9 Best Female Scientists You Should Know

By: Laurie-Anne Vazquez 03/28/2016 5:50PM
Category: Women in Science

Quick! Name a female scientist. When pressed, most people name Marie Curie or a Nobel Prize winner or inventor. But a modern, working scientist? That’s harder. It shouldn’t be; since 1993, women have made up 58% of the workforce in bio- and social sciences. Women are doing amazing work in fields as diverse as galactic modeling, genomic medicine, neuromapping, and dark stars. Here are some of the coolest women scientists working today:

CREDIT: E.M. Levesque

Emily Levesque 

Levesque is a Hubble Fellow who researches massive stellar astrophysics. “Using a combination of observational and modeling resources, my research is aimed at improving our overall understanding of massive stars, both locally and in the early universe, so that we can effectively use them as cosmological tools,” she explains on her website. That means she analyzes immense amounts of data and builds models of star-forming galaxies. Her focus is on how those galaxies are affected by rotation, but she also discovered the three largest stars in the galaxy in 2005. Her work with models and galactic formations has helped other astronomers understand the growth of massive stellar objects. For all of that work, she received the 2014 Annie Jump Cannon prize. Levesque currently teaches astronomy at the University of Washington and also gives public talks about astronomy topics.

CREDIT: James Duncan Davidson/TED

Jennifer Doudna 

CRISPR is a tool that edits DNA. It allows scientists to add or remove specific genomes in a way that’s never been possible. It is the most effective genomic tool ever invented -- and Jennifer Doudna invented it. Doudna is a geneticist. Her work focuses on using the built-in immune capabilities of bacteria - called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) - to fight off impending viruses with the help of the Cas-9 protein. Doudna’s research is groundbreaking in its implications for curing disease. It has already been used to change monkey and mice DNA. But the idea of genomic editing is controversial. Chinese and American scientists have applied the technique to human embryos, to great public concern. Yet, Doudna advocates for CRISPR on the strength of its efficacy - particularly against HIV. She’s even given a TED talk to guide its usage. Doudna is a Professor of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley, and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

CREDIT: James Duncan Davidson/TED

Cynthia Kenyon

We've talked about Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality before. What we didn’t mention was that Cynthia Kenyon helps run Google’s Calico project, the frontrunner in that quest. Calico hopes to create age-defying drugs that slow or reverse entropy in our cells. Kenyon, a molecular biologist, is their VP of Aging Research. Kenyon builds on her previous work to research potential solutions. That work includes discovering Hox genes and a genetic mutation in roundworms that increases their lifespans by 65%. Kenyon's lab is currently working on drugs that replicate daf-16 gene mutations to extend lifespan in worm cells. She hopes to have a formula for humans soon. She’s earned many awards for her findings, including the King Faisal Prize for Medicine, the American Association of Medical Colleges Award for Distinguished Research, and the IPSEN Prize.

CREDIT: Lanny Nagler/UConn Health Center 

Stormy Chamberlain

Angelman syndrome is a debilitating neurological developmental disorder with no therapy or cure. Most people consider the diagnosis a tragedy. Geneticist Stormy Chamberlain considers it a puzzle. “The genetics provide an intriguing puzzle that can be taken apart piece-by-piece,” she said in an email. Her research uses iPSC (induced Pluripotent Stem Cells) to model disorders with chromosome 15 mutations like Angelman and Prader-willi syndromes. Her goal is to contribute to a therapy, but her main focus is to help “some really amazing families.” She invites Angelman families to her lab to get a firsthand view of her research. “The visit is a nice opportunity for my students and post-docs to explain their work to those who matter most. It helps motivate them to work hard for a great purpose.” Chamberlain is an assistant professor of Genetics and Genome Sciences at the University of Connecticut, and the Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Genetics and Developmental Biology.

CREDIT: John Smock/Quanta Magazine

Katherine Freese

Theoretical astrophysicist Katherine Freese is no stranger to dark matter. She was one of the first astrophysicists to propose ways to find it. Freese created the template for a detection experiment used by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. She also devised an experiment tracing dark matter particles’ “wind” utilized by labs worldwide. Her research led her to propose the idea of “dark stars” - stars powered by dark matter instead of nuclear fusion. Freese is a Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan. She is also formerly the Director at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stockholm and a Professor of Physics at Stockholm University.

CREDIT: Barbara Slater/UConn School of Nursing

Xiaomei Cong

It takes a special kind of person to look at baby poop and think it can make babies healthier. Xiaomei Cong is that person. Cong works with nurses in neonatal intensive care units (NICU). Her goal is to ease the pain and stress levels of premature babies. She explores the two-way connection between the brain and the microbiome. The pilot project tracked daily samples from 73 babies over two years. Cong and her team charted the differences in poop alongside stressors. Those stressors ran the gamut from normal ones like feedings and changing, to difficult ones like IVs and circumcision. She discovered that babies with the least diverse bacteria in their microbiomes were the most stressed out. Her next step is to explore the link between the microbiome and neurological development. Thankfully, her research is already shedding new light on the causes of - and potential treatments for - stress. Cong is an assistant professor of Nursing Instruction and Research at the University of Connecticut School of Nursing.

CREDIT: Forschungszentrum Jülich

Katrin Amunts 

For all the recent advancement in neuroscience, there is still a lot we don’t know about the human brain. Katrin Amunts led a team that hopes to fix that. They created BigBrain, a model made from over 7,400 scanned sections of a preserved brain that were re-assembled into a 3D model. The model is the best ever, offering a much finer resolution than the 1 millimeter offered by an MRI scan. “Of course, we would love to have spatial resolution going down to 1 micrometer," Amunts said in a press conference, "[but] there are simply no computers at this moment which would be capable to process such data, to visualize this or to analyze it." BigBrain is available for free. It will allow neuroscientists everywhere to learn more about the construction and organization of the brain. Amunts is a professor at Jülich Research Centre in Germany. She is also Director of the Cecile and Oskar Vogt Institute for Brain Research at the Heinrich Heine University.

CREDIT: Evan Kafka/Wired

Nina Tandon

Nina Tandon grows bones from stem cells. A biomedical engineer, Tandon founded the company EpiBone to make bone grafts less risky. Most patients are forced to choose grafts from their own bodies or dead donor tissue. Those choices both risk infection and rejection. EpiBone changes the game by taking stem cells from a patient’s fat cells and growing them into custom-fitted bone cells in 3-4 weeks. The lab-grown bone heals more quickly and runs a much smaller risk of rejection because it comes directly from the patient. “I see this as being a part of a bigger story that’s integrating biology into part of the supply chain," Tandon told Business Insider. "We're starting to see biology as a technological partner way beyond just making medicines." Tandon hasn’t yet tested her work in actual patients yet, but she is a senior TED Fellow.

 

Honorable Mention

CREDIT: The Famous People

Lise Meitner (1878 - 1968)

Lise Meitner isn’t working today, but she is one you should know. Meitner was a physicist and chemist who discovered nuclear fission. She worked with Otto Hahn, but was forced to abandon her work in Germany because of the Holocaust. While she was able to find safety in Sweden, she was unable to find the support to continue her research. The best she could do to continue the project was correspond with Hahn. He was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry based on their work. Meitner, to much dismay and confusion from the scientific community, was not included. While she’s never been given formal credit, the element meitnerium is named in her honor. 

 

This list is only a fraction of the women doing groundbreaking scientific work. The WikiProject Women Scientists hopes to become the biggest resource of female scientists on the Internet. It’s a great list but not exhaustive. There are many women scientists who need entries. The founder could use your help; she vowed to write an entry for every misogynist email she got and has an enormous backlog to fill. If you’ve been inspired by these women, check it out. You might be surprised by what you find. 

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Posted on: 03/28/16 5:50PM
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Laurie-Anne Vazquez
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Chair of the Education and Public Outreach Committee, LIGO and Associate Professor of Physics, Columbia University
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