Turning the Spotlight on Women in Science

DrDoyenne over at Women in Wetlands has noted over the years how often the students comment on the lack of female role models in science… and how difficult it is for them to name famous female scientists and their contribution to science on the spot. She points to a survey that reported 65% of Americans polled could not name a single female scientist. I find that statistic disheartening. Let’s hope that the 2009 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Medicine & Physiology drop that number. DrDoyenne recently highlighted what I consider a gem providing a glimmer of hope. The Library of Congress has posted a reading list of biographies of women scientists.

A small gripe is that it’s listed “For Girls and Young Women”. Now I think we should be doing things to get girls interested in science, to show them that it’s not just the playground of boys. But I also think it’s just as important for the boys to know that women do science too. So, Library of Congress, why don’t we just leave it at “Biographies of Women Scientists: For Students”?

Aside from that, it’s nice to see the collection. So kudos and thanks for making the list, Library!

DrDoyenne’s post and the reading list got me to thinking about how many famous female scientists I could name. Here’s who I’ve come up with off the top of my head (with field/contribution):

– Ada Yonath (ribosome structure)

– Susan Lindquist (protein folding control/chaperones/function of Hsp90)

– Elizabeth Blackburn (telomerase)

– Carol Grieder (telomerase)

– Rosalind Franklin (crystal structure of DNA)

– Marie Curie (radioactivity)

– Laurie Glimcher (plasma cell differentiation)

I realized as I was making my list, though, that I very well might not know them if I wasn’t in science. And it also occurred to me just how few female scientists I’ve ever seen on television–whether getting kids interested in science (like Bill Nye) or talking about their science on a show like NOVA. Do I simply have selective memory? Have I not watched enough of these shows? Or do female scientists–for one reason or another–tend to stay in the background, away from the limelight?

In the end, I suppose, it didn’t make a difference that I didn’t know about women scientists as a kid. I had a strong female role model in my mother. She went after what she wanted and didn’t take nonsense off anyone; I inherited that “don’t tell me what I can’t do” mentality. As an undergrad, there were 3 female professors in my department with about 12 profs, and I had strong encouragement from male scientists I worked with or took classes with. Even my male high school chemistry teacher in a tiny town in the rural Southeast suggested that I consider a career in chemistry (although I didn’t decide on that route until much later).

Maybe it didn’t matter for me, but it could make a huge difference for others.

How many famous female scientists can you name?

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