Thursday, 21 January 2016

My Top Five Women in STEM Today

by Floss Willcocks

Women are widely underrepresented in STEM careers today. 

By STEM, I’m talking about Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths - absolutely crucial areas of human understanding which fuel and develop just about every other industry on the planet. The human race would be nothing without them.

I mean this in two senses, the literal sense of course (the very molecules we are made of all follow the basic laws of Chemistry, Physics and Biology), but I'm talking about humans as a constantly developing species as well. The ability to comprehend, discuss, explore and imagine the complexities of who we are, what we are, why we are here, and what we can do is what separates us from the monkeys. The fact that over an extremely short space of time (just a few generations) we have applied this knowledge and imagination to our lives in extraordinary ways, constantly improving our standard of living, our industries, our businesses, our governments and our relationships. 
It all boils down to STEM; a career field more than three quarters dominated by men.

However I don't have the right to rant too much about the gender imbalance. After all, universities and companies are desperate to change these shocking figures. I myself (a girl who has chosen Maths and Sciences at A Level) have been overwhelmed by opportunities to be “enticed” into STEM; university open days, competitions, taster courses… Many specifically targeting girls. I think it's brilliant, and it's certainly sparked a great deal of interest and excitement in me since I've begun researching the prospect of applying for a STEM-related degree.

And so this article is celebrating some of the most impressive female figures alive today who, in my opinion, not only have demonstrates outstanding talent and intellect in their area of study, but extreme determination and perseverance, for achieving what they have in a field so strongly dominated by men.

These women are in no particular order, they are just my personal top five women who have made scientific and mathematical accomplishments in their careers which have inspired and impressed me significantly. They are not famous or well-known to people like us, but it's very hard for anyone in this field of work to be. I hope writing about them here will go some way to giving them a small fraction of the recognition they deserve, and demonstrating my extreme admiration of them and their discoveries.

Elizabeth Holmes - born in Washington D.C, 1984

Just 31 years old, Elizabeth Holmes has made one of the biggest progressions in lab-test industry yet with her company Theranos, with whom she developed a new form of blood-testing known as Edison. With the latest micro-technology, Edison analyses and generates results equally as precise and accurate from just a few drops of blood, as opposed to whole vials which previously had to be extracted by traditional Venipuncture (big needles and syringes basically!). This leap in biomedical development would not only limit risk to patients, save the NHS millions and free up valuable time for healthcare workers, but also attracted immense interest from investors all over the world. Theranos was soon valued at $9 billion, earning Holmes the title of Youngest Self-Made Female Billionaire ever.

She was at first drawn to a career in medicine, but since she couldn't cope with the sight of blood and needles, she used this passion to drive her interest in science in a different direction.  When Elizabeth was 9 years old she wrote a letter to her Father saying “What I really want out of life is to discover something new, something that mankind didn’t know was possible to do.” Sounds a cheesy ambition right? But I guess in this case she really has proved that ambition and determination can pay off, and she was about to prove this further still…

In October 2015, Theranos was scrutinised heavily by an investigative report in the Wall Street Journal stating that Theranos had exaggerated the reach and reliability of its technology. Elizabeth showed her determination and loyalty by facing the press directly and heavily denying this accusation throughout the trial. Just as she had previously fought along a man-dominated career path to come out a winner, she successfully proved there was insufficient evidence for the accusations, and proudly indicated clear data showing Theranos's tests were reliable and accurate. A woman as impressive as her should be highly valued anywhere, and especially in the STEM world.

Kathryn Freese - born in Freiburg, 1957

Kathryn Freese currently holds the position of Professor of Physics at Stockholm University, and has made significant progressions on the subject that baffles astrophysicists more than anything - dark matter. 

The subject baffles us all to be honest, in fact it's so mysterious that no one has even come up with a proper name for it other than the generic, puzzling colour that it appears to be! It's caused great debate and discussion in the scientific world, but Kathryn is said to be the first to propose a way to actually discover it. After years of research, experimentation and cooperation with notable (male) scientists, her work concluded many brand new ideas (all far too confusing for someone like me to comprehend), but most importantly a new theoretical type of star, called a dark star, powered by dark matter annihilation rather than fusion. This new outlook on the mystery of dark matter may not mean much to me or you, but understanding the complexities of this undetectable space-stuff would unlock the biggest secrets of the universe; What is out there? Why is it out there? Where did it come from? And where will it go?

Finally, another reason I have to admire her is the effort she has made to make her area of research more accessible and understandable to the general public. Her book, titled “The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter” is partly autobiographical, and as well as explaining the principles of her scientific passion, it gives deserved credit to other scientists who have made significant contributions to dark matter study.

Jane Lubchenco - born in Colorado, 1947

It is said that Jane Lubchenco is perhaps the most determined and passionate researcher in Environmental and Marine Ecology alive today. This area of study is so vital and important to our everyday lives, our political affairs and the sustainable future of our civilisation, so the fact that one of the most notable and successful scientists in this field is a woman, represents a significant victory for us all in fight against the gender imbalance of STEM careers.

Following work on a new research and monitoring system of the changing biodiversity of the large marine ecosystem off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, she developed a deep passion for the science of Marine Reserves. These newly “Protected Areas” of the ocean have a strict “no-take” policy, and Lubchenco worked hard to bring attention to the impressive benefits of them, suggesting that the resulting increase in biodiversity and abundance could solve one of the biggest environmental and industrial dilemmas we face today - overfishing. She famously proposed the ‘20% by 2020’ phrase – that 20% of the world’s oceans be protected in marine reserves by the year 2020 to draw attention to the urgent need to protect and restore oceans to health. She has a great deal of opposition from large companies who extract marine resources to fuel their business, yet she still fights with determination against the depletion of Earth’s biodiversity across its oceans.

One unique aspect of Lubchenco’s position at Oregon State University where she is still teaching and researching (and has been since 1977) was the pioneering appointment she and her husband negotiated with the University. She persuaded the University to split a single assistant professor position into two, separate, half-time but tenure-track positions. The novel arrangement allowed Lubchenco to spend considerable time with her family while also teaching and doing research, an option which I suppose wasn't originally considered necessary for a “man’s profession”.

Maryam Mirzakhani - born in Tehran, 1977

 Born in Iran, being a woman was perhaps even more of a disadvantage for Maryam Mirzakhani than others as she climbed her way up the career-path of Mathematics. If it was, then she certainly defied all expectations when at the age of 17 she became the first ever Iranian female student to win a gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad. She did not stop there. She achieved a perfect 100% score the following year (the first Iranian student ever to do so) and went on quickly after obtaining her Bsc in Maths to undergo extensive and valuable research in the field of geometry. This was where she was to make her biggest and most impressive contribution to STEM yet…

Mirzakhani contrived a formula which revolutionised the way we look at geometric structures and surfaces. She focussed on hyperbolic surfaces, and how their properties arise in differential and algebraic geometry, which lead to new knowledge about how surfaces twist, stretch and deform. Her findings are now benefiting analysts and manufacturers all over the world.

In 2014, she became the first woman ever to win the Fields Medal (the most prestigious award obtainable for mathematics, since there is no Nobel Prize for it). There had been 55 Fields Medallists since the prize was first given over 75 years before, so to be the first bring public recognition to the importance of female contribution in Mathematics by earning the highest commendation in the field; that is certainly a just reason to admire this intelligent and determined woman.

Nina Tandon - born in New York, 1987

 After having researched a great deal into the development of bionic limbs for an article I wrote this Christmas, this last woman really caught my eye. It can be agreed by every biomedical engineer today that the secret to the future of sustainable replacement of anything in the human body is hidden within stem cell research. It is one of the most exciting developing industries out there; imagine simply growing a new liver, a new skin, or even a new leg for patients who have lost their previously functioning one. 

Well, by co-founding and researching with the company Epibone, Nina Tandon is growing the first living human bones for skeletal reconstruction. She is just 29 years old.

It works by means of building a 3D model of the anatomical defect from the patient’s CT scan. Then using this almost like a mould, a unique bioreactor is built which allows the adult stem cells from the patient to expand to the precise size and dimensions required. Although it seems quite simple written like this, it is ground-breaking technology which has transformed skeletal reconstruction into a far safer, more successful, more efficient process. A young, mixed race woman at the head of this revolution shows a significant progression in the fight for diversity among people in STEM careers today.

Another admirable quality about Tandon is how she strives to communicate the importance of her work to the general public, in a way that will interest and excite young people today. She is a Senior Fellow and Speaker for Ted Talks, contributing many short videos to encourage interest in STEM, and also discussing her most recent fields of research which include the “electronic nose” and “cardiac tissue engineering”. She has a regular (and popular) blog, she is very active on Twitter and LinkedIn too, and gives many lectures to students all over the world. She certainly is a high-achieving woman, and she truly deserves the recognition she gets from her online fans and followers. 


It is women like her, and the other four mentioned, who should be influencing the minds of young students today. Recognising their work and achievements will hopefully inspire others to follow, and even if a STEM career is not for you (it's definitely not for everyone), I hope this article has enlightened you to some of the recent progressions in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths which have been made by women in a man-dominated profession. 

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