable recognitions:

  • 1978 J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize
  • 1989 Herschel Medal
  • 2010 Michael Faraday Prize
  • 2015 Royal Medal
  • 2018 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

8. Dame Jane Morris Goodall (born 1934) – English Anthropologist and Primatologist

Jane Morris Goodall

Area of expertise: Anthropology, Primatology, and Conservatism

Major contributions: Dame Jane Goodall is the world’s leading expert on chimpanzees due to her decades’ worth of research. She studied the familial and social interactions of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. Her research challenged the long-standing belief that only humans can create and use tools and that chimpanzees only eat plants. She is also popular for her work in conservationism and animal welfare.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1990 Kyoto Prize
  • 1995 Hubbard Medal
  • 1997 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement
  • 2006 UNESCO 60th Anniversary Medal
  • 2019 Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society 

9. Virginia H. Holsinger (1937 – 2009) – American Food Scientist

Area of expertise: Chemistry and Food Science

Major contributions: Virginia H. Holsinger made significant contributions to the dairy industry. She helped develop Beano and Lactaid, which are milk substitutes for those with lactose intolerance. This led to the creation of the lactose-free dehydrated milk, which has a long shelf life. Holsinger also created the reduced-fat mozzarella cheese used in the USDA’s National School Lunch Program and food formulated for emergencies used in the Food for Peace program by the US Agency for International Development. 

Notable recognitions:

  • Named leader of the Dairy Products Research Unit at Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Eastern Regional Research Center
  • 2000 – Inducted into the ARS Hall of Fame

10. Rachel Louise Carson (1907 – 1964) – American Marine Biologist, Conservationist, and Author

Rachel Louise Carson

Area of expertise: Marine Biology and Conservationism

Major contributions: Rachel Louise Carson’s writing, such as Silent Spring, is credited to have spurred the modern global environmental movement. Her strong opposition to chemicals in pesticides led to the nationwide ban on DDT. Additionally, her career in marine biology also helped her write her sea trilogy: The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, and Under the Sea Wind. These books allowed readers to explore ocean life and how human activities affect the sea.  

Notable recognitions:

  • 1973 – Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (Posthumous)
  • 1980 Presidential Medal of Freedom (Posthumous)
  • 1981 – A Great American series postage stamp was issued in her honor (Posthumous)
  • 1991 – Her house in Colesville, Maryland was named as an official National Historic Landmark (Posthumous)
  • 2016 – University of California, Santa Cruz named the Rachel Carson College after her (Posthumous)

11. Lydia Villa-Komaroff (born 1947) – Mexican-American Molecular and Cellular Biology

Lydia Villa Komaroff

Area of expertise: Molecular Biology

Major contributions: Lydia Villa-Komaroff’s notable contribution to science is her discovery of how bacterial cells can be used to generate insulin. Her landmark report was the pioneering process where a mammalian hormone was synthesized by bacteria. It was a significant milestone in the development of the biotechnology industry.   

Notable recognitions:

  • 1992 Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Award
  • 2013 – Named Woman of Distinction by the American Association of University Women (AAUW)
  • 2015 – Named Distinguished Women Scientist by the White House
  • 2016 Morison Prize
  • 2017 – Named as one of the Storied Women of MIT

12. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 – 1997) – Chinese-American Experimental Physicist

Chien-Shiung Wu

Area of expertise: Physics

Major contributions: Chien-Shiung Wu, also known as the “First Lady of Physics” and the “Queen of Nuclear Research,” made several contributions to the field of nuclear physics. She worked in the Manhattan Project, where she created a process to separate uranium resulting in uranium-238 and uranium-235 isotopes using gaseous diffusion. Wu also proved that parity is not conserved through the Wu Experiment. 

Notable recognitions:

  • 1964 Comstock Prize in Physics
  • 1975 National Medal of Science
  • 1975 Tom W. Bonner Prize
  • 1978 Wolf Prize in Physics
  • 1998 – Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame

13. Ruth Rogan Benerito (1916 – 2013) – American Chemist

Ruth Rogan Benerito

Area of expertise: Chemistry

Major contributions: Ruth Rogan Benerito held 55 patents throughout her life, which include notable inventions. Her studies made great contributions to the textile industry, which include the invention of wrinkle-free cotton. Her research also led to the invention of glassy fibers which are useful in developing laboratory equipment.  

Notable recognitions:

  • 1968 Federal Woman Award
  • 1970 Garvan Medal
  • 1984 – Named Woman of Achievement at the World’s Fair
  • 2002 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award
  • 2008 – Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame

14. Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968) – Austrian-Swedish Physicist

Lise Meitner

Area of expertise: Physics

Major contributions: Lise Meitner worked on nuclear physics and radioactivity, which led to her discovery, along with Otto Robert Frisch, of nuclear fission of uranium when it absorbs an extra neutron. This discovery helped in the development of nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons in World War II. 

Notable recognitions:

  • 1946 – Named Woman of the Year by the National Press Club
  • 1949 Max Planck Medal
  • 1955 ForMemRS
  • 1960 Wilhelm Exner Medal
  • 1966 Enrico Fermi Award (Shared with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann)   

15. Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867 – 1934) – Polish Physicist and Chemist

Marie Curie

Area of expertise: Physics and Chemistry

Major contributions: Along with her husband, Pierre, she pioneered and developed the theory of radioactivity. She also created techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes. Furthermore, the wife-and-husband team discovered two elements: radium and polonium. She also developed mobile radiography units during World War I, which provided X-ray services to various field hospitals. They founded the Curie Institutes in Warsaw and Paris, which remain major medical research bodies in the world. Lastly, she is the only woman to win two Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry. She was also the first woman professor at the University of Paris.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • 1903 Davy Medal
  • 1910 Albert Medal
  • 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
  • 1921 Franklin Medal  

16. Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958) – English Chemist and X-Rray Crystallographer)

Rosalind Franklin

Area of expertise: Physical Chemistry and X-Ray Crystallography

Major contributions: Rosalind Franklin’s work on the x-ray diffraction images, Photon 51, led to the double helix structure of the DNA. Many figures in the scientific community argue that Rosalind should have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alongside James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. She continued her research on x-ray crystallography, which led to her pioneering work on molecular structures of viruses, coal, and graphite.

Notable recognitions :

  • 2001 The American National Cancer Institute established the Rosalind E. Franklin Award (Posthumous)
  • 2004 – The Chicago Medical School changed its name to the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (Posthumous)
  • 2008 – The Institute of Physics established the Rosalind Franklin Medal and Prize in her honor (Posthumous)
  • 2008 Honorary Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (Posthumous)
  • 2019 – The European Space Agency named their ExoMars rover after her (Posthumous)

17. Jennifer Anne Doudna (born 1964) – American Biochemist

Jennifer Anne Doudna

Area of expertise: Biochemistry, RNA Biology, Gene Editing, and CRISPR-Cas

Major contributions: Jennifer Anne Doudna is the leading scientist in the CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) revolution due to her leadership and fundamental work in developing CRISPR-mediated genome editing. Along with Emmanuelle Charpentier, she proposed that CRISPR-Cas9 can be used for programmable editing of genomes, which is considered one of the most important discoveries in biology to date. Her discovery has been used in many research from cell biology to treatment of diseases such as HIV, sickle cell anemia, and cystic fibrosis. She is currently a Li Ka Shing Chancellor Chair Professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley. Furthermore, she also serves as a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes. Lastly, she is the director of the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) at UC Berkeley, which is a leading testing center for COVID-19.

Notable recognitions: 

  • 2000 Alan T. Waterman Award
  • 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences
  • 2017 Japan Prize
  • 2018 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience
  • 2020 Wolf Prize in Medicine

18. Maria Goeppert Mayer (1906 – 1972) – German-Born American Theoretical Physicist

Maria Goeppert Mayer

Area of expertise: Theoretical Physics

Major contributions: Maria Goeppert Mayer developed a mathematical model for the structure of the nuclear shell of the atomic nucleus. She also joined the Manhattan Project, where she studied the thermodynamic and chemical properties of uranium hexafluoride. She also conducted investigations on the possibility of separating isotopes by photochemical reactions.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1965 – Elected as Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics (Shared with Eugene Paul Wigner and J. Hans D. Jensen)
  • 1965 Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement
  • 1996 – Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame
  • The American Physical Society (APS) Maria Goeppert Mayer Award was established in her honor

19. Lisa Randall (born 1962) – American Theoretical Physicist

Lisa Randall

Area of expertise: Physics

Major contributions: Lisa Randall’s work on cosmology and particle physics includes fundamental forces, dimensions of space, and elementary particles. Along with Raman Sundrum, she developed the Randall-Sundrum model, which describes the world in a warped-geometry higher-dimensional universe. Her studies also include the Standard Model, cosmology of dimensions, and dark matter, among others. Randall is one of the most cited theoretical physicists in the last decade and is currently a Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University

Notable recognitions:

  • 1992 National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award
  • 2007 – Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People
  • 2007 Lilienfeld Prize
  • 2012 Andrew Gemant Award
  • 2019 J.J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics

20. Alice Augusta Ball (1892 – 1916) – American Chemist

Alice Augusta Ball

Area of expertise: Chemistry

Major contributions: Alice Augusta Ball developed the most effective treatment for leprosy in the 20th century called “Ball Method.” She developed a method that made chaulmoogra oil injectable and easily absorbed by the body. Her technique involved isolating the ester compounds from the raw material while maintaining its therapeutic qualities.

Notable recognitions:

  • The first African American and female chemistry professor at the University of Hawaii
  • 2000 – February 29 was declared “Alice Ball Day” in Hawaii  
  • 2007 Medal of Distinction from the University of Hawaii Board of Regents (Posthumous)
  • 2019 – The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine added her name alongside Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie to the frieze of their main building.

21. Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming (1857 – 1911) – Scottish Astronomer

Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming

Area of expertise: Astronomy

Major contributions: Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming created a common designation system for stars that help her, and other astronomers catalog thousands of stars and other heavenly phenomena. Along with other female colleagues, she helped classify stars published in the pioneering Henry Draper Catalog. Fleming also discovered 310 variable stars, 59 gaseous nebulae, and ten novae throughout her career. Her notable discovery was the Horsehead Nebula back in 1888.

Notable recognitions:

  • Guadalupe Almendaro Medal from the Astronomical Society of Mexico
  • 1906 – The first woman to be elected as an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of London
  • Named an honorary fellow of Wellesley College
  • 1970 – The Fleming lunar crater was jointly named after and Alexander Fleming (unrelated)

22. Annie Jump Cannon (1863 – 1941) – American Astronomer

Annie Jump Cannon

Area of expertise: Astronomy

Major contributions: Annie Jump Cannon’s work is much similar to Williamina Fleming’s in the categorization of stars. She helped develop contemporary stellar classification. Along with Edward C. Pickering, she created the Harvard Classification Scheme, which was thought to be the first serious attempt at organizing stars based on their spectral types and temperature. She was also a member of the National Women’s Party and a suffragist. She earned the nickname “Census Taker of the Sky” for classifying around 300,000 stellar bodies. 

Notable recognitions:

  • 1931- Henry Draper Medal (First woman to receive the award)
  • 1932 Ellen Richards Prize
  • Elected officer of the American Astronomical Society (First woman to hold the position)
  • The asteroid 1120 Cannonia and lunar crater Cannon was named after her
  • 1994 – Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame

23. Isabella Karle (1921 – 2017) – American Chemist

Isabella Karle

Area of expertise: Chemistry

Major contributions: Isabella Karle was valuable in developing the process of extracting plutonium chloride from a mixture that contains plutonium oxide. She was also the first to apply the methods for analyzing the structure of crystals, which her husband, Jerome Karle, developed. Their work helped advance the field of x-ray crystallography. She also helped her husband in his work on developing direct methods for evaluating x-ray diffraction data, where he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1978 – Elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1988 Gregori Aminoff Prize
  • 1993 Bower Award
  • 1993 – Elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences
  • 1995 National Medal of Science

24. Gerty Theresa Cori (1896 – 1957) – Astro-Hungarian-American Biochemist

Gerty Cori

Area of expertise: Biochemistry

Major contributions: Gerty Theresa Cori’s most notable contribution to science was her role in the discovery of glycogen metabolism. With her husband Carl and physiologist Bernardo Houssay, they discovered the process by which glycogen is broken down into lactic acid in the muscle tissue. They also found out that glycogen is resynthesized in the body and then stored as a source of energy. The process is known as the Cori Cycle.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (First woman to receive the prize in that category)
  • 1948 Garvan–Olin Medal
  • 1951 Borden Award
  • 1952 – Appointed as board member of the National Science Foundation by President Harry Truman
  • 1953 – Elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

25. Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848) – German Astronomer

Caroline Herschel

Area of expertise: Astronomy

Major contributions: Caroline Herschel was known for her contributions to astronomy, most notably her discovery of various comets, including 35P/Herschel–Rigollet. The Royal Society also published her New Genera Catalogue, which arranged more than 2000 nebulae and star clusters so her nephew, John Herschel, can re-examine them systematically. She was also known as the first woman in England to hold a position in the government and the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1828 Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society
  • 1835 – Elected as Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society
  • 1846 Prussian Gold Medal for Science 
  • 1888 – Asteroid 281 Lucretia was named in her honor

26. Annie Scott Dill Maunder (1868 – 1947) – Irish-British Astronomer

Annie Scott Dill Maunder

Area of expertise: Astronomy

Major contributions: Annie Scott Dill Maunder was considered one of the pioneers in astronomical photography. She worked with Edward Walter Maunder (whom she later married) as an assistant. And together, they observed sunspots and refined various techniques of solar photography. Her mathematical processes also allowed them to analyze years of sunspot data.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1892 – One of the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society
  • 2016 – The Royal Astronomical Society established the Annie Maunder Outreach Medal after her.

27. Sara Seager (born 1971) – Canadian-American Astronomer and Planetary Scientist

Sarah Seager

Area of expertise: Astronomy and Planetary Science

Major contributions: Sara Seager is known for her research on extrasolar planets and their atmospheres. She is known as an astronomical Indiana Jones. For example, she created a model for exoplanet Gliese 581 c, which is composed of helium and hydrogen.   

Notable recognitions:

  • 1990 NSERC Science and Technology Fellowship award
  • 2004 Harvard Bok Prize in Astronomy
  • 2012 Sackler Prize
  • 2013 MacArthur Fellowship award

Women in Formal Sciences

28. Dame Mary Lucy Cartwright (1900 – 1998) – British Mathematician

Dame Mary Lucy Cartwright

Area of expertise: Mathematics

Major contributions: Dame Mary Lucy Cartwright was one of the pioneers of chaos theory. She observed a large number of solutions to a problem she was researching. This later became an example of the butterfly effect. 

Notable recognitions:

  • 1964 – Sylvester Medal (First woman to receive the award)
  • 1947 – Elected as Fellow of the Royal Society (First woman to serve on the council)
  • 1951 – Elected as President of the Mathematical Association (First woman to be elected)
  • 1961 – Elected as President of the London Mathematical Society (First woman to be elected)
  • 1968 De Morgan Medal of the Society

29. Amalie Emmy Noether (1882 – 1935) – German Mathematician

amalie emmy noether

Area of expertise: Mathematics

Major contributions: Amalie Emmy Noether made many notable contributions to mathematics and physics. As one of the leading mathematicians of her time, she developed theories of fields, rings, and algebras. She also formulated Noether’s Theorem, which explains the relationship between conservation laws and symmetry. Due to her countless contributions, her contemporaries, which include Albert Einstein, dubbed her the most important woman in the history of mathematics. To this day, she continues to be an inspiration for women looking to thrive in math careers

Notable recognitions: 

  • 1932 Ackermann–Teubner Memorial Award (Shared with Emil Artin)
  • 1932 – Delivered a plenary address at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Zürich 
  • 2013 – The Emmy Noether Distinction for Women in Physics Award was established in her honor
  • The Noether Lecture is organized every year by the Association for Women in Mathematics in her honor
  • The crater Nöther on the moon is named after her

30. Sofya Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya (1850 – 1891) – Russian Mathematician

Area of expertise: Mathematics and Mechanics

Major contributions: Sofya Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya made significant contributions to various fields, such as partial differential equations, analysis, and mechanics. She was thought to be the pioneer for women in mathematics around the world. She was the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in mathematics in modern Europe. Kovalevskaya was also the first woman to work for a scientific journal where she took on the role of editor. Aside from her work in mathematics, she was also known for her novels, essays, and plays. She was also an advocate of women’s rights.  

Notable recognitions:

  • 1985 – The Kovalevskaia Fund was named in her honor with the aim of supporting women in science in various developing countries
  • The Sonya Kovalevsky Lecture was established in her honor
  • The Sofia Kovalevskaya Award was established in her honor 

31. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815 – 1852) – English Mathematician and Writer

Augusta Ada King

Area of expertise: Mathematics, Computing

Major contributions: Ada Lovelace is known to be the first computer programmer due to her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. She published the first algorithm after recognizing the potential of the machine beyond calculation. To this day, she is considered to be an inspiration by many women to pursue mathematics and computer science. 

Notable recognitions:

  • The computer language, Ada, was developed in honor of her contributions to computing
  • 1981 – The Association for Women in Computing’s Ada Lovelace Award was established in her honor
  • 1998 – The British Computer Society’s (BCS) Lovelace Medal was established in her honor  

32. Gladys Mae West (born 1930) – American Mathematician

Gladys Mae West

Area of expertise: Mathematics, Satellite Geodesy

Major contributions: Gladys Mae West developed the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth. Her work in the satellite geodesy models is still being used in Global Positioning System (GPS). She programmed an IBM computer to precisely calculate the shape of the Earth known as the geoid. 

Notable recognitions:

  • 2018 – Inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame. It is one of the highest honors awarded by Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)
  • 2018 – Named as one of BBC’s 100 Women of 2018

33. Maryam Mirzakhani (1977 – 2017) – Iranian Mathematician

Maryam Mirzakhani

Area of expertise: Mathematics

Major contributions: Maryam Mirzakhani’s various contributions to the theory of moduli spaces of Riemann surfaces, Teichmüller theory, ergodic theory, hyperbolic geometry, and symplectic geometry pushed various research and the whole field forward. 

Notable recognitions:

  • 1994 and 1995 – Gold Medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad
  • 2014 Clay Research Award
  • 2014 – The University of Oxford established the Mirzakhani Society in her name.
  • 2019 – The Breakthrough Prize Foundation established the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize
  • 2020 – Named as one of the female scientists who shaped the world by the United Nations on Women’s on International Day of Women and Girls in STEM

34. Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (1906 – 1992) – American Computer Scientist

Grace Brewster Murray Hopper

Area of expertise: Computer Science

Major contributions: Grace Hopper was a US Navy rear admiral and is considered a pioneer in computer programming who invented the first linkers. She was also considered as one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I. Hopper also popularized machine-independent programming languages, which led to the invention of COBOL. She was also part of the team that developed UNIVAC I. 

Notable recognitions:

  • 1953 Naval Reserve Medal
  • 1964 Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award
  • 1969 Data Processing Management Association Man of the Year Award
  • 1991 National Medal of Technology
  • 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom (Posthumous)

35. Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck (born 1942) – American Mathematician

Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck

Area of expertise: Mathematics

Major contributions: Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck is known as the founder of modern geometric analysis. Her pioneering contributions to mathematics include achievements in gauge theory, geometric partial differential equations, and integrable systems. Furthermore, she also made impacts in mathematical physics, analysis, and geometry.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1983 MacArthur Fellowship
  • 1988 Noether Lecture Award
  • 2000 National Medal of Science
  • 2019 Abel Prize
  • 2007 and 2020 Leroy P. Steele Prize

36. Baroness Ingrid Daubechies (born 1954) – Belgian Physicist and Mathematician

Area of expertise: Mathematics and Physics

Major contributions: Baroness Ingrid Daubechies is popularly known for her research in wavelets in image compression. She is also known as one of the most cited mathematicians in the world due to her work in the mathematical methods that significantly improved the image-compression technology. A wavelet from the Cohen–Daubechies–Feauveau wavelet family is now used in the JPEG 2000 standard. She also conducted studies in image processing techniques that are used to determine the age and authenticity of world-famous artworks.

Notable recognitions: 

  • 2012 – Granted the title of Baroness by King Albert II of Belgium
  • 2012 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award
  • 2019 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award
  • 2020 Princess of Asturias Award

Women in Applied Sciences

37. Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (1914 – 2000) – Austrian-American Inventor, Actress, and Film Producer

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler

Area of expertise: Radio Signals

Major contributions: Hedy Lamarr is a popular actress and film producer with a knack for invention. Together with George Antheil, she designed and implemented a frequency-hopping spread spectrum. It cannot be tracked or jammed, which proved useful in World War II. Her patented technology led to various applications such as Bluetooth and WiFi.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1951 – Asteroid 32730 Lamarr was named in her honor
  • 1997 Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (Shared with George Antheil)
  • 1997 Invention Convention’s BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award
  • 2014 – Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (Posthumous)      

38. Tu Youyou (born 1930) – Chinese Malariologist and Pharmaceutical Chemist

Tu Youyou

Area of expertise: Medicinal Chemistry, Clinical Research, and Antimalarial Research

Major contributions: Tu Youyou made one of the biggest breakthroughs in medicine in the 20th century. She discovered dihydroartemisinin and artemisinin, which are used to treat malaria. Tu saved millions of lives in South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and South China. 

Notable recognitions:

  • 2011 GlaxoSmithKline Outstanding Achievement Award in Life Science
  • 2011 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award (First Chinese citizen to receive the award)
  • 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (First female Chinese to receive the award; shared with William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura)

39. Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 – 2012) – Italian Neurobiologist

Rita Levi-Montalcini

Area of expertise: Neurobiology

Major contributions: Rita Levi-Montalcini is celebrated for her work in neurobiology due to her discovery of the nerve growth factor (NGF). She isolated NGF from cancerous tissues that cause rapid growth of nerve cells.

Notable recognitions: 

  • 1970 Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement
  • 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Shared with Stanley Cohen)
  • 1986 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (Shared with Stanley Cohen)
  • 1987 National Medal of Science
  • 2001 – Served as a Senator for Life in the Italian Senate from 2001 until her death in 2012

40. Gertrude Belle Elion (1918 – 1999) – American Pharmacologist and Biochemist

Gertrude Belle Elion

Area of expertise: Biochemistry and Pharmacology

Major contributions: Gertrude Belle Elion is noted for her use of innovative methods of rational drug design in developing new drugs. Her methods focused on the target of the drug rather than the traditional trial-and-error process. Her research led to the creation of AZT, a drug for AIDS. Some of her significant works also include pioneering the work on immunosuppressive drugs, azathioprine, which is used to fight rejection in organ transplants. She also developed the first antiviral drug, acyclovir (ACV), which is used to treat herpes infection.

Notable recognitions: 

  • 1968 Garvan-Olin Medal
  • 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Shared with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black)
  • 1991 – Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (First woman inducted)
  • 1991 National Medal of Science
  • 1997 Lemelson-MIT Prize

41. Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910 – 1994) – British Chemist

Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin

Area of expertise: Biochemistry and X-Ray Crystallography

Major contributions: Dorothy Hodgkin contributed significantly to structural biology by making improvements in X-ray crystallography, which helped determine the structure of biomolecules. She also confirmed the structure of vitamin B12, penicillin, and insulin, which led to her Nobel Prize win.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1956 Royal Medal
  • 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
  • 1976 Copley Medal (First and only woman to receive the award)
  • 1982 Lomonosov Gold Medal
  • 1987 Lenin Peace Prize

42. Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992) – American Cytogeneticist

Barbara McClintock

Area of expertise: Cytogenetics

Major contributions: Barbara McClintock focused her entire life’s research on the development of maize cytogenetics. She achieved many groundbreaking studies such as visualizing maize chromosomes, the first genetic map for maize and relating various regions of the chromosome to physical traits. McClintock also discovered transposition and demonstrated that genes have the ability to turn physical characteristics on and off.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1944 – Elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was recognized as the best in the field
  • 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • 1970 National Medal of Science
  • 1981 Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal
  • 1982 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize

43. Mary Engle Pennington (1872 – 1952) – American Refrigeration Engineer and Bacteriological Chemist

Mary Engle Pennington

Area of expertise: Bacteriological Chemistry and Refrigeration Engineer

Major contributions: Mary Engle Pennington developed the standards for the safe processing of chickens that are raised for consumption. Additionally, her involvement in the design of refrigerated boxcars led to her research in the transportation and storage of perishable food. She also founded the Household Refrigeration Bureau, which educated consumers in safe practices in refrigeration at home. This was before the popularity of electric refrigerators.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1940 – Garvan-Olin Medal
  • Elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • 2007 – Inducted into the ASHRAE Hall of Fame
  • 2018 – Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame
  • 2018 – Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame

44. Virginia Apgar (1909 – 1974) – American Obstetrical Anesthesiologist

Virginia Apgar

Area of expertise: Anesthesiology

Major contributions: Virginia Apgar invented the Apgar Score, which is a quick method to assess the health of a newborn immediately after birth in order to combat infant mortality. By the 1960s, the Apgar Score was widely used in many hospitals in the United States. It is still being used today to provide a convenient method for reporting the health status of the newborn infant immediately after birth.

Notable recognitions:

  • 1973 Ralph M. Waters Award from the American Society of Anesthesiologists
  • 1966 Elizabeth Blackwell Award
  • 1966 Distinguished Service Award from the American Society of Anesthesiologists.
  • 1973 – Named Woman of the Year in Science by the Ladies Home Journal

45. May-Britt Moser (born 1963) – Norwegian Neuroscientist and Psychologist

May-Britt Moser

Area of expertise: Neuroscience and Psychology

Major contributions: May-Britt Moser and her husband, Edvard Moser, worked on the grid cells in the entorhinal cortex. They also studied various space-representing cell types that make up the positioning system in the brain. Furthermore, they established the Moser research environment at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Lastly, she has led the Centre for Neural Computation since 2012.

Notable recognitions: 

  • 2011 Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine
  • 2012 Perl-UNC Neuroscience Prize (Shared with her husband Edvard Moser)
  • 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Shared with her husband Edvard Moser and John O’Keefe)
  • 2014 Körber European Science Prize

46. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (born 1947) – French Virologist

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

Area of expertise: Virology

Major contributions: Françoise Barré-Sinoussi did the fundamental work on discovering the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as the cause of AIDS. Her discovery helped experts around the globe to create diagnostic tests to control the spread of the disease during the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s. Her research, along with her mentor, Luc Montagnier, led to various contributions to the understanding of HIV, such as the role of the immune defenses in controlling the virus and the factors at play in mother-to-child transmission. 

Notable recognitions: 

  • 1990 – Named Chevalier of the Order of Merit
  • 1993 The King Faisal International Prize for Medicine
  • 2007 – Inducted into the Women in technology International Hall of Fame
  • 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Shared with Luc Montagnier and Harald zur Hausen)
  • 2012 – Named president of the International AIDS Society

47. Ada E. Yonath (born 1939) – Israeli Crystallographer

Ada E. Yonath

Area of expertise: Crystallography

Major contributions: Ada E. Yonath is best known for her significant work on the structure of the ribosome. Aside from her extensive work on the ribosome, she also explored the effects of various antibiotics that target the ribosome. She also introduced a novel technique called cryo bio-crystallography, which became a part of structural biology.  

Notable recognitions:

  • 2002 Harvey Prize
  • 2006 Wolf Prize in Chemistry
  • 2008 Albert Einstein World Award of Science
  • 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (Shared with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz)
  • 2011 Marie Curie Medal

48. Frances Hamilton Arnold (born 1956) – American Chemical Engineer

Frances Hamilton Arnold

Area of expertise: Chemical Engineering

Major contributions: Frances Hamilton Arnold conducted the very first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyze various chemical reactions. Her research resulted in numerous applications, especially in manufacturing environmentally-friendly products, such as renewable fuels and pharmaceuticals.    

Notable recognitions: 

  • 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
  • 2017 Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in Convergence Research
  • 2016 Millennium Technology Prize
  • 2011 National Medal of Technology and Innovation 

49. Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova (born 1937) – Russian Engineer and Former Cosmonaut

Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova

Area of expertise: Aeronautics and Engineering

Major contributions: Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova is known to be the youngest and first woman to have embarked on a solo mission in space. She orbited the Earth 48 times aboard the Vostok 6 back in 1963. She spent around three days in space and still remains to be the only woman to have been on a solo mission in space.  

Notable recognitions: 

  • 1963 Gold Space Medal
  • 1964 Gold Medal of the British Society for Interplanetary Communications
  • 2008 Russian Federation State Prize

50. Brenda Milner (born 1918) – British-Canadian Neuropsychologist

Brenda Milner

Area of expertise: Neuropsychology

Major contributions: Brenda Milner has conducted and contributed numerous works to the field of clinical neuropsychology. She is sometimes referred to as the founder of neuropsychology. Her current research involves the interaction of the brain’s right and left hemispheres. At more than 100 years old, she is still overseeing various research in neuropsychology.        

Notable recognitions: 

  • 2004 Promoted to a Companion of the Order of Canada
  • 2005 Canada Gairdner International Award
  • 2009 Balzan Prize in Cognitive Neuroscience
  • 2014 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience

The Future of Women in STEM

While women have not received their rightful recognition in science, they have faithfully worked alongside their male counterparts in the name of scientific curiosity. They have worked as assistants, wives, or students who are often significant contributors to various achievements without the promise of well-deserved honors.

Many of them missed the opportunity to win prestigious awards, such as the Nobel Prize. Throughout history, only 46 women have won the Nobel prize, 16 for their notable contributions to research; the other 30 female Noble laureates were from the fields of peace, literature, and economics (Modgil et al., 2018). And yet, they have continued to push their fields and disciplines forward. 

Various issues still plague the involvement of women in science, especially in the academe. Gender pay gap (UNESCO, 2016), various gender politics, and the general culture of STEM education are still significant issues that often discourage young and experienced scientists alike to achieve their best work. However, steps are being taken to prevent biases, especially when reviewing works of women or people of color, such as double-blind peer-reviews (Etkin, 2017). Various studies are also conducted on why there are so few women in STEM in order to implement new policies to encourage more young women to consider such careers (Hill, 2010).

References:

  1. Abir-Am, P. G., & Outram, D. (1987). The Douglass series on women’s lives and the meaning of gender. Uneasy careers and intimate lives: Women in science 1789-1979. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. APA PsycNet 
  2. Ceci, S. J., & Williams, W. M. (2018). Women have substantial advantage in STEM faculty hiring, except when competing against more-accomplished men. The Underrepresentation of Women in Science: International and Cross-Disciplinary Evidence and Debate. https://doi.org/10.3389/978-2-88945-434-1
  3. Etkin, A., Gaston, T., & Roberts, J. (2017). Peer Review: Reform and Renewal in Scientific Publishing. Against the Grain Press. Google Books 
  4. Goswami, D. (2018). Nobel Prize in Physics – 2018. Resonance: Journal of Science Education, 23 (12), 1333-1341. https://www.ias.ac.in/article/fulltext/reso/023/12/1333-1341
  5. HDS. (2015). 2015 HDS Diving Pioneer Award. Journal of Diving History, 23 (83), 4. AquaticCommons
  6. Hill, C., Corbett, C., & Rose, A. S. (2010). Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology,  Engineering, and Mathematics. Washington, DC: AAUW. ERIC
  7. Ignotofsky, R. (2016). Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the WorldBerkeley, California: Ten Speed Press. GoogleBooks 
  8. JIM (2003). National Academy of Sciences honors Carol W. Greider with the Richard Lounsbery Award. Journal of Investigative Medicine, 51 (5), 258. https://dx.doi.org/10.1136/jim-51-05-11
  9. Modgil, S., Gill, R., Lakshmi Sharma V., Velassery S., & Anand A. (2018). Nobel nominations in science: Constraints of the fairer sex. Annals of Neurosciences, 25, 63–78. https://doi.org/10.1159/000481906
  10. Mozans, H. (2015). Women in Science. Daryaganj, New Delhi: Nine Books. GoogleBooks 
  11. Seymour, E. (1995). The loss of women from science, mathematics, and engineering undergraduate majors: An explanatory account. New York, NY: Wiley. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/sce.3730790406
  12. UNESCO (2016). UNESCO science report: Towards 2030. Paris, France: UNESCO

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