Eight Under-Recognized Women In STEM History
Emily Pollock posted on March 08, 2019 |
Women in STEM fields are not a new phenomenon.
Anne Easley, courtesy of Science and Engineering Newsletter.

We've all heard of Marie Curie, Grace Hopper, and Ada Lovelace. But the story of women in tech can't be easily distilled down to a few famous names. Women have been involved in science and tech fields throughout history, whether or not they've gotten credit for it. This “credit gap” is especially pronounced for women of colour, who still face racist and sexist pressures in the industry today.

So in honor of International Women's Day, here's a list of amazing women in STEM who haven't gotten as much attention as they deserve, spanning from astronomy to computer science to math to biology. This list is by no means an exhaustive list of Really Important Women In Tech: it's an invitation to get out there, do some more research, and get inspired!

1. Annie Easley: Activist Engineer

Easley is most famous for her work on rocket launches. She started as a “human computer” at NASA’s predecessor—the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics. She then got her mathematics degree and learned how to code when actual computers started cornering the market. She became a leading member of the team that developed the Centaur booster rocket, used on the Viking, Voyager, and Cassini missions. While Easley helped take us to the stars, she also did important work here on Earth: before she joined NASA, she helped black voters in Alabama pass the racist literacy rests required for them to vote.

2.    Lynn Conway: Computing Speedster

Conway may be relatively well-known, but the computer scientist and electrical engineer is far too cool to leave off any list of women in tech. Her work back in the 1960’s helped pave the way for the computer. She invented generalized dynamic instruction handling, a key advance used in out-of-order execution, used by most modern computer processors to improve performance. But she’s not just known as a scientist: Conway is also well known as an activist for transgender rights!

3. Flossie Wong-Staal: HIV Research Pioneer

Courtesy of the National Cancer Institute

For those heartened by the news of a potential treatment for HIV, take a moment to look back and thank Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal. She was a part of the team that discovered HIV in the 1980’s, and she later became the first person to clone the virus. She’s still working in the field today, and (luckily) has gained recognition for her work on retroviruses and immunodeficiencies.

4. Barbara McClintock: Genius Geneticist

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute

A geneticist who specialized in corn might seem like an odd choice for this list, but McClintock’s contributions spanned far beyond the field of agriculture. That’s because her work staining and identifying corn chromosomes led her to discover jumping genes—strands of DNA that “jump” between chromosomes. Although her discovery was initially seen as trivial, she pressed on, suggesting that these genes might be important in determining which genes are active. If that’s not enough, McClintock was the first person to suggest the idea of epigenetics, where the expression of certain genes is altered in response to external factors—such as stress, smoking tobacco or consuming alcohol.

5. The Navajo Women of the Fairchild Plant: Chip Creation

We tend to valorize the idea of the lone scientist working in isolation to discover great things, and ignore the people who make those discoveries possible on a larger scale. The Navajo women who helped manufacture some of the first computer chips at the Shiprock Fairchild plant in the 1960’s and 70’s are an example of the latter. Their role in the digital revolution was almost entirely unacknowledged until a recent essay by Dr. Lisa Nakamura (another important woman in tech!)

6. Wanda Diaz Merced: Listening to the song of the universe

Image courtesy of TED

Wanda Diaz Merced became blind in the middle of an undergraduate degree in astronomy, a field that relies heavily on information visualization. People in her department urged her to quit, but she persevered using sonification, a technology that translates data into sound instead of visual input. She developed a new technique to “sonify” supernovas and solar flares, and has made discoveries based on it that wouldn’t be possible with the typical visual data.

7. Sophie Wilson: Smartphone Developer

Image courtesy of Chris Monk/Wikimedia Commons

Smartphone users owe a huge debt to computer scientist Sophie Wilson. Wilson designed the instruction set of the ARM processor, used in most modern cellphones. She also designed the Acorn Micro-Computer, the first computer sold by Acorn Computers Ltd. Wilson (who is still active today) is so brilliant that while she was still in university, she developed a microcomputer over Easter break!

8. Wang Zhenyi: Eclipse Discoverer

Born in 1768 CE, Wang Zhenyi was an astronomer and mathematician (in addition to writing poetry on the side, as if that wasn’t enough).  She developed accessible math and science texts for laypeople, independently discovered and wrote papers on the Pythagorean Theorem, and advocated for more women to have the opportunity to learn about science. But her most famous discovery was cracking the secret of the eclipse. She used lamps, mirrors and tables in her own home as a model of the solar system to show that the earth’s shadow causes the lunar eclipse

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