Updated: Mar 8, 2021
By Emer O'Shea
2020 the year when the sounds of applause for health care professions, front-line workers, and scientists researching vaccines and pioneering treatments could be heard globally. In Toastees Herstory edition, we wanted to highlight some of the women who have contributed to the advancement of science and medicine, past and present leading us towards a safer world and inspiring the next generation of innovators in science, medicine, and technology.
Anika Chebrolu, a then 14-year-old from Texas won the 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge for the discovery of a potential therapy to COVID-19, a science project she started in her bedroom. Anika's winning invention uses an in-silico methodology to discover a lead molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Anika (now 15) said she was inspired to find potential cures to viruses after learning about the 1918 flu pandemic and finding out how many people die every year in the United States despite annual vaccinations and anti-influenza drugs on the market.
Dr. Özlem Türeci is the co-founder of the biotechnology company BioNTech. In 2020, her company, which she runs with her husband developed the first approved RNA-based vaccine against COVID-19.
Eunice Foote was an American Scientist and women’s rights activist who, in 1856, conducted an experiment to show how greenhouse gases affected the atmosphere. She used an air pump to fill glass cylinders with different gases and then tested the effect of sunlight on them. One was carbon dioxide, CO2. "The receiver containing the gas became itself much heated... and on being removed, it was many times as long in cooling..." Foote's experiment suggested that CO2 and water vapour trap heat more than other gases do and the potential effects on our climate began to emerge. She published an article on her findings, but at a Scientific Conference, did not present her own work as women were not really allowed to speak. Three years later, Irish man John Tyndall conducted further experiments and was credited with proving the connection between greenhouse gases (such as CO2 ) and rising temperatures (i.e. Greenhouse effect)
Florence Nightingale attributed with key nursing values- practicing good hygiene, washing hands regularly, and carrying out evidence-based practices. Born into a wealthy aristocratic family in 1820, she wanted to work as a nurse- a profession that was not seen as a respectable job for a woman at the time. Despite her family’s disapproval, she self-educated in science and gained some nursing experience in Germany before leading a contingent of Volunteer nurses to a Military hospital in Scutari in Modern Day Turkey to support soldiers in the Crimean War. Most soldiers were dying of diseases such as typhus, typhoid, and cholera but her practices reportedly reduced the death rate in the hospital from 42.7% to 2%. Upon returning to the UK, she prioritised establishing Nursing as a respected profession. Nightingale founded the nursing School at St. Thomas Hospital London, developed Palliative care and Midwifery, and helped to reshape the health system across the UK.
Henrietta Lacks, a tobacco farmer from Virginia in the U.S. died of cervical cancer in 1951, but, her legacy still lives on today through the immortalised cell line, HeLa. Using the HeLa line has aided the development of the Polio Vaccine, the HPV Vaccine and used extensively in research labs worldwide since
Marie Curie, known for her work on radioactivity is only one of four people to have received multiple Nobel laureates (Physics and Chemistry) and the first woman to receive a Nobel prize. A Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences, she was the first woman to hold the position. She was also appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, founded in 1914. Her research was crucial in the development of x-rays in surgery, with Curie herself helping to equip ambulances with x-ray equipment. Her name remains immortalized in helping fund and support the next generation of researchers. The European Commission-funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research fellowship support researchers at all stages of their careers, by providing excellent and innovative research training as well as career and knowledge-exchange opportunities, with an emphasis on worldwide and cross-sector researcher mobility are eligible for funding.
Dr. Rachel Levine is a pediatrician and Pennsylvania’s secretary of health and holds the position of Professor in both pediatrics and psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine. A Harvard University and Tulane Medical school graduate, Dr. Levine was the chief resident at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. In 2015 Dr Levine was promoted to Pennsylvania’s physician general, the state’s top doctor. Impressed with her background in behavioral and mental health, the state Senate voted unanimously to approve her. Dr. Levine has risen to national prominence for leading the state’s public health response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. On 25th February 2021, President Joe Biden nominated Dr. Levine for assistant health secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services. The process could see her making history to become the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the US Senate.
Rosalind Franklin’s research data was the first to demonstrate the basic dimensions of DNA strands and reveal the molecule was in two matching parts, running in opposite directions. In 1951 she began working in John Randall’s lab at King’s College London. She had nearly figured out the molecule’s structure when Maurice Wilkins, another researcher in Randall’s lab who was also studying DNA, showed one of Franklin’s X-ray images to James Watson. Watson quickly figured out the structure was a double helix and, with Francis Crick, used her data to support their research and published the findings in the journal Nature. The three- Crick, Watson, and Wilkins- were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, omitting Franklin.
Susan Wojcicki is the current CEO of YouTube Google’s first HQ was in Susan’s garage. Not the only technology trailblazer in the family, her sister Anne Wojcicki founded the personal genetics company 23andMe.
Tu Youyou is the chief scientist at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine born in China in 1930, she studied traditional Chinese and herbal medicines, found a reference in ancient medical texts to using sweet wormwood to treat intermittent fevers- a symptom of malaria. In the 1970s, after studies of traditional herbal medicines, Youyou and her research team were able to extract a substance, artemisinin, which inhibits the malaria parasite from worm-wood. In a most altruistic move, Youyou volunteered to be the first human subject to test the substance. Antimalarial drugs based on artemisinin have led to the survival and improved health of millions of people, and won her the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery, which has been deemed "arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half-century"
STEM = Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics