Now in its seventh year, International Day of Women and Girls in Science is an important reminder not only of the crucial work women in science are doing, but also of the work still to be done in tackling the STEM gender gap. Here are nine pioneering women making a difference in their fields.
As pressure on water resources grows around the world, the UN has dedicated this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science to its sixth sustainable development goal, focused on clean water and sanitation. Now in its seventh year, the day is an important reminder not only of the crucial work women in science are doing, but also of the work still to be done in tackling the STEM gender gap. Here are nine pioneering women making a difference in their fields.
In line with the UN’s focus this year, Banyan Water is working to make a difference in the water sector. Established in 2011, the company harnesses data and analytics to save water and minimise waste through innovations such as real-time leak detection. Since then, the technology has saved more than four billion gallons of water.
As CEO, Gillan Taddune has dedicated her career to tackling water scarcity through technology. She is an inspiration in an industry where fewer than one in five workers are female.
Using traditional methods, vaccines usually take more than ten years to develop. In 2020, however, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was cleared for emergency use in the UK just nine months after the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic.
As Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development, Kathrin Jansen played a crucial role in setting the world on course for a return to normality. She had already made a huge impact in the world of immunology prior to that, having led the development of the HPV vaccine at Merck in the 1990s.
Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier
In 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, French and American biochemistry researchers, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a revolutionary gene-editing tool called CRISPR. The technology, sometimes described as “genetic scissors”, allows scientists to precisely edit DNA.
According to the Nobel Prize committee, the technology “has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences” since its discovery in 2012. It is “contributing to new cancer therapies, and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true”. Phytology researchers are also hoping to use it to create hardier plants, a vital tool in the fight against world hunger.
Annie-Marie Imafidon was a child prodigy, passing A-levels in maths and computer science at the age of 11 and receiving her master’s degree from the University of Oxford by 20. After a brief period working in finance and tech, she decided to tackle the STEM gender gap head-on, co-founding Stemettes in 2013.
Stemettes is a social enterprise that runs panel events, a mentoring programme and an online platform aimed at encouraging girls and young women to pursue a career in STEM. Since it began, Stemettes has worked with nearly 60,000 people.
Algorithms are playing a growing role in our lives, but with this expansion a problem has emerged. When algorithms are trained on datasets that have been shaped by historic biases, these biases can be amplified. This has led to situations where algorithmic decision-making has resulted in race and gender-based discrimination.
Joy Buolamwini is working to tackle this problem. As a researcher at MIT, she demonstrated that facial recognition software developed by companies including Microsoft, IBM and Amazon was less effective at identifying dark-skinned women. She founded the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL) to advocate against algorithmic bias, and is now a prominent tech ethics campaigner.
For many years, biologists had considered ageing to be an inevitable biological process that could not be controlled. Cynthia Kenyon had other ideas, however. In 1993, she made the ground-breaking discovery that a single-gene mutation could double the lifespan of a type of roundworm, making the link between ageing and genetics.
Since then, Kenyon has become one of the world’s foremost authorities on molecular biology, in particular biogerontology – the study of ageing and age-related diseases. Since 2014, she has been vice president of ageing research at Calico, a biotech company backed by Google that aims to “enable people to live longer and healthier lives”.
Developing a fully autonomous vehicle is a challenge that has transfixed some of the world’s biggest companies over the past decade. It’s a technology that will transform the world, but concerns – particularly around safety – remain.
Raquel Urtasun is working at the cutting edge of this industry, researching how AI can be used to improve the way vehicles “perceive” the world. After a spell as chief scientist at Uber’s research division Uber ATG, she founded her own company, Waabi, in 2021, which has attracted huge investment for its machine learning-focused approach.
Since her first space mission in 2002, Peggy Whitson has been breaking records. She became the first female commander of the International Space Station in 2007, and ten years later, she broke the record for the longest single space flight by a woman, spending 289 days in orbit. She remains the oldest woman ever to have been to space.
After retiring from NASA in 2018, Whitson became a consultant for Axiom, a company developing the world’s first private commercial space station. Already the record-holder for oldest female astronaut in history following her last flight with NASA aged 57, Whitson announced that she would return to the ISS on behalf of Axiom in 2023.
There are many more inspiring women who could have made this list, doing great things in STEM across the world. Although the balance is gradually shifting, men still far outnumber women in these industries – showing how much work there is still to be done.Elevate your expertise
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