Pop quiz: Name more than one female scientist

How many famous female scientists can you name — not including Marie Curie? If you’re having trouble thinking of any, you’re not alone; even scientists struggle to answer this question.

Brainy beauty ... actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr.
Brainy beauty … actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr.

The ongoing Public Perception of Famous Female Scientists survey has, since 2004, asked over 1000 scientists and members of the general public in the UK and Western Europe to name 10 famous women scientists. So far, just over 1 per cent of respondents have been up to the task while 30 per cent could name only Marie Curie, the Polish-French two-time Nobel Prize winner for her work on radioactivity and the discovery of the elements radium and polonium. DNA researcher Rosalind Franklin and pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale (included for her statistical work) rounded out the the top three.

Presenting their findings to the UK’s Women in Science Research Network in 2014, lead researchers Cynthia Burek and Bettie Higgs noted that only 15 per cent of respondents had learned about female scientists at school. For Dr Higgs this is a vital point in explaining the relative paucity of famous women in the hard sciences. She says that while many women study science at university they are much less likely than men to undertake high-level research because of a lack of exemplars. “You can’t visualise yourself as a professor of physics or as a scientist if you don’t have role models,” Dr Higgs says.

The British researchers note that in their field of earth sciences there are “only 22 female professors in the UK and none in Ireland”.

To redress the gender imbalance, the popular perception of women scientists needs to change, say Burek and Higgs. To achieve that aim they make these recommendations:

  • Raise awareness of women’s contribution to science
  • Give female science role models to the next generation
  • Raise the profile of women scientists through the media
  • Improve the image of female scientists (to counter notions that science is an unfeminine pursuit)*

Briony Scott, principal at Wenona School on Sydney’s North Shore, has answered the call.

“You cannot be what you cannot see,” Dr Scott says. “So at Wenona, we are focused on showing our young women what it means to be a part of the action and a part of the solution. Female role models working in a range of STEM disciplines inspire the next generation of girls to think and engage broadly.”

Discussions with women scientists, mathematicians and engineers have helped the school implement a series of STEM initiatives “designed to encourage and excite our young women to explore and develop skills in these areas,” says Dr Scott.

The Space Science Club meets three times a week to teach girls about orbital mechanics and space travel using a rocket simulation program while the Car Restoration Club sees young women take a dilapidated vintage automobile and restore it to mint condition.

The students fix-up every aspect of the car from the engine and electricals to the body and interior of the vehicle. Experts told the school’s head of STEM Studies, Mr Andy Draper, that it would be an  impossible task for “unskilled” students but they have successfully done so for three years running. With a zero per cent dropout rate, it’s clear that the students love the project and in years to come they’ll never be intimidated by a trip to the auto mechanic!

As well, Wenona competes in the SunSprint Model Solar Car Challenge hosted by the UNSW Faculty of Engineering, which involves designing, building and racing a solar-powered model car. The girls’ enthusiasm for hands-on engineering has seen the school introduce an Applied STEM elective in Year 9.

Incorporating the principles of Maker Culture, the course concentrates on real-life applications for coding. Students learn C, the computer programming language underlying most modern operating systems including that used by the iPhone, with a view to using their coding skills to achieve desired outcomes.

“We gave a lot of thought as to how to incorporate coding in a meaningful way,” Head of STEM Mr Draper says. To that end, in their first module — Biomechanics and Electronics — students designed and, using a 3-D printer, created a bionic hand, which they presented to the 2016 inaugural Young Creators conference.

Coding in motion .... Wenona Applied STEM Studies student Ella demonstrates her bionic hand to classmates.
Coding in motion …. Wenona Applied STEM Studies student Ella demonstrates her bionic hand to classmates.

For their next project, the Applied STEM class will build submarines and race them across the school pond, with the fastest being the winner.

This all may sound a bit sophisticated for Year 9 but the class has eagerly embraced the challenge and excitement of using technology creatively.

“I really enjoy this class and the opportunity it has created for girls to learn these skills that would not have normally been offered to us,” says Elise Rawlinson of Year 9.

Wenona is one of a handful of girls’ schools offering Engineering Studies at the HSC level “as a precursor to encouraging greater involvement of women in non-traditional careers,” Dr Scott says.

“These girls can and will change the world for the better. I am excited by what they can achieve for themselves and for others,” Dr Scott concludes. Elise and her classmates would surely agree.

* Interestingly, one of the 20th century’s most influential scientists was very feminine and, at one point, extraordinarily famous. Known as “the world’s most beautiful woman”, Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor.

Among her innovations was a frequency hopping communications system for guided missiles that eventually formed the basis for other spread spectrum techniques underlying wireless technologies such as WiFi and Bluetooth.

Despite her undeniably central contribution to modern warfare and telecommunications, Hedy Lamarr remains best-known for her lead role in the 1949 Hollywood blockbuster Samson and Delilah.

Her popular image is beginning to change though, thanks in large part to a very successful Boeing recruitment campaign. Proving the point that women are more likely to consider science and technology careers when presented with a role model, Boeing saw visits to its careers website quadruple when the company replaced a male scientist with an image of Hedy Lamarr in its ads. The campaign made no reference to her acting career instead it simply stated her place in science history with the words: Frequency Hopping, 1942.

Boeing workers were thrilled to see the company represented by a woman. “What an excellent way to show the importance of diversity in the workplace,” wrote Jeff Ahrens, an Industrial Participation employee for Boeing Integrated Defense Systems in St. Louis. “You’ve done a great job in helping parents show their daughters to strive to achieve great things.”

Read more:

Public Perception of Famous Female Scientists – Presentation by Cynthia Burek and Bettie Higgs to the Women in Science Research Network, 2014

Maker culture – Higher Education Academy website

‘Don’t let history happen without you’: Hollywood, Ecstasy and the Strange Case of Hedy Lamarr

The stars come out – Dan Ivanis, Boeing Frontiers website, November 2003

Pop quiz: Name more than one female scientist
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Author: Mindy Laube

Mindy Laube is a creative content specialist with a strong background in digital and print journalism gained over a 14-year career at the Sydney Morning Herald. You can find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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