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The Sciences

Meet 10 Women in Science Who Changed the World

Science is often considered a male-dominated field. But these female scientists broke boundaries and made important discoveries.

By Megan SchmidtMarch 8, 2020 2:00 PM
Marie curie in the lab - public domain
Marie Curie (Credit: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr Commons)

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Who are the greatest scientists of all time? Chances are, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton or other big names probably come to mind — and for good reason. Those scientists made remarkable discoveries and changed how we understand the world. 

But far too often, women are left off the roster, even though they’ve long made significant strides in science — including in eras when they were excluded from formal education and careers in the field. It was only until recently that female scientists have come out of the shadows of history.

In recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8 — and just because it’s the year 2020 — here are a few boundary-breaking women in science that should be household names, too. 


Ada Lovelace, Mathematician

Dec. 10, 1815-Nov. 27, 1852

Lovelace is regarded as the first computer programmer — long before modern computers were invented. Her notes on Charles Babbage’s proposed analytical engine (a programmable, general-purpose computer), is considered to be the very first computer algorithm.

Ada Lovelace Painting - Public Domain
Ada Lovelace (Credit: Alfred Edward Chalon/Science Museum Group/Public Domain)

Marie Curie, Physicist and Chemist

Nov. 7, 1867-July 4, 1934

Chief among Curie’s many achievements include discovering radioactivity and inventing a mobile X-ray unit that was employed during World War I. With her husband, Pierre, Curie also discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium — and developed techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes. In 1903, Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. After her first win in physics, she later earned an award in chemistry — making her the first person to have been awarded twice.

Marie curie in the lab - public domain
Marie Curie (Credit: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr Commons)

Janaki Ammal, Botanist

Nov. 4, 1897-Feb. 7, 1984

As India’s first female plant scientist, Ammal developed several hybrid species still grown today. She also advocated for protecting the biodiversity of India.

Janaki Ammal - John Innes Centre
Janaki Ammal (Credit: John Innes Centre)

Chien-Shiung Wu, Physicist

May 31, 1912-Feb. 16, 1997

Wu was the first scientist to confirm — and later refine — Enrico Fermi’s theory of radioactive beta decay. She is also known for her “Wu experiment,” which overturned the theory of parity in physics. This breakthrough led to a Nobel Prize that was awarded to her male colleagues, with Wu’s critical role in the work overlooked.

Chien-Shiung Wu - Public Domain
Chien-Shiung Wu (Credit: Smithsonian Institution via Flickr Commons)

Katherine Johnson, Mathematician

Aug. 26, 1918-Feb. 24, 2020

Johnson’s calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to sending the first Americans into space. She became famous when her story was profiled in the movie Hidden Figures.

Katherine Johnson - NASA
Katherine Johnson (Credit: NASA)

Rosalind Franklin, Chemist

July 25, 1920-April 16, 1958

Franklin is known for her revolutionary work in discovering the double helix structure of DNA. She passed away four years before her male colleagues were awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1962. Some believe that even if Franklin had lived, she likely would have been snubbed by the committee.

rosalind franklin - CCBY
Rosalind Franklin (Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

Vera Rubin, Astronomer

July 23, 1928-Dec. 25, 2016

Rubin discovered the existence of dark matter, the strange glue that holds our universe together. Her contribution is regarded as one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century — work many feel should have been awarded a Nobel Prize.

vera rubin - telescope - public domain
Vera Rubin (Credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Gladys West, Mathematician

1930-

West’s work in developing mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth served as the foundation of GPS technology. In 2018, she was inducted into the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame, one of the Air Force space command’s highest honors.

Gladys West - Public Domain
Gladys West (Credit: U.S. Air Force)

Flossie Wong-Staal, Virologist and Molecular Biologist

Aug. 27, 1947-

Wong-Staal was the first scientist to clone HIV and create a map of its genes, which led to a test for the virus. 

Flossie Wong Staal - Public Domain
Flossie Wong Staal (Credit: Bill Branson/National Cancer Institute)

Jennifer Doudna, Biochemist

Feb. 19, 1964-

Doudna was one of the primary developers of CRISPR, a ground-breaking technology for editing genomes. The approach offers the promise to put an end to diseases.

Jennifer Doudna - CCBY
Jennifer Doudna (Credit: Duncan Hull)

Read next: The 50 Most Important Women in Science

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