Women In STEM: Icons And Innovators In Every Field


Maddy Chapman


Maddy Chapman

Copy Editor and Staff Writer

Maddy is a Copy Editor and Staff Writer at IFLScience, with a degree in biochemistry from the University of York.

Copy Editor and Staff Writer

women in STEM

Chien-Shiuny Wu and Katherine Johnson, just two of the many, many women rock stars in science. Image credit: (c) IFLScience 

Women are at the forefront of scientific research. Historically, and today. There are so many scientific breakthroughs that wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of women, and doubtless, there will be many more in years to come.

Women might be pitifully underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), making up just 34 percent of the workforce – Black, Latina, and Indigenous women are even more poorly represented, making up less than 10 percent – but they’re responsible for some pretty awesome science nonetheless.


For International Women’s Day 2022, we take a look at some of the extraordinary women who changed, and continue to change, the game – the icons who paved the way and the innovators continuing to forge the path of women in STEM.

Physics: Icons

Lise Meitner was involved in the discoveries of the element protactinium and nuclear fission in 1938. Her male counterparts won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the latter, from which she was excluded, although she went on to receive an astonishing 48 nominations for other work in both Physics and Chemistry. 

Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American physicist involved in the Manhattan Project during World War II, which built the first nuclear bomb. Like Meitner, she was denied a Nobel Prize in 1957 for her involvement in the discovery of parity violation.

Chien-Shiung Wu. Image credit: Smithsonian Institution via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Physics: Innovators

Shirley Ann Jackson is an American physicist, who became the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate at MIT. Since then she has become the first woman and the first African-American chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the first African-American woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering.


Sau Lan Wu, a particle physicist, played a leading role in discovering the Higgs Boson particle in 2012. Wu is currently a visiting scientist at CERN.

Space: Icons

Astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first to discover that stars are made up of hydrogen and helium. She proposed this in her doctoral thesis in 1925, hailed “the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”

Caroline Herschel discovered Uranus alongside her brother. In 1786, she was also the first woman to discover a comet – she went on to discover seven more – and to be paid for her contributions to science. Many consider her the first professional female astronomer.

Vera Rubin proved the existence of dark matter – the mysterious substance that makes up 85 percent of the universe’s mass.

Space: Innovators

Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space. In 1963, she piloted a solo mission on the Vostok 6 as part of the Russian Cosmonaut Corps. 

Mae Jemison was the first Black woman to travel into space on the US Space Shuttle Endeavour.

Mae Jemison prepares to travel to space, 1992. Image credit: NASA

Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir were part of the first all-female spacewalk. Koch is also the record holder for the longest single spaceflight by a woman – 328 days.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered radio pulsars – one of the most important discoveries in physics of the 20th century. The 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to her male supervisors for the discovery. She was also the first women president of the Institute of Physics. 

Technology: Icons 

Grace Hopper was a computer scientist who helped develop one of the first programming languages and invent the first compiler. Hopper was also among the first to program one of the earliest computers – Harvard Mark I.

Annie Easley became a prominent computer scientist during her 34-year career at NASA starting in 1957. In that time, she was involved in developing the battery technology used for early hybrid vehicles.

Technology: Innovators

Mary Wilkes, a computer programmer and lawyer, is renowned for her work on the LINC computer, which is now recognized as the first personal computer.

Wilkes with the LINC computer at her home, 1965. Image credit: Rex B. Wilkes via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Adele Goldberg worked on the Smalltalk-80 programming language, which inspired Steve Jobs when he was designing his Apple products.

Environment: Icons

Geologist Florence Bascom was the first woman to get a PhD from John Hopkins, and just the second woman to get a PhD in geology in the US, behind Mary Holmes. She was also the first woman hired by the U.S. Geological Survey. A true "rock" star.

Katia Krafft was a pioneering volcanologist. She dedicated her life to filming, photographing, and recording volcanoes and died doing what she loved in 1991.

Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 "for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace." In doing so, she became the first African woman ever to receive the prize. She also started the Green Belt Movement, which helped plant over 30 million trees across Africa.

Environment: Innovators

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is an environmental activist and geographer. She is an expert in the adaptation and mitigation of Indigenous peoples to climate change and a prominent voice advocating for Indigenous people in the fight against it.


Sunita Narain is an environmentalist and Director General of India’s Centre for Science and Environment. For her work on rainwater harvesting, she received the World Water Prize in 2005.

Math: Icons

Emmy Noether created “Noether’s theorem” in 1915, which explained symmetry in nature. She was described by Albert Einstein as “the most significant creative mathematical genius” of her time.

Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician and one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist. Her work at the space agency was fundamental in the success of the first US crewed spaceflight.

Katherine Johnson, 1966. Image credit: NASA

Maryam Mirzakhani was the first woman and first Iranian to win the Fields Medal – the most prestigious award in mathematics – in 2014 for her work on the dynamics and geometry of Reimann surfaces.

Math: Innovators

Anne-Marie Imafidon is a British mathematician who received a Master’s Degree in Mathematics and Computer Science aged just 20. She also founded Stemettes, an award-winning organization promoting women in STEM careers.

Health and Medicine: Icons

Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography data famously discovered the helical shape of DNA and was the foundation of Watson and Crick’s double helix model. The discovery won the two men the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine four years after Franklin’s death.

Mamie Phipps Clark was a psychologist best known for her work on race and child development. Her research was used in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court Case that overturned segregation in US schools.

Health and Medicine: Innovators

Tu Youyou’s research has saved millions of lives across the globe. She discovered artemisinin – the chloroquine-resistant malaria treatment – which made her the first mainland Chinese scientist to receive a Nobel Prize for science in 2015.


Sarah Gilbert is an expert at developing vaccines against viral pathogens. She came to everyone’s attention in 2020 for her pivotal role in developing the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. More than 2 billion doses have since been delivered.

May-Britt Moser is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist. She discovered cells that determine positioning in the brain and are fundamental in enabling animals to navigate their environment.

Plants and Animals: Icons

Mary Anning discovered the first complete Ichthyosaur fossil in 1810. The 200-year-old specimen was just the beginning for Anning, who went on to discover the first complete Plesiosaurus skeleton and the first Dimorphodon. She was a world-renowned fossil hunter, collector, and expert but was refused admittance to the Geological Society of London on account of being a woman.  

A letter from Anning about the discovery of Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus. Image credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Plants and Animals: Innovators

Jane Goodall is a British conservationist. She was the first to observe tool use in chimps, as well as their omnivore diet and complex social interactions. Her work challenged what was known about chimpanzees and changed our understanding of humans' place in the natural order.


Sylvia Earle is a marine biologist who has pioneered research into our oceans, spending more than 7,000 hours underwater in the process. She was formerly chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Engineering: Icons

Edith Clarke was the first female engineer and first woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering from MIT. She created the Clarke calculator in 1921, which was used to solve issues with electric power lines.

Hedy Lamarr is the woman to whom we owe WiFi. The actor and inventor developed a way to encrypt signals during WWII, which serves as the basis of today’s wireless communication technology.

Patricia Bath developed a groundbreaking laser technology that can cure cataracts and restore patients’ eyesight. When she patented the technology in 1988, she became the first female African American doctor to be granted a medical patent.

Engineering: Innovators

Marissa Mayer is the former CEO of Yahoo, the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and first female engineer at Google. She was involved in drafting many of Google’s programs and apps, meaning the browser you’re likely reading this on right now might well be her design.

Chemistry: Icons

Marie Curie was the first, and only, person to win two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences for her work on radiation and radioactivity. She also discovered the elements radium and polonium.


Gertrude Elion developed numerous drugs, including those to treat leukemia, malaria, herpes, and prevent transplant rejection. Her name is on the patents of no fewer than 45 life-saving drugs. She received the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for revolutionizing drug development.


Dorothy Hodgkin was renowned for her work using X-ray crystallography. She discovered the structures of vitamin B12, penicillin, and insulin, which won her the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Anna Jane Harrison, a chemistry professor, was the first woman elected president of the American Chemical Society in 1978.

Chemistry: Innovators

Clarice Phelps is a nuclear chemist who helped synthesize a new element, tennessine – so-named, in part, after Phelps’s home state.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology. This revolutionized the life sciences, giving new hope for the treatment of many diseases.


Those are just some of the amazing women who have done or are doing amazing things in science. 

Happy #IWD2022, folks!


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