Do We Need a Women in Science Month?

Women in Science compilation

Clockwise from left: Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackburn, Hedy Lamarr, Rosalind Franklin, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

A century before the advent of the first computer, an aristocratic woman applied her mathematics prowess in designing and integrating algorithms to Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine and lay the groundworks in creating general purpose computers. Because of this, she is widely regarded as the first computer programmer. The woman’s name is Ada Lovelace.

Dubbed as “The Enchantress of Numbers”, her contributions have had a profound impact in the field of science and mathematics. She is widely regarded as a symbol of women’s success in science to motivate women to participate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related careers. Her achievements are commemorated annually via Ada Lovelace Day in mid-October. Women in science advocates regularly mark the day by highlighting the growing gender disparity in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in which women only made up 13% of the current workforce.

Unfortunately, there is a growing lack of awareness of the contributions of Ada Lovelace and several other female scientists in the history of modern science. Ask any person on the street whether they can name any female scientist. The answer will either be a blank stare or Marie Curie whose discovery of radioactivity is widely covered in the primary and secondary education syllabus. This brings to mind whether Ada Lovelace Day is enough to increase awareness on women in science and that more initiatives that need to be taken. Should there be more days to commemorate the likes of Hedy Lamarr, Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin? Is a Women in Science Month a necessity?

 

Regardless of the duration, it is clear that more initiatives need to be taken for women in science to be properly acknowledged. One of the reasons is to disprove the notion that female scientist plays second fiddle to their male counterparts. A fine example would be Rosalind Franklin whose works on discovering the double helix structure of DNA was not acknowledged while James Watson and Francis Crick took the credit for the discovery which has earned them a Nobel Prize. While the duo originally theorized on the DNA structure, it was Franklin who applied X-ray crystallography method to produce data essential to confirm the double helix theory.

rosalind franklin

A description of Rosalind Franklin’s work taken outside King’s College London

Another example is biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin. While the discovery of penicillin is largely credited to Alexander Fleming in 1928, it was Dorothy Hodgkin who discovered the chemical structure of the antibiotic 17 years later. This finding verified the presence of β-lactam ring as part of the core structure of penicillin, enabling scientists at the time to understand its effects on bacteria. Hodgkin went on to determine the chemical structures of insulin and vitamin B12, the latter which won her the Nobel Prize in Medicine.  This shows that scientific breakthroughs by female scientists are no less significant than their male counterparts.

Some works by female scientists particularly during the pre-digital revolution era may be insignificant at the time but are considered as the precursor to several aspects of information technology. While widely recognized for her silver screen exploits and beauty, Hedy Lamarr was also credited for creating the frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) system to jam radio signals used to control torpedoes. Her work then became an integral part of today’s wireless technology such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. Ada Lovelace’s algorithm design which predates the first computer also established the groundwork for Alan Turing’s codebreaking achievement and development of digital computing. This is proof that the female scientists are ahead of their time in developing findings that revolutionized our daily lives.

Commemorating women in science is also essential to acknowledge modern women scientists whose works have largely gone unnoticed. The first decade of the 21st century saw several woman scientists being recognized for their works. Molecular biologists duo Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol Greider won the Nobel Prize in Physiology for discovering how the human chromosome is protected by DNA segments known as telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. French virologists Franƈoise Barré-Sinoussi, also a recipient of the Nobel Prize for her work in discovering the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Highlighting modern women scientists is crucial in encouraging the younger generation of women to consider science and technology as a career choice. The conclusion is that Woman In Science Month is necessary to put high achieving female scientists on the same spotlight as other female role models such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Angela Merkel from politics and Christine Lagarde and Marissa Meyer from the corporate world.

Author: Zakwan Zainal Abidin

Biomedical science researcher turned science journalist, communicator Strives to turn scientific achievements into public understanding

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