Five Female Changemakers in STEM

By: Vivian Wang

When elementary school students are told to draw an image of a scientist in school, most students draw a photo of an old man with frizzy hair wearing a white lab coat. In reality, the underdogs of STEM manifest in the women in the STEM community that have made several scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical breakthroughs over the past century. 

Known for exploring the universe beyond the sky, Katherine Johnson was a prominent NASA Space Scientist who conducted extensive research in mathematics, astronomy, and physics. According to NASA.gov, Johnson was one of the first three African American students to have earned a Ph.D. in mathematics while studying at West Virginia University. Throughout her lifetime, Johnson co-authored over 25 research papers and was also a core member of NASA’s Friendship 7 Mission in 1962. In the Friendship 7 Mission, Johnson was responsible for corroborating the orbital equations that the communications network used to track the machine’s trajectory. With Johnson’s accuracy in her mathematical equations, the Friendship 7 Mission was a success. Throughout her lifetime, Katherine has been recognized by several STEM organizations such as the International Women’s Day movement as a prominent mathematician who changed the world all while overcoming society’s expectations of women in STEM.

As another proponent of women in STEM, Radia Perlman represents the face of gender equality in technology through her discoveries and development of algorithms. Perlman was a student at MIT who created the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) and TRILL. Today, the internet relies heavily on Perlman’s development of STP and TRILL. Beyond working extensively on personal research and development of computer algorithms, Perlman also emphasized the importance of community outreach and accessibility of education as she developed a coding language easy enough that young students could learn.

Similarly, Susan Kare is also another notable graphic designer who focused on graphical user interface (GUI), especially for Apple. Today, Kare is most well-known for her design of the Apple’s earliest icons such as Apple’s earliest logo design, the trash can icon, and the formatting paintbrush commonly seen in word processors. Although the creation of icons and graphics in the 1980s was still a fairly new concept, Kare paved the way for future graphic designers, as most evidently seen in today’s graphics on smartphones and laptops such as emojis or animated graphics. Throughout her lifetime, Kare has collaborated with companies including Microsoft, Intel, and IBM.

Another notable woman in the world of STEM, Elizabeth Blackburn focused on cell biology and biomedical research. Blackburn earned her bachelor and masters degrees from the University of Melbourne and later on in 2009, she received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Her greatest contribution to today’s science revolves around her discovery of telomerase, a type of enzyme that aids with preventing cell death during cell replication. Today, high school biology students study the process of cell division and replication, with Blackburn’s discoveries as the foundation for students’ knowledge of telomerase in cell biology.

Grace Hopper approached STEM from a different angle, specifically dedicating her career towards advancing the development of computer languages. During her lifetime, Hopper received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University in 1934. As explained by Yale University’s news site, Hopper wanted to aid the United States around the time of World War II. With expectation biases placed on her, Hopper was looked down upon due to her small figure and weight of 105 pounds. Regardless of society’s biases, Hopper still enlisted in the war and worked with her colleagues to invent a computer compiler. Hopper’s development of compilers has influenced today’s computer compilers that translate human-coded language into machine language for the computer to understand. Hopper’s legacy lives on to this day through the Grace Hopper Conference, a conference that female college students participate in annually to network with like-minded women in computing.

Looking towards the future, female changemakers will continue to evolve and improve STEM, all while creating an inclusive community. The future is female — it just begins with exploration and discovery.