Top 10 women in science – an impossible task?

Gail Cardew considers what selection criteria we could possibly use to rank the vast number of remarkable female scientists, past and present, in a top 10 list.

  • Prof Pratibha Gai

    Prof Pratibha Gai, Friday Evening Discourse speaker and winner of the  L’Oréal – UNESCO European For Women In Science Laureate 2013.

    Credit: Julian Dufort for the L’Oréal Foundation

There are many excellent Top 10 lists of all sorts from the Top 10 awe-inspiring man-made wonders to the Top 10 pranks that went horribly wrong. There is even a YouTube channel dedicated to them, and in fact we have previously partnered with this channel to highlight the Top 10 unanswered questions.

You’d think, therefore, that compiling a list of the Top 10 women in science would be a piece of cake. Well, you’d be wrong. Thankfully, it’s not because there aren’t enough women out there. In fact, the reverse is the case – when we were looking at our Friday Evening Discourse speaker wish list last year, we realised that most of them were women, so we decided to go the whole hog and invite only women for the 2014 line-up.

From the inside it doesn’t feel like a big statement for the Ri to make. Our 2014 Discourse programme is, as always, a brilliant line up of scientists who have interesting things to say, and who are receptive to a polite grilling by a fiercely curious audience. The only difference is that it just happens to be women.

My hope though is that this will be the trigger for those who organise any kind of science activity to examine the gender balance and make sure it's equal. I hope this in turn will erode the male scientist stereotype so that little kids won't continue to draw a man with crazy hair when asked what scientists look like.

As we have shown, it's really not that difficult to find a long list of brilliant women. A Twitter call-out to our followers also generated an additional flurry of names. But it's proving extremely difficult to come up with a Top 10 list of women we might profile on our blog. What selection criteria should we use?

Fantastic science goes without saying, of course.

But what other attributes might we consider that make some women stand out over others? Triumph over adversity, perhaps? Or, given that we're the Ri, the ability to tell a compelling story about their research? What about an ability to mentor others? Or that they should have some other laudable impact outside their core area of research?

I don't know the answer yet.

All I can say is that whatever criteria we might choose in the end will definitely be the same criteria that we would use if we ever decided to compile a Top 10 list of men in science, or even better just a Top 10 list of scientists.

Since we announced our all women line-up for Friday Evening Discourses in January we've been inundated with suggestions about which women, past and present and from all over the world, deserve a moment in the spotlight for their contribution to science.

Here is the list so far, if you'd like to add another suggestion we'd be delighted to hear from you in the comments section below.

Adrienne Asch (1946–2013)

Fought for disability rights in reproductive technologies and the use of prenatal testing.

Bertha Benz (1849 – 1944)

Business partner of automobile inventor Karl Benz
In 1888 was the first person to complete a long-distance trip by automobile, overcoming several difficulties and carrying out repairs along the way. The trip helped popularize the invention.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943 – )

Discovered the first radio pulsars (a special kind of neutron star that emits beams of radiation that sweep through Earth's line of sight). She was controversially omitted from the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded for this discovery despite having been the one to first observe them. 

Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)

Marine biologist and conservationist
Extremely influential in the founding of the contemporary environmental movement, known in particular for her book Silent Spring which alerted the public to the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides.

Penny Chrisholm

Biological oceanographer
Awarded the 2013 National Medal of Science in recognition of her contribution to "the discovery and understanding of the dominant photosynthetic organisms in the ocean, promotion of the field of microbial oceanography, and influence on marine policy and management."

Theresa Clay (1911 – 1995)

Became one of the foremost authorities on bird lice (Mallophaga) during the twentieth century. 

Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)

Chemist and Physicist
Famed for her pioneering research on radioactivity, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman have won the award in two different fields (physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911).

Elaine Fox 

Psychologist and neuroscientist
Director of Oxford Centre for Emotions and Affective Neuroscience whos work on anxiety, optimism and the development of emotional vulnerability and resilience has been widely featured across scientific and popular literature, and TV documentaries.

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

Made crucial contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA, as well as leading pioneering work on the tobacco mosaic and polio viruses.

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994)

Winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work in establishing the structures of the vitamin B12 and penicillin.

Louise Johnson (1940 – 2012)

Biochemist and crystallographer
Johnson made major contributions to the emerging field of structural biology, in particular her contribution in determining the structure of lysozme. She was awarded a DBE in 2003.

Esther Miriam Zimmer Lederberg (1922 –2006)

Discovered the lambda phage, a virus that infects E. Coli bacteria, which became a key tool in the study of viruses and genetic recombination. She also co-developed replica plating, used to screen bacteria for specific mutations.

Kathleen Lonsdale (1903 – 1971)

Played a fundamental role in the development of x-ray crystallography techniques, demonstrated for the first time that benzene rings are flat and was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

Known chiefly for her writings on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine (an early mechanical computer), including what is recognised as the first algorithm intended for a machine. As a result she is often described as the world's first computer programmer.

Lynn Margulis (1938 – 2011)

Best known for her intially controversial theory of the origin of eukaryotic organelles, and contribution to the endosymbiotic theory, which is now widely accepted.

Dame Anne McLaren (1927 – 2007)

Developmental biologist
Her research into in vitro culture of mouse embryos paved the way for advances in in vitro fertilization and other fertility treatments.

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 – 2012)

The first Italian woman to win a Nobel Prize and an eminent advocate for science.

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Made significant contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission despite the challenging circumstances of being forced (as an Austrian Jew) to flee Nazi Germany during her research there.

Ruth Patrick (1907 – 2013)

Her pioneering work on freshwater systems drew scientific and political attention to the problem of water pollution and galvanised the environmental movement. 

Aarathi Prasad

Previously a cancer genetics researcher at Imperial College London she has been science advisor to the British Council and is now a science writer and presenter

Carol Robinson

Became the first female chemistry professor at both the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford and has made significant breakthroughs in the use of mass spectrometry in analysing protein and other large molecules.

Miriam Rothschild (1908 – 2005)

Naturalist and entomologist
Despite little formal education became an expert in several fields including fleas, butterflies, pyrazines and chemical communication, gathering eight honorary doctorates, from Oxford in 1968 to Cambridge in 1999.

Janet Rowley (1925 – 2013)

Cancer geneticist         
Deemed the 'matriarch of modern cancer genetics' for being the first scientist to identify a chromosomal translocation as a cause of cancer.

Ruth Sager (1918 – 1997)

Enjoyed two scientific careers, the first in cellular genetics, and the second in cancer genetics. Her work altered the prevailing view about the location of genetic material within cells.

Barbara Sahakian

Internationally renowned for her work on the neural basis of cognitive, emotional and behavioural dysfunction, co-inventor of CANTAB tests (widely used to assess cognitive functions) and a founding member of The Neuroethics Society.

Nettie Stevens (1861 – 1912)

Discovered that sex is inherited as a chromosomal factor, with the males determining the gender of the offspring.

Marie Tharp (1920 – 2006)

Geologist and oceanographic cartographer 
Created the first scientific map of Earth's entire ocean floor in collaboration with Bruce Heezen.

Beatrice Tinsley (1941 – 1981)

Astronomer and cosmologist 
Made significant contributions to the astronomical understanding of how galaxies change and evolve with time.

Constance Tipper (1894 – 1995)

Metallurgist and crystallographer
Discovered the causes of brittle facture of Liberty Ships used during World War II, saving many lives with her discovery.

Dorothy Wrinch (1894 – 1976)

Mathematician and biochemical theorist
Her controversial cyclol hypothesis of protein structure contributed greatly to early studies of molecular biology.

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 – 1997)

Experimental physicist
Described as the “First Lady of Physics”. She worked on the Manhatten Project during World War II and is known for the Wu Experiment which disproved the widely accepted Parity Law of physics.

Friday Evening Discourse - 28 March

Book tickets to the March Friday Evening Discourse 'Too much of a good thing?' with Aoife McLysaght from Trinity College, Dublin.

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