Women in Science: Just as Good as the Men, Though Less Famous

Last week, I decided to browse the New York Times science page for inspiration. They had a “Name That Scientist!” quiz, and well, I can never resist a good Internet science quiz so I clicked over. (Spoilers ahead, so if you want to test yourself click here before continuing.)

It started off pretty well. These were scientists whose books I’d read (or at least handled many many times at my old bookstore job). I’d seen them on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, cable news shows. My tumblr boyfriend Neil deGrasse Tyson was there. But then it got uncomfortable. The first picture of a woman was easy; I was able to easily identify Jane Goodall. But I didn’t recognize the other three names that were given as options. And then there were pictures of two other women, and not only did I not know who they were, I didn’t recognize any of the options. Here were the names of eight women at the tops of their fields, and I’d only ever heard of one. No wonder some people still think women aren’t as good at math and science as men are. (And yes, studies have proven that men and women perform equally on math tests. Of course not all women are good at math and science, but neither are all men; gender has nothing to do with it.)

So here we are. I want to learn more about these scientists, and I hope you want to learn with me. They are amazing women, and they deserve to share every bit of the fame of the men in their fields. We’ll start with four this week, with more to come.

Jane Goodall: (born April 3, 1934)

One of the best known living women of science, Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National park, Tanzania, for 45 years and is considered the world’s foremost expert. Much of what we know today about primate behavior and society, including their use of tools and the fact that chimpanzees have unique personalities, comes from her time living among them. Through the Jane Goodall Institute, which she founded in 1977, she is a leading advocate in the fight to protect chimpanzees. She is a devoted animal rights activist and environmentalist.

Mary-Claire King: (born 1946)

Mary-Claire King is a geneticist who looks at how genes are affected by environment. Her three most significant accomplishments are identifying the genes that are responsible for many breast and ovarian cancers, comparing human and chimpanzee DNA to show that the two species share 99% of their genetic code, and applying genetic research to help human rights organizations identify victims of mass slaughters and to reunite kidnapped children with their extended families. She is currently a professor at the University of Washington.

Shirley Marie Tilghman: (born September, 17, 1946)

Shirley Marie Tilghman is a molecular biologist who studied how gene regulation controls embryonic development, and was part of the team responsible for the first cloned mammalian gene. She has also studied the differences in how male and female genomes regulate embryo growth. In 2001 she was elected to the office of President of Princeton University, the first woman to serve in that office (and only the second woman president in the Ivy League).

Brigid Hogan: (birthdate unknown)

Brigid Hogan is a developmental biologist who is a leader in the field of stem cell research and transgenic technology. After some early controversial work with human embryonic stem cells, she has specialized in introducing new genes to mouse embryos to study how organs develop from stem cells. Her research is leading to better understanding of birth defects and hopes to aid in the repair of damaged tissues in adults. Since 2002 she has served as the chair of the Department of Cell Biology at Duke University Medical Center.

This post originally appeared on Persephone Magazine on September 28, 2011


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