Great scientists, great women – Part 2

women scientists ABaxi (2).png
Artwork by Aparna Baxi

After the recent sausage-fest of “Great scientists, great moustaches”, TIR turns its attention to the female of the scientific species: less hirsute, but no less remarkable.


Emmanuelle Charpentier & Jennifer Doudna – the superhero duo
Born: 1968 and 1964, respectively
Known for: Repurposing a bacterial anti-virus defence system (CRISPR-Cas9) into an all-purpose programmable genome editing tool.
Impact: Changing the world is often cited as a motivation for people to get into science. The same way that playing stadium arenas is cited as a motivation for picking up a guitar. It’s one thing to be inspired at the thought of doing it, it’s another to actually do it. To actually change the world. While their contemporaries are doing the equivalent of playing pub gigs and fleetingly registering on the charts, Charpentier & Doudna have become genuine superstars, capable in scientific terms of selling out multiple stadia in simulcast. CRISPR-Cas9 has not only made genome editing possible, it’s made it routine, and the pair deservedly picked up the Nobel this year in recognition.


Katherine Johnson – getting men to float off in space
Born: 1918
Known for: Calculating trajectories and launch windows for crewed NASA spaceflights, including those made by Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and the Moon landing.
Impact: When Tina Fey saluted George Clooney in “Gravity” for choosing to “float away into space and die [rather] than spend one more minute with a woman his own age”, she forget to mention who made feats such as space flights and space walks possible in real life. At a time of active racial segregation, when Johnson was required to work, eat, and even use bathroom facilities in separate places to her white American peers, she used her considerable mathematical skills to make herself an indispensable component of the space programme. Her reputation was such that even after computers began to replace human mathematicians, John Glenn refused to fly until Johnson had checked the machine’s numbers. One of the very first African-American women to work for NASA, she is also remembered as a trailblazer for equal rights, in part by simply disregarding and bulldozing many of the gender and race barriers around her, and insisting on justified recognition of her ability.


Muriel Robertson – the pathogen hunter
Born: 1883
Known for: Work on sleeping sickness, research on gas gangrene during World War I, being one of the first female Fellows of the Royal Society.
Impact: When Van Helsing was after Dracula, he only had to keep up with the demonic bloodsucker’s shapeshifting in three different guises: man, wolf, bat (and some intermediate forms like a man-bat and wolf-man). Robertson pursued a fiend that not only lived on human blood but actually lived in it, could also hide inside the guts of a bloodsucking fly, and manifested at least six different morphologies: slender bloodstream forms, stumpy bloodstream forms, procyclic trypomastigotes, mesocyclic trypomastigotes, epimastigotes, metacyclic trypomastigotes…not to mention some intermediate forms that everyone keeps forgetting about. But she tracked them all down, thus elucidating the life cycle of Trypanosoma brucei, the pathogen responsible for sleeping sickness.


Maria Mitchell – a comet in the American science firmament
Born: 1818
Known for: Discovering “Miss Mitchell’s comet” (C1847 /T1), being the first internationally recognised female professional astronomer.
Impact: “Study as if you were going to live forever, live as if you were going to die tomorrow” may sound like a lyric from Janis Joplin or Courtney Love, but it was Maria Mitchell that spoke it. The first person to observe what became known as “Miss Mitchell’s comet” and responsible for calculating its orbit, her Quaker appearance and upbringing belied a decidedly punk rock attitude towards social causes and emancipation. An outspoken advocate for women’s rights, she helped found the Association for the Advancement of Women and served as its second president. She also founded her own school – the first in the area to admit children of colour as students – and used it as a laboratory for unorthodox and creative didactic methods. Heavily involved with the anti-slavery movement, she refused to wear clothes made of Southern cotton. Oh, and she also tabulated the positions of the planets in order to assist sailors with navigation, was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and much more besides.


Teruko Ishizaka – the itchy and scratchy show
Born: 1926
Known for: Discovering the IgE antibody class, and major contributions to the study of allergies
Impact: If you have hay fever, food allergies, hives, penicillin allergy, almost any kind of allergy at all, then your life has been affected by Teruko Ishizaka’s work. Working with her husband, she discovered the immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody class, which mediates a huge number of allergic responses (as well as anti-parasite immune responses). All those allergy tests? Yup, they’re looking for the presence of IgEs. And it was no mean feat to find it either, given that IgEs are the least abundant type of immunoglobulin in serum. Ishizaka additionally showed that human mast cells, which bind IgE, develop from haemopoietic stem cells, and made a number of other seminal contributions to the study of allergies.
Wikipedia; posting edited by Mark Palfreyman.


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