Meet 12 Badass Scientists…Who Also Happen to be Women.
What do you see when you picture a scientist? Is it a white man in a lab coat? This portrait will smash that stereotype to bits.
Twelve women scientists of the TED Fellows program gather for a portrait at the TED Fellows Retreat this past August. Photo: Bret Hartman/TED
Everywhere you look, odds appear stacked against women in STEM. Young male scientists receive up to twice as much funding as their female counterparts in Boston’s biomedical research institutions, a global research hub. Only 30% of the world’s researchers are women, and women hold fewer than 25% of STEM jobs in the US. In fact, one recent survey found 67% of Europeans and 93% of Chinese respondents don’t even believe women have the skills to do science — and Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Tim Hunt thinks women cause “trouble” in the lab.
But take a look at the above portrait, which was taken by photographer Bret Hartman at the TED Fellows Retreat in Pacific Grove, California in August 2015. These 12 scientists represent a range of disciplines — from astrophysics, biology, genetics, archaeology, medicine, glaciology, data science and more — and represent 5 countries around the world. They also happen to all be women. And while a portrait like this one shouldn’t be extraordinary in 2015, it sadly is — highlighting a very real, very large gender gap in the sciences.
“This week, a cab driver asked me, ‘What do men say when you tell them you’re a scientist? Because you don’t look like a scientist,’” marine biologist Kristen Marhaver says. “In this picture, I see a twinkle in each of our eyes, saying, ‘No, that’s the thing, sir. I do look like a scientist.’”
Get to know these extraordinary women and their groundbreaking work in the short bios below.
Image: Jennifer Wolfe Design.
1. Renée Hlozek, cosmologist
South African cosmologist Renée Hlozek studies the cosmic microwave background — radiation left over from the Big Bang, to better understand the initial conditions of the universe and how it grew into the structures, such as galaxies, we see today, such as galaxies.
“My field is about asking questions about the nature and evolution of the universe, fundamental to our understanding of ourselves,” Hlozek says. “While there is a history of women in astronomy, there are still so few in my field, I find that I’m noticed as more of an outsider. But because there aren’t many of us, I find can have a clear voice within the field. I’m proud to be a role model for young women interested in science, and am excited for the day that we have equal number of men and women scientists in cosmology and astrophysics.”
2. Janet Iwasa, molecular animator
We know a lot about molecular processes, yet they are impossible to observe directly. Molecular animator Janet Iwasa’s colorful, action-packed 3D animations illustrate how molecules look, move and interact — allowing scientists to visualize their hypotheses and conveying complex scientific information to general audiences. Iwasa uses high-end animation software to create her works, but to help scientists access visualization technology, she’s also created Molecular Flipbook, a free, open source 3D animation software tool that lets researchers intuitively and quickly model molecular hypotheses.
“The group of women in this image work on some pretty awe-inspiring science — from understanding the birth of the universe, to finding evidence of cancer in ancient human populations, to preserving animal species that may disappear without our help,” says Iwasa. “My subjects are far too small to see, but through my work I hope to reveal a world within our cells that is chaotic and beautiful, and — hopefully — also awe-inspiring.”
3. Katie Hunt, paleo-oncologist/archaeologist.
When archeologist Katie Hunt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 22, it catalyzed a deeper curiosity about cancer as an ancient disease. Delving into ancient texts and analyzing ancient human remains, Hunt discovered cancer’s presence in antiquity — recorded as early as 1,500 BCE, and in skeletal remains from as early as 6,000 BCE — but no tools existed for rigorous scientific analysis. So, with three other women in science, Casey Kirkpatrick, Jennifer Willoughby and Roselyn Campbell, Hunt launched the Paleo-Oncological Research Organization a network of archaeologists, oncologists and cancer researchers working to develop scientific research standards and techniques — and an open source database of physical evidence of cancer from many eras and regions. This growing field of paleo-oncology will raise interesting questions about how biology, culture and environment affect development of the disease, helping us better understand its prevention and treatment.
“Biological anthropology — a physical science in a gentle embrace with social science—happens to be a field predominantly led by women, so I have the fortune of working with brilliant woman scientists every day,” says Hunt. “While sexism still exists in our lives, I’m privileged to witness a world in which women in science is commonplace and celebrated, as in this picture. And science is stronger for it!”.
4. Kristin Marhaver, coral biologist.
Based in Curaçao, marine biologist Kristen Marhaver researches how corals reproduce and what their juveniles need in order to survive on today’s reefs — an urgent task as corals struggle against pollution, overfishing and a changing climate. By gathering coral spawn and raising larvae in the lab, Marhaver and her colleagues analyze corals’ habitat preferences in substrates, colors and even bacterial scents, in order to construct environments that encourage coral settlement in the wild and facilitate the reintroduction of lab-raised juvenile corals. Marhaver’s research team was recently able to harvest the spawn of and successfully breed the Caribbean pillar coral, which until now scientists worried had stopped reproducing.
“This picture carries extra power for me because we all look like our real selves,” says Marhaver. “I have this photo hanging behind my desk, so that when people come to my office, I have a posse of 12 PhDs backing me up.”
5. Marcela Uliano da Silva, computational biologist.
Invasive Golden Mussels, brought to South America from Asia in ballast water, threaten to destroy the ecosystem of the Amazon River. Brazilian computational biologist Marcela Uliano da Silva is sequencing the mussel’s genome to develop a genetic solution preventing mussels from being able to attach to substrates. But it’s a race against time: the mussel — which arrived in South America in the 1990s, choking river systems, altering aquatic ecosystems and damaging industrial and infrastructural facilities — is a mere 150 kilometres from the first river in the Amazon River basin. If it arrives, it would spell disaster for the Amazon and the health of the planet.
“It wasn’t until my work as a scientist got more well known that I felt, in rare moments, the prejudice: objectification, discredit,” Uliano da Silva says. “The only thing I could think when such things happened was that such behavior is based in insecurity. People are afraid of change, yet change is the thing that makes mankind move forward in extraordinary ways. Science has already shown us that each individual, regardless of origin or gender, has the potential to be as creative as anyone else.”
6. Jedidah Isler, astrophysicist.
Astrophysicist Jedidah Isler studies supermassive, hyperactive black holes. These objects devour material at a rate upwards of a thousand times more than an average supermassive black hole. They pull in material via an accretion disk that spins around the black hole, and then shoot it out via jets that move at 99.99% the speed of light. When these jets are pointed at the Earth, we call the supermassive, hyperactive black holes that produce them blazars, or blazing quasars. Isler is working to understand how and where the highest-energy light from the jet is made, and how that energy is transported through the galaxy.
“In this picture, see the future. I see a diverse set of explorers, thinkers, builders, achievers who are using their incredible intellect to improve the world we live in,” Isler says. “As a woman of color in STEM, I see the opportunity to add my voice to the chorus of women redefining what it means to ‘be’ a scientist or ‘do’ scientific work. It’s an honor and privilege to stand with these women, but even more, to stand as an example for the next generation. I hope young women all over the world see themselves represented somewhere in this image, aspire to greater STEM dreams and find herself in the company of the next generation of women in STEM.”
7. Laura Boykin, computational biologist.
Smallholder farmers in Africa rely on cassava for both sustenance and cash, but this crucial staple crop is threatened by whitefly, an insect that transmits a destructive virus to the plant. Computational biologist Laura Boykin uses genomics, supercomputing and phylogenetics to identify whitefly species, gathering information necessary for researchers to modify cassava to resist both insect and virus. To accelerate progress, Boykin has launched “WhiteFlyBase” the world’s first database of whitefly genetic information — with the hope of eradicating whitefly and bringing food security to East Africa.
“Being a woman in science can be lonely,” says Boykin. “When I see this image, I realize I will never be alone again. I also think about all the young females in science who can stand on our shoulders, because we will be providing a ladder for them — not pulling it up as so many before us have done.”
8. Patricia Medici, conservation biologist.
Brazilian conservationist Patricia Medici has devoted her life to preserving the life and habitat of the South American lowland tapir, the largest terrestrial mammal of South America. Though not well known, tapirs are important to their ecosystems as an umbrella species: protecting tapirs also protects iconic species like peccaries, jaguars and pumas. Tapirs also help distribute the seeds of the foods they eat, shaping and maintaining the structure of forests. Sadly, tapirs are threatened by deforestation, hunting and roads, and are especially vulnerable due to their long gestation periods.
“I started my tapir work in 1996 when it was a pioneer research and conservation program and we had nearly zero information about tapirs,” says Medici. “They are extremely difficult to study, mainly because they are nocturnal, solitary, very elusive animals. That’s exactly what fascinated me. The rest is history. It’s not always easy to be a woman in the conservation world as it requires a significant level of commitment to spending long periods of time in the field, away from home and family. It also requires physical strength and the proper frame of mind to deal with the hardships of working in the wilderness — not to mention the mosquitoes, ticks and botflies!”
9. Lucianne Walkowicz, astronomer.
Stellar astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz works with data from NASA’s Kepler mission, studying stars that host planets outside our solar system, and how stellar radiation influences whether life could thrive on those worlds. Lucianne also mines astronomical datasets in search of signals from intelligent life in the universe, and is a leader in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a new project that will scan the sky every night for 10 years to create a huge cosmic movie of our Universe.
“Searching for habitable worlds and life in the universe really makes me value our home, Planet Earth!” says Walkowicz. Both our challenges and our opportunities are so great, we need the brightest minds to create the future we want to see — and that means making science open and accessible for all.”
10. Julie Freeman, artist/computer scientist.
British artist and computer scientist Julie Freeman creates kinetic sculptures, compositions and animations from nature-generated data, such as the motion of fish swimming, or the quiver of moths’ wings. “I use digital technology as a communication bridge between the natural world and ourselves,” she says. “I make artwork that allows me to be curious about nature in different ways, and to share that curiosity. What is it about natural systems that are so compelling? How can we understand phenomena that exist beyond our sensory perception? Technology allows us insight into hidden elements of biological systems, and can allow us to experience things in new ways.” Freeman’s online, data-driven artwork “We Need Us” explores the nature of metadata, and the humanity in the life of data.
“One of the things I’m increasingly aware of is the multiplicity of roles we all play,” says Freeman. “I am an artist AND a scientist. A swimmer and a speaker. A consultant and an entrepreneur. I am shy and I am outspoken. I don’t believe any of us represent a single role or gender. We care about being given respect and equal opportunity to do whatever we are good at — without the fight, without the justifications that we find ourselves involuntarily pronouncing.”
11. Michele Koppes, glaciologist.
Glaciologist Michele Koppes travels to the the coldest places on Earth to study glaciers: how they move, carve out valleys and mountains, and respond to the warming atmosphere, oceans, and rocks — as well as how these changes affect the landscape, water resources and biodiversity. Her one-of-a-kind research in the Himalayas fills in gaps of unrecorded glacial change, and may help vulnerable populations adapt to shifting weather patterns.
“As a woman, I constantly need to prove I am not only scientifically capable, but hardy enough to thrive in the field, in the harsh environments of my research,” says Koppes. “Doing science properly is rife with failed attempts — on top of this, women must stand up for their legitimate seat at the table. The time has come for both women and men to discard the cultural stereotypes of what a ‘proper scientist’ should be — we can all be curious, creative, brainy, rational, driven, successful, and loving partners and parents, playful and engaged teammates and citizens.”
12. Sheila Ochugboju Kaka, genetic virologist.
As a child growing up in rural Nigeria, Sheila Ochugboju Kaka was urged to stay indoors to stay safe from an untamed environment — an upbringing that piqued her curiosity about invisible things that can so easily kill a child: bacteria, viruses, scorpions in the sand. This curiosity led her to study baculo-viruses as a postdoctoral research fellow at Oxford University, investigating genetic engineering as a way to produce commercially viable bio-pesticides. Today, Ochugboju Kaka is a science communicator and international development expert, promoting the intersection of art and science — such as the “Welcome Trust’s Danscience” project, an exploration of the science of epigenetics through dance — to promote innovation and social change.
“It’s incredible to be amongst such a diverse mix of women scientists which in itself exemplifies the power that different perspectives, skills, experience and heritage brings to any discipline,” says Ochugboju Kaka. I’m also encouraged that nearly 20 years after I got my PhD in biochemistry, the image of women in science is finally shifting. What a beautiful change that makes.”
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