America is so often called the land of opportunity. We believe that opportunity is a kind of civil right—something belonging to all humanity—to pursue our dreams and shape our destiny. But this right has always been withheld from certain groups: people of color, the disabled, religious minorities, and women, to name just a few. There have always been those who struggled heroically to secure opportunity for themselves and others like them. This month, we are celebrating the lives and accomplishments of four women who have done just that. These women—Mae Jemison, Jennifer Doudna, Ada Lovelace, and Emmy Noether—have all advanced the world of science through their work in their respective STEM fields.
Born in 1956 in Decatur, Alabama, Mae Jemison entered a culture shaped by the injustices of Jim Crow. Seeking a better life for their three children, Jemison’s parents—her father a carpenter and her mother a schoolteacher—moved to Chicago, where there were more educational opportunities for Black children.
Jemison showed a propensity for science from an early age. She spent much of her childhood engrossed in books about various scientific subjects, particularly astronomy. She excelled in her studies, earning an academic scholarship to Stanford, where she graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering. In 1981, she received her MD and went to work as a general practitioner, traveling to Sierra Leone and Liberia to treat patients, teach, and conduct medical research.
In 1985, Jemison set her sights on a new horizon: space. Thousands apply for space NASA missions, and the training takes years. She was one of 15 candidates selected, and in 1992, she became the first Black woman in space. As a science mission specialist, she focused her research on weightlessness and motion sickness. After her space venture, she accepted a teaching fellowship at Dartmouth and founded a company that sells medical technology.
Jennifer Doudna is one of the most prominent biochemists alive today. Born in 1964, Doudna’s fascination with science began when her father, an English professor at the University of Hawaii, gave her a copy of James D. Watson’s The Double Helix. Her 10th grade chemistry teacher, Ms. Jeannette Wong, also encouraged her interest in science.
Despite her obvious knack for science, Doudna questioned her abilities and considered changing her major as a sophomore in college. The world should be grateful that her French teacher talked her out of this decision—Doudna was destined for important discoveries.
In 1989, she earned her PhD in Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology from Harvard. After holding research and teaching positions in some of America’s most esteemed universities, she became a permanent faculty member at the University of California Berkeley in 2002. At Berkeley, Doudna and her colleagues discovered that the protein CRISPR-Cas9 enables scientists to edit genomic DNA more efficiently. The discovery has led to the development of treatments and therapeutics for diseases like sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, and HIV.
Doudna and her colleague’s CRISPR discovery was a major breakthrough that shortlisted her for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. On December 20, 2020, it was announced that she and Emmanuelle Charpentier had won the award. Doudna also demonstrates that being a scientist is about more than conducting pioneering research. It is ultimately about helping others. During the COVID pandemic she has allowed her laboratory to be converted into a site where more than 1,000 tests a day are analyzed for the presence of the virus.
Ada Lovelace was a mathematician ahead of her time. Born in 1815, she was the child of the Romantic poet Lord George Byron, who left Lovelace and her mother, Lady Anne Isabella Noel Byron, just a month after she was born. Lady Isabella perceived Lord Byron as insane, and worried that her only child would follow in his madness, which she partially blamed on his devotion to poetry. Hoping to distract her from the literary arts, Lady Isabella nurtured in her daughter a love for mathematics. This decision would influence the development of one of the 21st century’s most useful tools—the computer.
As an aristocrat, Lovelace conversed with some of the most influential engineers and mathematicians of her time. Her prodigious intelligence and social connections led her to meet Charles Babbage, sometimes known as “the father of computers.” Their working relationship began in 1833 (Lovelace was just 18) when they were introduced by Ada’s private tutor, the scientist Mary Somerville. Lovelace became particularly interested in Babbage’s theory of the Analytical Machine, a general-purpose mechanical computer. In 1842, she translated an Italian essay focusing on Babbage’s machine. She added her own ideas to the article in lengthy segments she simply titled “notes” (they are three times longer than the essay).
In one of her notes, she proposes a formula for calculating a series of Bernoulli Numbers using the Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was never built, so it’s not known if the formula would have worked (many mathematicians today believe it would have). However, the formula is widely considered to be the first computer algorithm, making Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. Although some scholars credit this distinction to Babbage, Lovelace’s influence on the development of computer science cannot be denied. Along with formulating one of the first computer algorithms (if not not the first), she suggested that the Analytic Engine could one day do more than simply calculate numbers, a possibility that none of her contemporaries entertained.
Emmy Noether is one of the most influential mathematicians of the 20th century. Born in 1882 to German-Jewish parents, Noether began her academic life studying languages. At 18, she qualified to teach French and English as a governess, but decided to continue her education at the University of Erlangen. Despite the all-male faculty’s disapproval of a female university student, she graduated in 1903 and pursued postgraduate studies degrees in Mathematics, finishing her doctorate in 1907. Noether began teaching at the University of Erlangen, occasionally filling in for her father, an established mathematics professor. She taught for seven years without compensation. It wasn’t until 1919 that she received the title of privatdozentin, a German designation indicating that someone is capable of teaching a subject at an advanced level.
A female university professor was even more unorthodox than a female university student, but the establishment couldn’t ignore her genius. Around the time she received the privatdozentin designation, she published groundbreaking work in the calculus of variations and developed Noether’s theorem. These contributions are often considered some of the most foundational mathematical formulations in the theory of relativity. Beginning in the 1920s, she changed the way mathematicians think about abstract algebra. Her essay “Theory of Ideals in Ring Domains” is considered a classic in this area.
She continued to be a highly prolific and beloved professor into the 1930s, but in 1933 Germany witnessed the ascendance of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Under the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, Jews were expelled from influential positions. Consequently, Noether lost her professorship and fled to America, where she received an academic grant to research and teach at Bryn Mawr College. Sadly, Noether died in 1935 at the age of 53 after undergoing surgery to remove an ovarian cyst. But in three decades of academic work, she changed mathematics and physics forever.
As we celebrate the lives of these four women, let’s also look ahead to the future. There are more women than ever working in STEM fields, but there is still a disproportionate number of male STEM professionals. According to census.gov, women comprised about 27 percent of the STEM workforce in 2019. (For reference, women constitute about 47 percent of the overall workforce.) This is a major improvement since the 1970s, when it was only 7 percent, but we can do better. Every child should know that STEM is a viable career path. We look forward to celebrating a STEM workforce that is as diverse and eclectic as all humanity.