International Women's DaySTEM

International Women’s Day 8th March 2023. This year we celebrate women in STEM through the ages.

By March 7, 2023 No Comments

A historical quote states “behind every great man, is a great woman”

What history has proven is that ‘women’ don’t need to be ‘behind’ a man to be recognised as having an independent brain, education & audacity; moreover, women have proven time & again that they can not only stand on their own two feet, but by their sheer determination, they are able to succeed & supersede in traditionally male dominated areas.

One of the most male dominated paths is of course in the sciences & engineering.

For this year’s International Women’s Day, we take a look back through the ages at some of the women in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math’s & how their knowledge & insights have changed history.

Mary Somerville – Scientist (1780 – 1872)

Mary Somerville (Somerville was her married name) born to a Vice Admiral Father & the daughter of an eminent solicitor, grew up in a coastal town, 9 miles from Edinburgh. Despite struggling with reading & writing from a very young age; Mary had a keen fascination with animals, birds & geology, absorbing herself in the countryside where she lived.

Despite several home tutors, Mary still struggled with writing & therefore at the age of 13, Mary received formal school lessons in Edinburgh. She taught herself to read Latin & immersed herself in her studies, despite more senior relatives telling her she needed to focus on needlework!

Mary’s own recollections of her learning journey, are explored in her personal recollection, published in 1874:

“I sat up very late reading Euclid. The servants, however, told my mother… whereupon an order was given to take away my candle as soon as I was in bed. I had, however, already gone through the first six books of Euclid, and now I was thrown on my memory, which I exercised by beginning at the first book, and demonstrating in my mind a certain number of problems every night, till I could nearly go through the whole. My father came home for a short time, and, somehow or other, finding out what I was about, said to my mother, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days.” Mary Somerville – Personal Recollections, Published 1874 (1)

Mary’s relationship with Mathematics grew & when her second husband, Dr. William Somerville discovered her passion & desire to study further; it was him who encouraged & helped developed Mary’s knowledge.

Having moved to London in 1819 for her husband’s new job at the Chelsea Hospital, Mary continued her mathematical studies & applied this knowledge to physical science.

In 1826, age 45, Mary published her first scientific paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society: The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum & in 1831 Mary published The Mechanism of the Heavens. This was her translation of the first two volumes of Pierre Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste. (1)

“I translated Laplace’s work from algebra into common language… I was astonished at the success of my book; all the reviews of it were highly favourable ; I received letters of congratulation from many men of science. I was elected an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society at the same time as Miss Caroline Herschel… It was unanimously voted by the Royal Society of London, that my bust should be placed in their great Hall… Our relations and others who had so severely criticised and ridiculed me, astonished at my success, were now loud in my praise.” Mary Somerville – Personal Recollections, Published 1874 (1)

Mary Somerville went on to publish a series of ground breaking books & after her death, became known as the Queen of 19th-century science. Mary Fairfax Somerville died in 1872 at the age of 91, leaving behind a scientific legacy which is still recognised by international universities today.

Ada Lovelace – English Mathematician & Computer programmer (1815 – 1852)  

Ada Lovelace, born Augusta Ada Byron, Lady Byron & daughter of renowned Poet Lord Byron was an educated woman, living in vastly changing times. Being born into the time when the Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape of Britain; she was an exception to many rules of the time.

Her passion for mathematics was spurned by being educated by renowned mathematician & logician Augustus De Morgan, the first professor of mathematics at the University of London. Having married William King, 8th Baron King in 1835, she claimed her title countess of Lovelace, when William King was created an earl in 1838.

Charles Babbbage was at the cutting edge of mathematical calculating machinery & his notion of calculating numbers with machinery first came to him in 1812/1813. His first calculating machine, the Difference Machine, was built & had a calculation capacity of eight decimals. Following Government investment in 1823, he subsequently went on to devise a calculator, the Analytical Machine,  which could calculate to twenty decimals.

Ada Lovelace became interested in Charles Babbage’s machines in 1833 & translated & annotated an article penned by the Italian Mathematician & Engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea “Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage” (1842; “Elements of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine”). (2)

Ada’s annotations explored the notion that the Analytical Machine, the successor to Babbage’s Difference Engine, could be programmed to compute Bernoulli numbers. The Notes included the first published description of a stepwise sequence of operations for solving certain mathematical problems & Ada has therefore often been referred to as ‘the first programmer’. (3)

Ada added a footnote to her translation of Menabrea’s article. Ada emphasized the difference between Pascal’s machine, which can be compared to a calculator, & Babbage’s Analytical Machine, which can be compared to a modern day computer & have the capacity to store & remember calculations. (4)

Ada was clearly a woman way ahead of her time, as this extract from her annotations proves. Her foresight about the computational value & ability of the Analytical Machine as far back as 1843 is astonishing:

“Again, it [the Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine . . . Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent” (5)

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – Doctor and Medical Pioneer (1836- 1917)

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first female to qualify as a Doctor in England. Elizabeth was inspired by pioneering women in medicine, in particular Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor to graduate in the United States.

Despite being well educated, Elizabeth was refused entry into every University to train as a Physician & therefore had to train as a nurse. Having to train alongside male colleagues at a Middlesex Hospital, she was subsequently barred following complaints from other male students.

In 1866 Elizabeth was appointed as a medical attendant at the St Mary’s Dispensary, London. Determined to become qualified as a doctor, she taught herself French & got a medical degree in Paris, but was still refused entry into the British Medical Register. She married James Anderson in 1871 (they had three children).

In 1872 she set up the New Hospital for Women at the St Mary’s Dispensary, later the London School of Medicine for Women, where she appointed Dr Elizabeth Blackwell as Professor of Gynaecology. (6)

Partly due to Elizabeth’s campaigning, an act was passed in 1876 permitting women to enter the medical profession & in 1883 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was appointed Dean at the London School of Medicine for Women & was key to it’s expansion. In 1902 Elizabeth retired to Suffolk, where she became the first female mayor in 1908.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson died in December 1917 & 1918 the London School of Medicine for Women was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (now part of the University of London).

Katherine Johnson –NASA Mathematician (1918 – 2020)

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 to a self-taught mathematician Father & her Mother who was a teacher. Despite having the educational support at home, Katherine Johnson, as an African-American living in Greenbrier County; was only entitled to an education to the age of twelve.

Her parents moved the family & at the age of fifteen, Katherine graduated to the West Virginia State College. Her teachers included William Schieffelin Claytor an African-American Mathematician who tailored courses specifically for the young Katherine, seeing her graduate with honours in Mathematics & French in 1937, aged only eighteen.

Following marriage, a teaching career & the birth of her three daughters, (for which she forsook academia & the place she had won at West Virginia University in Morgantow); Katherine’s journey to NASA began in 1953 when her husband moved the family to the Virginia Peninsula & Katherine began work at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan (7)

Johnson’s first permanent position at Langley, in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division, saw her spend four years analyzing data from flight tests & worked on the investigation of a plane crash caused by wake turbulence (7)

In 1957 the Soviet ‘Sputnik’ satellite was launched & Johnson subsequently provided mathematics for the 1958 document ‘Notes on Space Technology’, part of a compendium of lectures given by engineers Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD). Engineers from those groups formed the core of the Space Task Group, the NACA’s first official foray into space travel (7)

Once NACA had become NASA in 1958, Johnson worked on trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7; the first human spaceflight made in the US. In 1960, Johnson & engineer Ted Skopinski co-authored the paper ‘Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position’ & she became the first woman in the Flight Research Division to receive credit as an author of a research report.

In 1962 as John Glenn prepared himself for his Friendship 7 mission, the complex orbitol flight path meant a worldwide communications network had been built to track trajectories, linking tracking stations to IBM computers in Washington, Cape Canaveral in Florida, & Bermuda. Astronauts were concerned at this point about the computational accuracy of the technologies & the computers, as they had a history of being prone to inaccuracies.

Therefore, ‘as a part of the pre-flight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine.  “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” (8)

Dr Kate Marvel – Climate Scientist, University Lecturer, Associate Research Scientist.

‘Dr Kate Marvel is an associate research scientist at Columbia University & the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. She received a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Cambridge in 2008 & has worked at the Carnegie Institution, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory & Stanford University.

Her research focuses on climate modelling & clouds. Through her studies at Columbia University & NASA GISS, Dr Marvel has continued to develop the study of climate forcings (things that affect the planet’s energy balance) & feedbacks (processes that speed up or slow down warming).

The work undertaken has proven that observed estimates of planet Earth’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases as biased low. Furthermore, the studies have shown that anthropogenic climate changes are already exhibiting changes in global drought patterns, cloud cover & in the timing and amount of regional rainfall. (9)

Dr Marvel explores the damage the industrial revolution has caused to the natural environment in her article ‘Our Climate’s Excellent Adventure’ & points directly at the correlation between the Industrial Revolution & the advancing climate changes we are seeing today. (10)

Professor Sarah Gilbert – Saïd Professorship of Vaccinology, Jenner Institute & Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine

Professor Sarah Gilbert has been making and testing vaccines designed to induce T cell responses for over twelve years, chiefly using antigens from malaria and influenza. (11)

Having completed her doctorate, Professor Gilbert got a job with a brewing research centre, looking at how to manipulate brewing yeast, before moving on to work in human health. Professor Gilbert had never meant to be a vaccine specialist. Yet by the mid-1990s, she was in an academic job at the University of Oxford, looking at the genetics of malaria. And that led to work on malaria vaccines. (12)

In 2020 Professor Sarah Gilbert & her team at Oxford University were tasked with developing a vaccine for Covid19. With there never having been a human vaccine developed against any member of the coronavirus family, Professor Gilbert knew this would be a considerable challenge.

As Professor Gilbert rose through the ranks at Oxford University, she set up her own research group in a bid to create a universal flu vaccine.

In 2014, Professor Gilbert led the first trial of an Ebola vaccine & when the Mers – Middle East respiratory syndrome – virus struck, she travelled to Saudi Arabia to try to develop a vaccine for this form of coronavirus. The second trial of that vaccine was just beginning when, in early 2020, Covid-19 emerged in China & Professor Gilbert realised she might be able to use the same approach. (12)

It took a few weeks to create a vaccine which worked against Covid in the lab. Then the first batch went into manufacture by early April & the rigorous testing regime expanded.

By 2021, the now commonly known Oxford Astrazeneca Covid19 vaccine was a considerable part of the UK vaccine roll out & was approved & recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO)

Written and cited by Katy-Jane Mason for and on behalf of Dolphin N2