Tell Me Which Women Scientists/Authors/Geeks Inspire You

Tell Me Which Women Scientists/Authors/Geeks Inspire You October 16, 2012

There is a big old fight happening in the comments thread of my Ada Lovelace Day post.  That’s totally fine, but I do want people to share recommendations, without risking being drawn into an argument or having to scroll past discussions of differing rates of married male and female saints to find the suggestions.

So, normal commenting rules are suspended for this post.

Here’s what you can post:

  • Women in STEM fields (living or dead, fiction or nonfictional) that you’d like us to know more about (preferably with a little precis and a link
  • Books about women in STEM fields that are awesome
  • Books written by women about STEM subjects that are awesome
  • Studies about sexism (or ways to combat it) in STEM fields (and anywhere else)
  • Places where women (and other living things) can go to learn cool STEM skills
  • Practical things you or organizations you’re with have done to cut down on careless or intentional sexism. (NOTE: I’m only interested in things you tried that worked, so people don’t flame on too much to say that it’s completely impractical or unnecessary

If you want to post something that’s not on the list above, you have two options:

  1. Post a reply to the “META COMMENT” at the top of the thread to let me know if there’s a topic I missed or one you think I should cut.
  2. Post something in reply to the “KVETCH COMMENT” which appears in the previous post’s thread(follow the link) to complain about people in this thread, to complain about me, to complain about people on the internet who are wrong, or do anything else that’s not building up a list of useful resources about women in STEM fields.

Comments that don’t follow these rules will be marked with an explanation, and deleted in about 24 hours.  Please don’t reply to a comment that I have labelled as RULE BREAKING.

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  • leahlibresco


    Did I miss a topic or include one needlessly? Tweaks to the rules are all that’s kosher in reply to this comment. For all other complaints, try the KVETCH COMMENT

    • KL

      I realize I commented in reply to Jacob without thinking about the rules, but I’d like to lobby for the inclusion of women philosophers since women are terribly underrepresented in philosophy. If not, feel free to label me a RULEBREAKER.

      • leahlibresco

        I’ll allow it.

  • Niemand

    Not something I’ve personally tried (yet), but I’ve seen studies suggesting that one way to combat unconscious bias (sexism, racism, classism, etc) in hiring, grant funding, etc is to list qualifications for the position, grant, etc and what specific characteristics are consistent with high quality candidates in each category. For example, for a post-doc biology position, you might list history of publications (none to multiple first author in high rank journals), ability to interact positively with colleagues (poor letters of recommendation to glowing letters), reputation at outside institutions (i.e. invited talks, presentations at meetings), and grant history (none, applied but not successful, successful grants). Rank each candidate in each area then average or total the ratings and give a final rank based on that rather than overall impression, which is claimed to be more sensitive to bias. Seems like a reasonable place to start anyway.

    • Irenist

      That sounds like an excellent place to start. I think “blind” sorting of resumes could do a lot of good. It wouldn’t help deal with unconscious prejudice at the interview stage, but it would, I think, help.

      • Niemand

        Blinding could be difficult when a major criterion is publication record, but it might be useful for sub-sections of the decision.

  • Would a female philosopher fit the parameters? I love Linda Zagzebski. She packs a powerful philosophical punch, is incredibly insightful, cunning in the agendas she propogates in her work, and made me a committed virtue ethicist through this book:

    And (lucky for you)… she’s Catholic. Here’s her faculty page:

    The essay “Omnisubjectivity” was excellent. Really illuminates God’s empathic connection to His creatures.

  • leahlibresco

    I strongly recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to all y’all. It’s an excellently researched and beautifully written piece of medical journalism by a woman – Rebecca Skloot. She is reporting on Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cervical cancer cells were harvested without her knowledge and are still used after her death in cancer research. (I’ve worked with them).

    Skloot does an exquisite job telling us about how the questionable ethics of Lacks’s doctors still affect the lives of Lacks’s family (who didn’t know her cells had been taken or that they were driving cancer research until Skloot contacted them).

    • Mark Shea

      I think people should read books written by anybody named Rebecca Skloot, just on general principles. That is all. Carry on.

    • Katie

      Yes! Radiolab interviewed Skloot about Lacks last year. That was really fun (and poignant, and disturbing). You should head over if you don’t want to read the whole book.

  • Irenist

    A few careers ago, I taught in an inner city middle school. One of my students–who is probably the most intelligent human I’ve ever met (and I’ve met some pretty famous ones)–was adamant that she wanted to be an ornithologist. Although she’s still too young to be done with school, and I’ve sadly not kept up with her, I’m nominating her in advance as my favorite female scientist. The thought of someone rejecting her resume because of her sex (or because of her very stereotypically African American first name, as happened in that similar “60 minutes” experiment with resumes) is a horrifying one. I’m just a clueless white male on this stuff, but if there’s anything I can do to make that kind of thing less likely in the world, do tell.

  • Christine Ladd-Franklin definitely deserves to be more widely known; she was a mathematician who did work in the Boolean tradition of algebraic logic, and also was an important figure as psychology became a distinct academic field in its own right. Her most famous proposal in psychology was the Ladd-Franklin theory of color vision, which, while dated now, was perhaps the earliest reasonably successful attempt (i.e., taking into account all the major facts and making only some basic and reasonable hypothetical assumptions) to give an evolutionary account of color vision. It’s hard to get much information about her without getting one’s nose dusty in an archive, but Vassar College has a good biography and her article “On an Algebra of Logic” is easily accessible online in Studies in Logic. Her particular approach to algebraic logic didn’t catch on, but the paper gives a quite ingenious method for handling syllogisms, and has some pretty extensive discussion of the concept of a ‘universe of discourse’, which was very important for the logic of Boole and his immediate successors but which was rarely discussed in its own right.

  • leahlibresco

    From the National Bureau of Economic Research: Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias? (2008).

    India randomly assigns some provincial villages to be governed by women (hoorah for policies implemented by random assignment!). These researchers found that exposure to women leaders shifted some stereotypes

    We exploit random assignment of gender quotas across Indian village councils to investigate whether having a female chief councillor affects public opinion towards female leaders. Villagers who have never been required to have a female leader prefer male leaders and perceive hypothetical female leaders as less effective than their male counterparts, when stated performance is identical. Exposure to a female leader does not alter villagers’ taste preference for male leaders. However, it weakens stereotypes about gender roles in the public and domestic spheres and eliminates the negative bias in how female leaders’ effectiveness is perceived among male villagers. Female villagers exhibit less prior bias, but are also less likely to know about or participate in local politics; as a result, their attitudes are largely unaffected. Consistent with our experimental findings, villagers rate their women leaders as less effective when exposed to them for the first, but not second, time. These changes in attitude are electorally meaningful: after 10 years of the quota policy, women are more likely to stand for and win free seats in villages that have been continuously required to have a female chief councillor.

  • Niemand

    Katherine McCormick. A graduate of MIT in the early 20th century, McCormick also funded the key basic research into the development of the first oral contraceptive. It was a horrible drug, like all first of its kind drugs, but without effective birth control, women have little or no chance of controlling their lives. While we’re on the subject, Barbara Seaman. Dr. Seaman’s exposure of the side effects of the first “pill” led to the development of the much safer products now on the market.

  • Ryan

    My wife and I recently saw a link to a kickstarter for this company
    which was founded by Debbie Sterling, a Stanford-educated engineer with the intent of making an engineering toy targeted at girls that actually takes into account developmental differences between boys and girls. Much cooler than the “make the same toy only pink” model that seems to dominate these kinds of things. Honestly, reading about what she is doing kindof opened my eyes to how covertly gendered the building toys I played with as a kid were.
    Working to inspire young girls to get excited about engineering is a good thing in my book, and I hope many things like this exist by the time my daughter is old enough to appreciate them.

    • KL

      That’s incredibly interesting. The distinction between spatial skills and verbal ones is an important one, and does more to explain and address the fact that girls just don’t tend to make beelines for trucks instead of dolls. Dolls are easier to create stories around! While I’d be interested to see more of the data that informs Sterling’s premise and the development of the toy, I love that people out there are thinking outside the box on this topic.

  • Ryan

    Also, I encourage everyone whose understanding of Marie Curie is “she discovered radium” to read up on her, cause she was seriously a badass, and much cooler than that summary would imply. She freaking set up mobile radiological centers on the battlefield in the first world war! Crazy! Very inspiring person!

    • Niemand

      And killed herself demonstrating their use. One can follow Curie’s example only so far. Some other women physicists of note: Irene Curie, Lisa Meitner, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Carolyn Shoemaker, Grace Hopper (could argue that’s she’s math or engineering, but related fields). Not a comprehensive list, obviously, just the ones who come to mind right now.

      • Pseudonym

        I’m glad someone mentioned Grace Murray Hopper.

        FWIW, she was first and foremost a mathematician. Her PhD was in algebra. (Incidentally, it was actually a pretty interesting, but quite technical set of results about under what conditions a polynomial can be factored. Her techniques have since been superceded by better ones.)

        In fact, she’s part of a very distinguished academic “family”. If you think of your PhD supervisor as being like an academic parent, she is the academic granddaughter of Thoralf Skolem and great-granddaughter of Axel Thue, and the aunt of Donald Knuth. Any computer scientist will readily recognise these names.

        She is rightly considered the godmother of the computer, and the founder the first field that I specialised in (compilers). And, of course, it was Hopper who coined the famous phrase, “It is more blessed to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.” And she very much lived that.

        I keep a light-nanosecond on my desk. That’s how awesome I think she was.

    • deiseach

      You read my mind, Ryan 🙂

      Also, I would like to credit all the female science teachers I have had, from Sr. Angela to Dr. Venie Martin. And all the women out there in schools, from primary to third-level, who are teaching the future scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technologists.

  • Niemand

    Fictional scientists (sort of): Agatha Heterodyne in the Foglios’ Girl Genius cartoons. The thing I like about this cartoon in particular is that the main character has a boyfriend who is also brilliant, but not quite as brilliant as she is. It’s an interesting subversion of the usual trope with the spunky girl sidekick/love interest who is ostensibly smart but not quite as smart as the hero and somehow always needs to be rescued.

    • Niemand

      Er, sort of a scientist, not sort of fictional ;-).

  • leahlibresco

    I’m adding to the list of fictional women scientists Kat from Gunnerkrigg Court who’s a robot maven and has had to deal with some interesting tensions between science and magic in that story (the line between robot and golem can be pretty thin).

    • I wish this forum had a “Like” button so I could express my approval without wasting the space of a comment.

  • Casey

    EMMY NOETHER!!! She published Noether’s theorem, which identifies a physical conservation law for each mathematical symmetry – for example, conservation of energy corresponds to a quantity that is unchanged with passage of time (time symmetry); conservation of angular momentum corresponds to rotational symmetry. Widely considered to be the most important theorem in physics, Noether’s theorem provides the basis for modern theories of particle physics, including the standard model, E8 theory, etc. A personal hero of mine; there was a great NYTimes article on her a while ago –

    I also second Lise Meitner, who got COMPLETELY gypped out of the Nobel prize for discovering fission. Otto Hahn was her assistant in her lab, but Lise had to flee the Nazis and leave her lab just before the final data came in. Otto sent it to her to explain, and she wrote him back that it was evidence of fission, he published the results, and she was excluded from the prize because she hadn’t been at the lab at the time (or because she was a woman). There are great sections on her in “Faust in Copenhagen” by Gino Segre. Highly recommend it. I also second the recommendation of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

  • Emily

    Margaret Mead! Her work was based on testing hypotheses about human universals through empirical observation, which I think is really the important part, even if you don’t count cultural anthropology as a STEM field. It made a difference to both the trajectory of anthropology and how people in the US thought about teenage sexuality. (And for something that had a reputation for being scandalous, it’s a surprisingly straightforward and theoretically driven read.)

    In terms of particularly scientific female anthropologists today, I think that Sohini Ramachandran is doing some really cutting edge stuff looking into human genetic and linguistic evolution, and Kate Clancy not only does interesting work on female biology and reproductive medicine, she’s a great public advocate for women in science.

  • Dr. Eleanor Arroway.

  • Mitchell Porter

    I could write an essay on this subject; from the famous ones, to the students, to those that I’ve known in real life. But that would be, not only long, but necessarily self-involved. So I’m just going to go with two. These aren’t feel-good stories, but they may be all the more important for that reason.

    So, first up, Celia Green. I call her the 20th-century successor to Schopenhauer. If you dig into her works, you will find amazing things – at least, they amaze me. I think there ought to be a shelf full of commentary on Celia Green by now.

    Second, Marni Sheppeard. She’s not as broad as Celia Green, she “just” does fundamental physics. When we talk of inspiration here, I don’t mean emotional, but in the far more down-to-earth sense that she’s one of two alternative physicists from whose ideas I have derived enormous impetus, by systematically examining them alongside the orthodoxies of the subject.

    Both of these women present thorny examples for a celebration of women in science, but also for people who would wish to exclude them from science.

    In theoretical physics, there are a few individuals who start out as competent physicists (as judged by their peers and their publications), but who then develop a conceptual framework in which genuinely advanced mathematics is paired with numerical relations between unexplained quantities like the particle masses, but not with a capacity to reproduce the known successes of mundane physics. Such people can be brilliant and one or two among them may even be onto something, but they end up marginal within the profession, or dubbed as crackpots, because they aren’t keeping up with the “advanced basics”. Sheppeard is a rare female example of this, and she is certainly on the margin in every sense (she is one of the stars of vixra, the alternative to, and her marginal situation might be attributed to the intellectual sociology I just described; but she overwhelmingly attributes it to sexism. It would be easy to dismiss this as a rationalization (open to her but not to her marginalized male colleagues), except that there probably *is* an element of sexism to where she is.

    As for Celia Green, she also complains of systematic exclusion and marginalization, but she is strongly anti-feminist, in the peculiar sense of her personal philosophy. Among her many ideas is a psychological ideal, which she calls “centralisation”, which she thinks is far more fostered by an outlook and a persona characteristic of men, especially aristocratic men. She has a narrative explaining the whole history of the human race as resulting from the internal avoidance of centralisation (because it requires confronting reality), and crushing anyone who shows centralised traits (threatening because such a person is a reminder of repressed reality), and she explains her own marginalisation as due to this second factor. Feminism, on Celia Green’s account, is far too much about levelling and about social prescription, and that is why it has not helped her.

    She does write that of the few people who have been consistent supporters, most were upper-class men. Now I have to wonder to what extent this patronage, rather than just expressing aristocratic generosity and self-confidence, was because they were men and she was a brilliant young woman. The nature of male interest in and support for women in academia is a special case of the general problems of male/female social and intellectual association, where romance and sexuality may bias what goes on, where they may be imputed as the true motives of ostensibly unrelated acts and attitudes (and where qualms about the politics or the appropriateness of such relations may impede or prevent the real thing from happening). Thus Sheppeard writes that eminent male physicists are willing to support a young female physicist so long as she is developing *their* ideas and thus adding to their personal ego trip, but not once the woman truly has ideas of her own. It’s essentially the opposite of Green’s interpretation, and it would be very interesting to see a serious student of these matters try to assimilate what Green and Sheppeard have written on the subject, and perhaps produce something more complex and closer to a general truth.

  • Hieronymus Anonymous

    Yes! Somebody mentioned Emily Noether! Huzzah! One of my favorites and so frequently overlooked.

    For a living lady, let’s not forget the great Penelope Maddy: one of the most incisive, daring, and successful set theorists around right now.

  • Besides Marie Curie, I admire my mother, Mary Alice Lucas-Keller, a chemist. When I was a girl in the 1950s, neighborhood kids who saw my mother going to work or returning home from work in her “whites” would ask, “Is your mother a nurse?” “No, she is a scientist,” was my proud reply. That usually elicited a look of awe and admiration.
    I wrote about my mother here: The post has a photo of mother working in the lab.
    Mother experienced discrimination both at the university level and at work. Here’s one story she told me. After having worked in a lab for many years and single-handedly managing it, she was passed over for promotion in favor of a young man who had just graduated from college. Then, she was asked to train him to do the work.

  • It’s been quite a few years since I’ve read it, but for the category of books by and about women in STEM fields, I remember liking Rita Levi-Montalcini’s In Praise of Imperfection very much; Levi-Montalcini is a Nobel Prize winner (she’s still alive, I think, and was still active politically a couple of years ago despite being over a 100 years old), and the story is about being an ethnically Jewish scientist in Fascist Italy. When Mussolini’s racial laws resulted in her losing her academic position, she responded by setting up a secret laboratory in her house and continuing her research — the first steps in the research that eventually led to receiving the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762).
    She was married to the British ambassador to Turkey, where she learned about smallpox inoculations. She tried to popularize inoculation in Europe, which at the time did not know anything about it, but everyone thought she was dangerously insane and unmotherly. (It did not help that she brought the idea from Turkey, so everyone assumed it was backward and pagan.)
    Also, she tried to make the veil popular in Europe as a way for women to move in public without worrying about male surveillance. I don’t really advocate for that myself, but I can appreciate her argument.

  • Oddly enough, Ada Lovelace.

  • jose

    Ariane Emory is probably my favorite fictional character ever. You could say she’s a geneticist and endocrinologist by vocation, but like many geniuses, she’s really a polymath. You can find her in the novels Cyteen and Regenesis by CJ Cherryh. Amazingly complex and developed in a very unique way thanks to the marvels of sci-fi technology (no spoilers!).

    If popular science counts as non fiction STEM, I’d like to recommend two authors:
    Ann Gibbons, for her book about our origin, it’s called The First Human. Apart from presenting the “this-just-in” findings on human evolution, what differentiates this book is that it brings science to life by showing how scientists actually do the work, which makes it extra engaging.

    Evelyn Fox Keller. The opposite of what I just wrote above; her books are not for a general public with a passing interest, but for committed readers and mostly, I suspect, fellow professionals, because of the amount of detail, the accuracy with which the topic at hand is explored. Her most recent book is called The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture; the title gives the topic away.

  • Arizona Mike

    Several friends owe their lives to Stephanie Kwolek, the Polish-American chemist who invented poly-paraphenylene terephtalamide—better known as Kevlar. In retirement, she continues to mentor young female scientists as a consultant for Dupont.

    By the way, Dr. Kwolek is also a Roman Catholic, who attended St. Mary’s Catholic School in Pennsylvania, and credits the religious sisters there with teaching her a respect for hard work and hard science.

  • Joe

    I always enjoyed the Jane Goodall documentaries growing up. I was also impressed with how well she handled the famous Far Side comic.

    • leahlibresco

      I love that story!

  • Pseudonym

    Two of the most accomplished computer scientists that you’ve probably never heard of are Lynn Conway and Sophie Wilson. They both did (and in Wilson’s case, is still doing) many things in their careers, but two stand out as game-changing.

    Lynn Conway, back in the 1960s, invented the method by which multiple-issue out-of-order scheduling CPUs work, and in doing so basically invented the supercomputer. Nowadays, of course, most CPUs (well, the ones that aren’t microcontrollers) use exactly the same technique.

    Sophie Wilson designed the ISA (basically, the programming model) for the ARM which, 30 years later, powers pretty much every smartphone and tablet. What’s really interesting about the story is the circumstances under which she did it: no budget, and no permission from the company.

  • Touchstone

    Philippa Fawcett!

    A great story. The writeup to which I’ve linked tells it quite well.

  • TheresaL

    Clara Maass, as a participant in science, although she was a nurse, not a scientist herself. She volunteered for studies in Cuba on Yellow fever, once it was suspected that it was spread by mosquitoes. After willingly being infected twice for research purposes, she died of Yellow fever. Her death led to discussion about using human subjects for experimentation and she’s on the Lutheran Calendar of Saints.

  • evetushnet

    For popular writing on science esp neuroscience, I respect Maia Szalavitz enormously even when I don’t agree with her or would take a different emphasis.

  • Steve

    Seems like we’re a little light on the fictional pop-cultury end so I’ll rattle off a few…

    Trinity from the ‘Matrix’ movies… Computer hacker, kung fu master

    Mona Lisa Vito (Marissa Tomei in ‘My Cousin Vinny)… Auto-mechanic wizard

    Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan (Emily Deschanel on the TV show ‘Bones’) & Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger on TV show ‘CSI’)… lab nerds, catch criminals, not afraid to throw a punch

    Jane Foster (Natalie Portman in ‘Thor’)… Astrophysicist, does some silly plot related science, easy on the eyes

    Christmas Jones (Denise Richards in ‘The World is Not Enough’)… a chestier Jane Foster

    Chell (main character from ‘Portal’ video game series)… ‘science’ lab rat

    Hermione Granger (Emma Watson from ‘Harry Potter’ series)… straight A student, didn’t have a lot of science & tech class options @ Hogwarts but would have rocked them out

    Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson in ‘X-Files series)… medical doctor, the grounded one from the dynamic duo of paranormal investigators

    Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden on ‘ST:TNG’)… futuristic medial doctor & science reasearcher

    I’m sure there’s more, but that’s a healthy start

  • Okay, I have to chime in with a pre-modern: Hildegard of Bingen was truly a geeky STEM lady before STEM as we now know it.

    And for lady philosophers: Elisabeth Anscombe, Simone Weil, and Edith Stein.

  • Dan Berger

    Lots of good suggestions here, but let’s not forget Frances Oldham Kelsey, who deep-sixed Thalidomide’s approval in the USA because of her concerns about its safety.

  • I have two examples for real, inspiring scientists, one historical and one current.

    First, because she hasn’t been mentioned yet, Rosalind Franklin. Her work on X-ray crystallography was pivotal in characterizing the structure of DNA, but she’s often left out of discussions that credit the discovery to Crick, Watson, and Wilkins. Experimentalists matter, too!

    Second, my friend Keri Bean (@KeriOnMars, with whom I co-ran Texas A&M’s chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space while we were undergrads) is doing very interesting work on NASA/JPL’s Curiosity rover. She’s been taking the Phobos and Deimos transit images and using Curiosity’s cameras to look for exciting things like dust devils and clouds. That I know people my age who are doing real science on other planets is both thrilling and makes me realize how old I’m getting.