5 Women in STEM You Should Know About
If you know any women who work in STEM, today is the day to give them extra recognition: February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science! Despite representing half of the population, women make up only 27% of the workforce in STEM related fields. While this number has been steadily improving over the years, there are still many structures in place that prevent access for women in STEM, such as financial standing, skin color, and bias.
International Day of Women and Girls in Science was instituted in 2015 by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) to promote gender equality and empowerment. To achieve said gender equality and empowerment, the General Assembly adopted resolutions to promote “full and equal access to and participation in science, technology, and innovation for women and girls.”
Each year, women continue to make progress towards equality in STEM. Every year, women’s enrollment in STEM majors at universities rises by 6%. In 2018, women earned 53% of STEM undergraduate degrees. In 2020, the number of women in STEM board positions rose by 18% in one year.
However, women still face many challenges in receiving the recognition they deserve. Only 19 women have been awarded with Nobel prizes since 1901. Women also face lower starting salaries, harassment in the workplace, and are underrepresented in media. Alongside only 28% of STEM workers being women, less than 5% of them were women of color. We ask you to take the time and recognize the commitment that many women have made in order to continue to pursue their passions despite all the barriers they face.
While there are countless women who have made many meaningful contributions to science, we’ve decided to narrow it down to five women in the 21st century who have made significant impacts in their fields around the globe.
Meet our 5 STEM Femmes:
Katalin Karikó, PhD
- Bachelor’s Degree in Biology from the University of Szeged
- Doctorate in Biochemistry from the University of Szeged
- Postdoctoral fellowship at Temple University
Dr. Katalin Karikó is known for her contributions to mRNA technology, which ultimately helped produce the COVID-19 vaccines.
Alongside Dr. Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Karikó discovered that nucleoside modifications could be made to suppress the immunogenicity of RNA, thus making mRNA significantly more applicable in therapeutics. By 2013, she became Vice President of BioNTech, where she continued to apply her 30+ years of mRNA experience. In 2020, her work and research with mRNA became the foundation for Moderna and Pfizer to develop the COVID-19 vaccines.
In the last two years, Dr. Karikó has received countless awards and honors for her work, including the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences and Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, as well as being named Time Magazine’s Hero of the Year (2021). She was also given the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award. Dr. Karikó now serves as Senior Vice President at BioNTech Pharmaceuticals and stills works as an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
As of October 2023, Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their work and contributions to the development of the COVID-19 vaccine!
“Don’t hesitate to learn anything from anyone, even from a seven-year-old girl, and above all tell those who made you understand your value how important it was for you.”
Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli, PhD
- Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics from Lycée Descartes
- Doctorate in Physics from University Joseph Fourier in France
Dr. Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli is a notable nuclear physicist who has helped Morocco’s scientific fields advance across the board. After completing her education in France, Dr. El Moursli returned home to Morocco to head a research team for CERN’s ATLAS project.
CERN’s ATLAS experiment is a particle physics experiment studying the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). ATLAS is a detector for the LHC, but it is also the name of the global collaboration between engineers, technicians, and physicists, with over 5,000 members. Dr. El Moursli’s work focused on the simulation and construction of the electromagnetic calorimeter in ATLAS. Her contributions proved the existence of the Higgs Boson Particle.
In 2015, Dr. El Moursli was awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award for Africa and the Arab States. She has helped improve Moroccan scientific research and academic programs by setting up several new master’s degree programs—such as Medical Physics—throughout the country. In addition to her ATLAS membership, Dr. El Moursli belongs to the African Academy of Sciences, the Board of the Moroccan Nuclear and Radiological Safety and Security Agency, and the Hassan II Academy of Sciences and Technology. Dr. El Moursli continues to teach at the University Mohammed V-Agdal in Morocco.
“I want women to feel that they can stand up in a scientific career and know that they have gotten there through merit.”Dr. El Moursli
Jocelyn Bell Burnell, PhD
- Bachelor’s Degree in Physics from the University of Glasgow
- Doctorate in Radio Astronomy from the University of Cambridge
Another notable woman in STEM is Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. During her time at Cambridge as a research assistant, she helped Antony Hewish construct a radio telescope. The purpose of the telescope was to identify quasars, which are the cores of galaxies. These cores give off radio waves which could be picked up by the telescope.
Dr. Bell Burnell was responsible for periodically analyzing the data the telescope collected, which accumulated over 120 meters of paper. In this abundance of information, she discovered a small piece of data measuring to less than three centimeters long. At first, she was told it was an error, an artificial reading; but Dr. Belle Burnell persisted in studying this anomaly, which proved to be pulsars. Pulsars are rotating neutron stars, which have since proven to be an invaluable tool for astronomers, as their consistent rotations and pulses allow them to study gravitational waves, test theories of relativity, and even navigate through space.
Dr. Bell Burnell was the president of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, as well as president of the Institute of Physics from 2008 to 2010. In 2018, she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Dundee. Additionally, in 2018, she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. She donated the three million dollars of prize money to fund physics scholarships for under-represented women, ethnic minorities, and refugee students. She is currently a visiting professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Mansfield College.
“Women of my generation who’ve stayed in science have done it by playing the men at their own game.”Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Faiza Mohammed al-Kharafi, PhD
- Bachelor’s Degree in Science, Chemistry, and Geology from Ain Shams University
- Master’s Degree in Science from Kuwait University
- Doctorate in Philosophy in Physical Chemistry from Kuwait University
Another notable champion for women’s education is Dr. Faiza al-Kharafi. After completing her education, Dr. al-Kharafi stayed and taught at Kuwait University for several years until she was appointed as rector. She became the first woman to head a major university in the Middle East and served as president from 1993 to 2002.
Dr. al-Kharafi’s love for chemistry led her to study the impact of corrosion on engine cooling systems, distillation units for crude oil, high temperature geothermal brines, and tap water. She also studied corrosion and its relationship with pollution. Her background in electrochemistry and her study of metals helped her team discover a class of metals called molybdenum-based catalysts. These metals were found to improve gasoline octane without the burden of benzene by-products.
Following her research, she founded the Corrosion and Electrochemistry Research Laboratory at Kuwait University. Dr. al-Kharafi joined the Board of the United Nations Universities, and in 2006 she helped found the American Bilingual School in Kuwait. In 2005, Forbes named her as one of “The 100 Most Powerful Women- Women to Watch in the Middle East”. She is currently serving as the Vice President of The World Academy of Sciences and continues to champion efforts that strive towards gender equality in education, particularly in STEM-related fields.
“I have a strong belief in women, and I know they can make a big change anywhere they are.”Faiza al-Kharafi
Jennifer A. Doudna, PhD
- Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry from Pomona College
- Doctorate in Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology from Harvard Medical School
- Research fellowship in molecular biology at Massachusetts General Hospital
- Research Fellowship in genetics at Harvard Medical School
- Lucille P. Markey Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Colorado Boulder
Dr. Jennifer Doudna’s work has significantly moved the genomics field forward. Her primary research focused on the structure and function of ribosomes; her keen observations led her to discover a new way to edit genomes.
Dr. Doudna wanted to understand ribosomes, but her inability to see the molecules was a bottleneck. She shifted her work to Yale, where her team was able to identify the structure of the catalytic core of a ribosome. In 2002, she became a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California Berkeley. It was at Berkeley that Dr. Doudna and her colleagues made the discovery leading to a significant reduction in the time and effort needed to edit genomic DNA. She revealed that CRISPR (a family of DNA sequences) could be used to “edit” multicellular organisms.
This research led to a multitude of awards and accolades, including a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. Dr. Doudna still works at Berkeley, where she is the head of the Innovative Genomics Institute, holds the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Professorship in Biomedicine and Health, and is the chair of the Chancellor’s Advisor Committee on Biology. In 2017, she also co-founded Mammoth Biosciences, which focuses on improving access to bio sensing tests that address issues across healthcare, agriculture, and other industries.
“Just because we are not ready for scientific progress does not mean it won’t happen.”Jennifer Doudna
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