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Hero Women of STEM

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

Hero women in stem - ACS Foundation

Hero Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)

The ACS Foundation recently released scholarships for Women of STEM. The Women of STEM Scholarship program is designed to inspire grow and promote the number of women who chose to enter the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics career fields. The financial scholarship is worth $5,000 per year for the life of the degree.

Find out more about the ACS Foundation scholarships at the ACS Foundation website or visit the Women of Stem Scholarship website.

Recently the first scholarship was awarded to Selina Li recognised for her outstanding desire to pursue degrees in both Engineering and Computer Science. Selina is enrolled to study a Bachelor of Engineering (honours) / Science (computer science) at UNSW. During the HSC, Selina volunteered to help other students with their STEM related homework and assignments. To accommodate her busy schedule, Selina used her lunch breaks, to continue with her piano lessons.

When talking to students at an award ceremony, a young women and her parents asked me about successful women in STEM that I know. I was lucky to have many successful women working with me during my career. I also mentioned two extraordinary women that contribute their STEM skills, Katherine Johnson and Grace Hopper. Many of you will have heard of Katherine Johnson because of the book and movie on her life, Hidden Figures. But most people don’t know Grace Hopper and when you ask about other role models there is often a silence. So here are a few amazing women in STEM both historical and current.

Katherine Johnson Moon Mission

Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was an African American mathematician and physicist who played a major role in the early days of the United States' space program. She was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and passed away on February 24, 2020.

She was a pioneer in her field and overcame racial and gender barriers to make significant contributions to NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). She began working at the NACA's Langley Research Centre in 1953, where she was initially assigned to a segregated "coloured" computing unit, as it was the era of racial segregation in the United States.

She quickly gained recognition for her exceptional skills in mathematics and analysis, and her work became indispensable to the organization. Johnson's expertise in trajectory analysis and celestial navigation was instrumental in the success of numerous space missions, including the Mercury and Apollo programs.

Some of her most notable contributions include:

  1. Calculating the trajectory for the first American in space, Alan Shepard, in his 1961 Freedom 7 mission.

  2. Verifying the calculations for John Glenn's 1962 orbital mission, Friendship 7, when he became the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn specifically requested that Johnson check the computer's numbers before he would agree to go on the mission.

  3. Calculating the trajectory for the Apollo 11 mission, which landed the first humans on the Moon in 1969.

Katherine Johnson received numerous awards and honours for her work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded to her by President Barack Obama in 2015. The 2016 book "Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly documented some of her life and achievements. Later it was adapted into successful film.

Grace Hopper – Rear Admiral

Grace Hopper
Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper was an American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral who played a pivotal role in the development of early computer programming languages. Born on December 9, 1906, in New York City, and passing away on January 1, 1992, Hopper was a trailblazer in the field of computer science.

Hopper earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University in 1934 and later joined the United States Navy Reserve during World War II. She was assigned to work on the Harvard Mark I computer, one of the earliest electromechanical computers, at the Harvard Computation Laboratory. There, she worked with Howard Aiken, the principal designer of the machine.

In 1949, Hopper joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, where she worked on the UNIVAC I, the first commercially available electronic computer. She was part of the team that developed the first compiler, a program that translates high-level programming languages into machine code. This ground-breaking work paved the way for the development of COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), one of the first high-level programming languages designed for business applications.

Hopper's work on compilers and programming languages contributed significantly to the advancement of computer science. Her insistence on using more accessible language in programming, rather than machine code, made it possible for a broader range of people to become programmers and laid the foundation for modern software development.

Grace Hopper's accomplishments were widely recognized during her lifetime, and she received numerous awards and honours, including the inaugural "Computer Science Man of the Year" award from the Data Processing Management Association in 1969 and the National Medal of Technology in 1991. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, held annually, is named in her honor and celebrates the achievements of women in the field of computer science.

Hopper's legacy can be seen in the continued use of COBOL and her influence on the development of programming languages, making her a significant figure in the history of computer science.

Women in STEM have a long history

There have been many influential women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) throughout history. Here are just a few notable examples:

  • Marie Curie (1867-1934) - A physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity, Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and remains the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different scientific fields (physics and chemistry).

  • Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) - Often regarded as the world's first computer programmer, Lovelace wrote the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine (Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine).

  • Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) - A chemist and X-ray crystallographer, Franklin played a crucial role in discovering the structure of DNA through her work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA.

  • Lise Meitner (1878-1968) - An Austrian-Swedish physicist who, along with Otto Hahn, discovered nuclear fission, which ultimately led to the development of nuclear power and atomic weapons.

  • Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) - A Chinese-American physicist known for her work on the Manhattan Project and her experiment that disproved the hypothetical "conservation of parity" law, leading to a Nobel Prize for her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang.

  • Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008) - An African American mathematician and computer programmer who worked at NASA and its predecessor, NACA. She became the first African American supervisor at NACA and was an expert in FORTRAN programming.

  • Jane Goodall (1934-present) - Of course we all know Jane Goodall from the movie "Gorillas in the Mist". A British primatologist and anthropologist, Goodall is considered the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees, having spent over 55 years studying their social and family interactions.

  • Sally Ride (1951-2012) - An American astronaut and physicist, Ride became the first American woman in space when she flew on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

  • Mae Jemison (1956-present) - An American astronaut, physician, and engineer, Jemison became the first African American woman to travel to space when she went into orbit aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992.

  • Jennifer Doudna (1964-present) - An American biochemist who, along with Emmanuelle Charpentier, co-invented the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.

This list is by no means exhaustive, as there are countless other women who have made significant contributions to STEM fields throughout history and continue to do so today.

Australian Women in STEM

Several Australian women have made notable contributions to the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), a few examples:

  • Elizabeth Blackburn (1948-present) - A molecular biologist and Nobel laureate, Blackburn is best known for her work on telomeres, the protective structures at the ends of chromosomes. She was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak, for their discovery of how telomeres are maintained and the enzyme telomerase.

  • Fiona Wood (1958-present) - A plastic surgeon and researcher, Wood is known for her development of ReCell, a spray-on treatment for burn victims. This innovation has significantly improved the healing process for burn patients and has been widely adopted in clinical practice.

  • Michelle Simmons (1967-present) - A physicist and expert in quantum computing, Simmons is a pioneer in atomic electronics and the development of quantum computers. In 2018, she was named Australian of the Year for her contributions to quantum computing research.

  • Veena Sahajwalla (1962-present) - An engineer and materials scientist, Sahajwalla is recognized for her work in sustainable materials and recycling of waste materials. She is known for inventing "green steel," a process that uses waste plastics and rubber tires as a partial replacement for coal in steelmaking.

  • Adele Green (1949-present) - An epidemiologist and cancer researcher, Green has made significant contributions to understanding the causes and prevention of skin cancer, particularly melanoma. Her research on the effects of sun exposure has been instrumental in shaping public health policies and promoting sun safety.

  • Jenny Graves (1941-present) - A geneticist, Graves is known for her work on the genetics of Australian animals and her research on the evolution of sex chromosomes. She was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for Science in 2017 for her contributions to understanding mammalian genome evolution.

Tanya Monro
Tanya Monro

Tanya Monro (1973-present) - A physicist specialising in photonics, Monro has made significant advancements in the field of optical fibers and sensing technologies.

She has been Australia's Chief Defence Scientist since 8 March 2019. Prior to that she was the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research and Innovation at the University of South Australia.

Professor Monro obtained her PhD in physics in 1998 from The University of Sydney, for which she was awarded the Bragg Gold Medal for the best Physics PhD in Australia.

These Australian women represent just a fraction of the many women who have made and continue to make significant contributions to STEM fields in Australia and around the world.

First Women to the Moon

We started with a mission to the moon, Apollo 11, and we will end with another mission to the moon, Artemis II.

Christina Koch
Christina Koch

Christina Koch: Born 29 January 1979 (age 44 years), Grand Rapids, Michigan, United States. Finally, and just recently announced will be the first women to go to the moon with Artemis II. *She was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2013. She served as flight engineer on the International Space Station (ISS) for Expedition 59, 60 and 61. Koch set a record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman with a total of 328 days in space and participated in the first all-female spacewalks.​ Koch has been assigned as Mission Specialist I of NASA’s Artemis II mission. (*copyright of NASA)

Author: John Debrincat

ACS Foundation

Chair of the Board

Author's notes:

  • ChatGPT-4 was used in the research of this article. It enabled this story to be created in considerably less time than otherwise would be taken. Facts did need to be checked and some spelling was incorrect.

  • The amazing women of STEM above are not listed in any specific order and this is not some kind of ranking.


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