Yesterday was International Women’s Day, which celebrates women all around the world. So today, I want to tell the (abridged) stories of three women in science whose work has shaped my life in science. Often ill-credited and over-looked, these women have made contributions in a field that largely rejected their ideas as inferior, and in doing so, they not only proved that women can achieve amazing scientific feats, but paved the way for generations of scientists to come.
Sometimes referred to as “The Dark Lady of DNA,” Rosalind Franklin is the real scientist behind Watson and Crick’s famous “discovery” of the double-helix structure of DNA. Franklin was an X-Ray crystallographer, which means that she took pictures of crystal structures, which are often biological substances in crystal form. This requires a math chops like you wouldn’t believe – modern day x-ray crystallography involves heavy computational use. But Franklin, being the badass that she was, did them all by hand.
Now, according to many first-hand accounts, Watson and Crick were imaginative and creative, but also kind of jackasses. Franklin, being the hard-nosed scientist she was, did not work well with them. However, they did collaborate, and together they tried to elucidate the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick were more interested in modeling than in the science though, and, when Franklin viewed their premature model, acerbically noted “It’s very pretty, but how are they going to prove it?”
Eventually, of course, Watson and Crick did manage to build a model of DNA, largely based on Franklin’s work. The picture below, for example, which is an x-ray diffraction picture of DNA, definitively shows DNA as a helical structure.
Did Rosalind Franklin receive any credit for this monumental discovery? No! It wasn’t until TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER that Franklin’s contribution was even acknowledged, and it was buried behind some pretty sexist bull-shit in Watson’s The Double Helix. While Watson has since changed his tune, saying that Franklin should have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the fact remains that his Nobel stands on the unseen shoulders of the real scientist behind the discovery: Rosalind Franklin.
You cannot talk about women in science without bringing up Marie Curie. To quote Wikipedia, “She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win twice in multiple sciences, and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes.”
This is a woman who quite literally devoted her life to science. Before her pioneering research, radioactivity wasn’t even a word – she coined it! She discovered two elements, began the first radiation treatments for cancer, and developed novel techniques for isolating isotopes.
Curie’s work on radioactivity was dependent upon the hypothesis that radiation is not the result of molecular interactions, but from the atoms themselves. This of course proved to be correct, and was instrumental in the shift of how we view the fundamental particles of our universe.
Sadly, Curie was a pioneer in a field where the dangers had not yet been mapped. She died due to aplastic anemia as a result of radiation exposure. She is immortalized in her field of research, as the unit of radiation is a curie.
Last, but certainly not least, I want to introduce you to a wonderful woman named Dr. Carolyn Porco. Dr. Porco is a planetary scientist who has devoted much of her career to studying Saturn. She has been involved in the Voyager missions (no, not Star Trek), as well as the more recently the Cassini mission. The discoveries she has made through the fantastic images taken way out in the deep space of our solar system, has changed how we view ourselves.
Don’t believe me? Well, Dr. Porco is not only a great scientist, but is also an amazing speaker and science advocate as well. She has been on the TED stage several times, and has spoken at several other conferences around the world.
I STRONGLY encourage you to watch her TED talk on her Saturn work. She can inspire you in a manner that a mere blog post could never hope to aspire to.
Dr. Porco continues to do research and push forward the boundaries of human intellect wherever she goes.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my short blurbs on these amazing women, and I want end by saying that science is a genderless endeavor, and all who are gripped by scientific curiosity should be allowed to pursue it.