Pioneering women making scientific history

13 Mar 2018

Pioneering women making scientific history

The history of scientific and technological breakthroughs led by women is a long one, yet it is not told enough. It dates back centuries and continues today across the globe.

It’s a history that stretches from a pioneering alchemist known as Mary the Jewess, who lived around 200 AD, through to the chemical physicist Rosalind Franklin, who helped reveal the structure of DNA.

It includes both Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century mathematician whose work paved the way for computing, and Grace Hopper, the American mathematician who then developed the world’s first commercial computer. 

That story continues today.

Rising stars

The shortlist for last year’s ‘Women Startup Challenge’, run by the American non-profit organization Women Who Tech and Craig Newmark of Craigslist and the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, offers a snapshot of the field’s rising stars.

The winner, Alexandra Grigore, co-founded Simprints after her Ph.D. in nanoscience at the University of Cambridge. Working with organizations such as UNICEF, Simprints uses a fingerprint-sensing device to link patients to online medical records. Her non-profit company already delivers better medical care to an estimated 90,000 people in South Asia and Africa.

Also shortlisted were:

British entrepreneur Samantha Payne for her Open Bionics project, which is 3D-printing bionic limbs for children.

Lifebit, an operating system for genomics developed by Maria Chatzou, from Spain.

Kristina Tsvetanova, a Bulgarian entrepreneur based in Vienna, whose company BLITAB Technology is making the first tactile tablet for blind and visually impaired people.

Tespack, co-founded by Caritta Seppa and Yesika Aguilera, who are Finnish and British respectively. Based in Helsinki, Tespack aims to make everyone ‘energy independent’ via wearable technology that uses solar power to charge your phone or tablet in minutes rather than hours.

“On average, half of us will run out of battery once a day,” says Caritta, “and this is just in the city.” For people in isolated areas or, say, the military “on rescue missions, access to energy becomes vital”.

Tespack has clients ranging from Vodafone to the United Nations, and even Gender, the Austrian Space Forum, with which they are “testing and developing mobile energy solutions for a Mars mission”.

Another Earth

Over in Canada, Sara Seager discovered the thrill of exploring other worlds early in life. One of her earliest childhood memories is of viewing the moon through a telescope with her father.

Now she is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There, she’s leading the search for another Earth, using the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to seek similar planets around the universe. The satellite will monitor more than 200,000 stars for temporary losses of brightness caused by an orbiting planet obscuring their light.

“A lot of people, including myself, want to find signs of life on another world by way of gases that don’t belong: signature gases, we call them,” she explains.

“That’s the point of finding nearby planets. The larger application is to be able to understand planets better: why is our solar system so rare, how do planets form and evolve, are planets out there like our planet, and what does that tell us about our own Earth?”

Universal secrets

Professor Seager is one of many women whose work has uncovered the universe’s secrets.

Northern Irish astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered radio pulsars in the 1960s, for instance.

Margaret Hamilton has gained belated credit as the computer scientist who developed the software – she coined the phrase ‘software engineer’ – that guided NASA’s Apollo missions and put men on the moon.

When Barack Obama granted Hamilton, the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the USA’s highest civilian honor – in 2016, it confirmed the belated respect she is now accorded.

In that example – no women have set foot on the moon, but a woman’s ingenuity put men there – we have an indication of the difficulties women can face in gaining the status their talents deserve.

There remains much to be done, but many women and men are intent on bringing about change.

In the next part of this series on women in Science and Technology, we’ll be meeting some of the people pushing for equality, and examining how to change the culture at senior levels so that women can go as far as their talents deserve.

This article is the first of two, examining the role of women in science and technology, from the latest edition of the Odgers Berndtson magazine, Observe.

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