Archive for January, 2017

Science Makes Sense: Week 48- Chemistry and Social Justice- Where are the Women / People of Color Scientists?

January 30, 2017

I shall never forget my dear friend who obtained her doctorate years before I did in Chemistry  and tried to apply for a job in a different state in India.  Her interviewers were very impressed with her credentials.  Yet, shockingly, they gently dissuaded her from moving away from her husband and children to follow the new job opportunity, even though her spouse was happy to let her persue her career!   She was quite upset by the sexism shown by the men who were interviewing her.

That was in the 70’s and I still see it today.   A few years ago, I was teaching a chemistry class along with a new male teacher to acquaint him with our methodology. He made me demonstrate the laboratory activity and clean up.  Then he proceeded to lecture without even a ‘Thanks ‘ for doing all the grunt work.  I refused to ever work with him after that.

There are numerous examples of talented, intelligent scientists out there who are not white men.  Unfortunately, most students in the field of science and medicine hear about the work of only white men in these fields.  ( As a science student, I heard names like Priestley, Lavoisier, Gauss, Watson, Crick, but never the names of women or non-white chemists, biologists or mathematicians,  for example.  I thought there were none.) There are ample stories of sexism, racism directed at women and non- white scientists and the side- lining of their hard work.  This week , and till week 52, we shall look at a few of these amazing, pioneering women and people of color scientists from the past to the present.

Mary Putnam Jacobi, an American, was the first woman to be admitted to France’s Ecole deMedicine (Medical School) in 1867. She had already received her MD in the United States.  During this time Edward Clarke, MD at Harvard had written a book called A Fair Chance for Girls claiming that women who spent too many years studying would have under- developed ovaries and would become sterile!   Women menstruated and hence exertions (by studying long hours) during this time would make them sterile. Mary did not believe this and came up with hard facts and numbers using test subjects before, during and after menstruation.  This paper won the Boylston Prize at Harvard and paved the way for women to gain opportunities in higher education, especially the sciences. Mary finished her Medical School in France and continued practicing and lecturing in New York. (Ref.1)

Alice Ball, an African- American, had a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Hawaii in 1915.  She managed to create a less viscous oil that could be injected and absorbed by the body  in the treatment of leprosy.  This was a major breakthrough in the treatment.(Ref.1)

Chien-Shiung Wu was born in Shangai, China, but came to the U. S. to study in Berkeley, California. Her father was an outspoken advocate for women.  She received her doctorate in physics in 1940.  During World War II, she focused her attention on beta decay.  Wu worked on her base material meticulously to prove Fermi’s Theory on beta decay.  She worked on sub-atomic particles relentlessly and isolated the K-meson into an observable state.(Ref.1)

Priyamvada Natarajan is a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University (featured picture).  She is interested in cosmology,gravitational lensing and black hole physics. Her research involves mapping the detailed distribution of dark matter in the universe using the concept of ‘the bending of light’ coming from distant galaxies! (Ref.2)

Her undergraduate degree was in physics and mathematics, her master’s degree was in Science, Technology and Society from M.I.T., Boston.  Her doctorate work was in theoretical astrophysics.  She was the first woman to be elected fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.  She has received several awards, including the Sofie and Tycho Brahe professorship in Copenhagen, Denmark.   Priyamvada is deeply interested in institutional change with regards to gender parity in the academic world.  She actively engages in encouraging numerical and scientific  literacy for the public at large. She has been interviewed by NPR and several prestigious newspapers and media outlets.  (Ref.2)

Priyamvada has recently published a book on the history of astronomy called “Mapping the heavens.”(Ref.3)

Ellen Ocho is an astronaut.  She received her master of science and doctorate degrees from Stanford University.  Her doctorate degree was in electrical engineering.  She is a leading research scientist with several patents and is the first Latina to go in space. (She was selected by NASA in 1990.).  She is a veteran of four flights in space.  She has received numerous awards including Outstanding Leadership Medal in 1995.  Besides being an astronaut, engineer and researcher, Ochoa is a classical flutist. ( Ref.4)

I have barely scratched the surface of amazing women scientists, from the past and the present (including names in Nuggets).  Do your own research and marvel at these wonderful women who make us proud!

Nuggets of Information :

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics(2015), women make up 47% of the total workforce, and comprise 37% of chemists and material scientists, 28% of environmental and geoscientists and only around 16-12% of engineers.(Ref.5)

Chien-Shiung Wu was called ” The First Lady of Physics”(Ref.6)

British chemist Rosalind Franklin is best known for her pioneering work in crystal diffraction and her role in the discovery of DNA structure.  Though Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize , very few know about Rosalind’s significant contribution. Unfortunately, she died before the Prize was awarded.  She never complained that Watson and Crick based their article using her research work.(Ref.7)

Vera Rubin who died in December of 2016, had to fight to get access to a telescope.  She was an asro- physicist who worked for decades at the Carnegie Institute of Science in Washington, D.C. She was a pioneer in the discovery of dark matter.  The concept of dark matter had limited evidence in the 70’s as Rubin and her colleagues studied the dim light coming from distant galaxies. (Ref.8).  Thanks to her persistent research we now have evidence not only about dark matter but dark energy and the possibility of ‘multi- verses’.


1.Swaby, Rachel, Headstrong  52 Women who changed Science and the World,  (Broadway Books, New York,2015)

3.Natarajan, Priyamvada, Mapping the Heavens,

6.,go to History Makers and choose’Wu’