Female Scientists’ Discoveries and Impacts on the Past, Present, and Future

In honor of Earth Day coming up on April 22nd, it is important that we recognize the work done to protect the earth. There are many female scientists, authors, and conservationists who have made large contributions to our understanding of different creatures and our earth. Oftentimes they go unnoticed, so it is important to celebrate their discoveries.

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Rachel Carson is a widely known marine biologist and author, whose book Silent Spring played a major role in the environmental movement. Born in Springdale, Pennsylvania in 1907, she was interested in science and learning more about the earth from a young age. In 1929 she graduated from Chatham University, from which she went to work at the Woods Hole Biological Laboratory. She earned her MA in zoology at Johns Hopkins University. Carson taught for a few years before working for the US Bureau of Fisheries in 1932, where she was in charge of writing radio scripts. Carson became a federal editor and scientist in 1936, and worked to gain the position of Editor-in-Chief at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, where she worked for several years. In 1952 Carson resigned from the Fish and Wildlife Service to become an author. Some of her books include Under the Sea-Wind, the Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea, but her most well-known in its role in launching the environmental movement is Silent Spring. The book brings up many valid points around our effects on the earth. In her book she says, “The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature…Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it.” In 1963 Carson went on to advocate before congress for policies that better protect the environment and human health, which caused the government to better regulate the uses of pesticides. She once said, “Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” Carson’s work and writing have certainly inspired many to learn more and educate others on environmental issues, and as we are facing issues with global climate change and other environmental effects, we must remember her hard work.

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The nuclear physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu’s life story is told in Nobel Prize Women in Science, by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne. Wu was born in Liuhe, China, in 1912. She went to the Soochow Girls School, where she practiced “self learning”, to teach herself more about the things she was interested in, particularly physics. She went to college as a math major, and afterwards conducted research at the National Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, studying X-Ray Crystallography. In 1934 she went to UC Berkeley to study physics. She became one of Nobel Prize winner Ernest Lawrence’s assistances, and studied the nucleus with Emilio Segré. Segré described working with Wu, commenting, “Wu’s will power and devotion to work are reminiscent of Marie Curie, but she is more worldly, elegant, and witty.” Wu went to Southern California as Robert A. Millikan’s fellow. She developed her two-part Ph.D thesis, which covered both the electromagnetic energy that comes from matter slowing down in a particle, and the radioactive inert gases from the splitting of Uranium’s nucleus. She earned her Ph.D in 1940, and in 1942 she started teaching at Smith College. She then went on to become Princeton’s first female teacher. In 1944 at Columbia she worked to develop the radioactive detectors of an atomic bomb. In 1947 she became Columbia’s senior investigator of a federal research grant. Her work didn’t match the standards of the nobel prize, because people said that it wasn’t a true discovery, but in 1957, her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang were awarded the nobel prize for physics, with Wu’s work unnoticed. Wu then studied Sickle Cell Anemia. Wu once said, “Men have always dominated the fields of science and technology, look what an environmental mess we’re in.” This doesn’t mean that men shouldn’t be in science at all, but it is important that we have an equal balance of men and women in the STEM fields, and it is important that we are ensuring that women are getting the same treatment and recognition as men.

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Women Pioneers of Medical Research by King-Thom Chung tells the stories of many female scientists who have gone unnoticed for their crucial work and discoveries throughout history. Rosalind Franklin is one of them. Rosalind Franklin was the first to be able to show evidence of the Crystallography X-Ray of DNA, and was vital in Watson and Crick’s discovery of the Double Helix. She was born in 1920 in London into a wealthy family. She worked with Dr. Ronald G. W. Norris, studying Gas Phase Chromatry. Franklin worked to research coal microstructures at the British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA), writing five research papers solo. She earned her PhD in 1945, her thesis titled, “The Physical Chemistry of Solid Organic Colloids with Special Relation to Coal and Solid Materials”. In 1946 she became a researcher for the Laboratoire Central des Service Chimique de L’Etat. There she learned how to use x-ray diffraction to study the DNA structure. In 1951 she became Dr. John Randall’s fellow at the Medical Research Center at King’s College. From there she further studied DNA, working to take photos of the structures. She discovered that DNA can exist in wet and dry forms, and that the molecules can be surrounded by phosphate groups. She wrote about the symmetrical patterns that she found in the Double Helix, in the Medical Research Council Report (MRC). Watson and Crick used her photos in their evidence proving the DNA’s double helix pattern. Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, when Franklin was no longer alive, but she still did not receive full credit for all of her work.

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The people that are out in the field working to make new discoveries are completely essential, but writers are equally necessary in the process of educating the general public about science. The popular author and naturalist Sy Montgomery has written twenty books on animals. From an early age Montgomery showed an interest in animals, and she was shocked by all of the things that humans have done to negatively impact these animals and cause extinction to many species. She realized that writers have a strong power to save animals and to make the public recognize the issues animals face. In 1979 she graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in magazine journalism. She is a strong believer in immersion journalism and learning through experience. Her well known book, The Soul of an Octopus, speaks about her journeys around the world to meet octopuses and learn about their complex systems. She has realized how similar animals are to us but also how much more complex. She hopes that animals gain the respect they deserve for both being like us and unlike us and hopes that we can gain a deeper appreciation and that we can treat them with more respect and awe. Since 2015 The Soul of an Octopus has received various awards, one from the Humane Society. Montgomery directed and scripted Mother Bear Man for National Geographic, and travels around the world immersing herself in the lives of amazing animals such as the pink dolphin, apes, and tigers. The New York Times described Montgomery as, “Equal parts poet and scientist.” Though Montgomery might not be working in a lab, she is educating others about the minds of complicated species that we would know less about without her.

As we go into the future and hope to make new discoveries in science, it is vital to ensure that we aren’t forgetting the history of how we have acquired the knowledge, and that we give thanks where thanks are due.