On February 11th 2021, the world celebrated the 6th International Day of Women and Girls day in STEM. Currently, less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women and according to UNESCO, only about 30% of all female students select stem related fields in higher education. Longstanding biases and gender stereotypes are what steer girls and young women away from STEM-related fields in higher education. To increase the access to and participation in science for women and girls, UNESCO declared the 11th of February as the International Day of Women and Girls in science. In 2015, the United Nations came up with 17 sustainable development goals for people across the planet with a deadline of 2030. The fifth goal is for gender equality which includes women in STEM.
More than ever, it is important that we encourage girls in the early stages of their education that they can be whatever they aspire to be and show them that they will not be limited to stereotypes or the ‘norm’ of today’s society.
This year the coronavirus has shown us that it will take as many of us as possible, including women, in coming up with a way in which we can fight against COVID-19 whether it be in the research field, developing techniques for testing, in the making of the vaccine, administering the vaccine, taking care of COVID patients and in so many other ways.
Below are a few women in a STEM career who have improved our knowledge in their field and have empowered many other young people to do the same.
When the Ebola epidemic began in West Africa, Dr Pardis Sabeti led a team that sequenced virus samples from infected patients almost as soon as the outbreak began. This marked the first in-depth use of real-time DNA sequencing during such a deadly pandemic. Pardis and her team were able to work out clearly that the virus was spreading human to human—not from mosquito bites or some pig vector or something else. There were so many theories out there, but her work proves that there is nothing like real data to get rid of myths and guesses and get down to the facts. Many of her scientific collaborators died during this outbreak. This is high-risk research, but it ended up saving a lot of lives too.
Mae C. Jemison is an American astronaut and physician who in June 1987, became the first African American woman to be admitted into NASA’s astronaut training program and on September 12, 1992, became the first African American woman in space. In recognition of her accomplishments, Jemison received has received many awards including the 1988 Essence Science and Technology Award and the Ebony Black Achievement Award in 1992. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from university in 1977 and after graduating found time to expand her horizons by studying in Cuba and Kenya and working at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand.
When she returned to the United States in 1985, Jemison made a career change and decided to follow a dream of applying to NASA’s astronaut training program and after more than a year of training, she received the title of ‘Science Mission Specialist’, the role that made her responsible for conducting crew-related scientific experiments on the space shuttle.
Jemison flew into space on September 12, 1992, with six other astronauts aboard the Endeavour on mission STS47. During the eight days she was in space, Jemison conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness herself and the rest of the crew. In total, she spent more than 190 hours in space before returning to Earth on September 20, 1992. After the historic flight, Jemison said that society should recognize how much both women and members of other minority groups can contribute if given the opportunity.
The radiochemist Irène Joliot-Curie was a battlefield radiologist, activist and Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner in 1935. She was born in Paris to Marie and Pierre Curie, two of the most famous scientists in the world. Along with her husband, Frédéric, she discovered the first artificially created radioactive atoms, contributing to countless medical developments, especially in the fight against cancer.
After starting her studies at the Faculty of Science in Paris, she served as a nurse radiographer and worked together with her mother to provide mobile X-ray units during World War I before returning to her studies at university. She later worked at the institute that her parents had founded where she did important work on natural and artificial radioactivity, transmutation of elements, and nuclear physics. It was there that she and her husband Frédéric Joliot, whom she married in 1926 conducted the work that would award them the Nobel Prize for their synthesis of new radioactive elements.
Aprille Ericsson-Jackson is a native of Brooklyn, New York. She attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology before attending graduate school at Howard University. She was the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University and the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in Engineering at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. As she continues her career at NASA, Dr Ericsson-Jackson is also committed to educating and inspiring more African-American students to pursue careers in STEM.
These are only a small handful of some of the known and unknown women who were making a difference in their field and breaking boundaries in the world. It is our job to continue inspiring young girls to be whoever they want to be whether that be a policewoman, an entrepreneur, an engineer, or a pilot by following our own dreams and encouraging others to do the same. These women all followed their passions which not only gave them a sense of fulfilment and purpose but led the way for so many more young women to come.
Here’s to many more International Women and Girls days in STEM.