An A-Z of Women Pushing Boundaries in Science and Tech
On International Women's Day, here's just a small sample of women whose work we've been following.
Samantha Cristoforetti. Image: ESA/NASA
March 8 is International Women's Day, and to mark the occasion we've put together a list of just a small sample of women currently doing groundbreaking work in the fields of science and tech. History has overlooked or undermined women's achievements in these areas in the past, and there's still a clear gender divide today: Women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and continue to face issues from unconscious bias to open harassment. Here are just 26 women across disciplines whose work Motherboard has been keeping an eye on.
Amunts is helping to map one of biology's greatest conundrums: the human brain. The German neuroscience professor is one of the most forward-thinking brain scientists in the world, and her lab has worked on a revolutionary 3D model with detailed resolutions as small as 20 micrometers. By scanning 7,400 slices of a preserved human female brain, Amunts and her team were able to create a 3D map depicting the organ's anatomy in microscopic detail.
Breazeal is an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT's Media Lab. She founded and directs the Personal Robots Group there, and is the founder of Jibo Inc., a company that created the world's first social robot designed to be used in homes. Her recent work investigates the impact of social robots on the quality of human life. She also wrote Designing Sociable Robots and has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles on topics ranging from robot learning to autonomous robots.
European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti has had a career marked by superlatives: She was the first Italian woman in space and also holds the record for the longest single spaceflight for a woman at just hours under 200 days. During the Fortuna mission to the International Space Station, which launched in late 2014 and came to an end last June, she became well-known for her regular photos, videos, and taco-making skills.
Darling is at the forefront of technology and the law and a leading expert in robot ethics. As a research specialist at MIT's Media Lab, a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and a visiting fellow at the Yale Information Society Project, Darling has written extensively about robot ethics, intellectual property, and the intersection of technology and society. She has also written about interesting and novel ideas like extending legal protections to social robots.
National Geographic explorer-in-residence and former NOAA chief scientist Sylvia Earle has gone—literally—where no one has gone before. She's a marine biologist, explorer, and ocean advocate who counts more than 100 deep sea explorations under her belt and broke records by diving solo at a depth of 1,000 meters. Earle also led an all-female team of explorers called the Tektite Project, who lived in an underwater laboratory to study ocean species and the effects of underwater living on human bodies. She's since founded multiple research foundations and currently focuses on the role oceans will play in climate change.
Inez Fung is a mathematician and professor of atmospheric science at the University of California at Berkeley. She developed the first 3D atmospheric models that projected how carbon cycles and climate change scenarios will affect the earth. Her research later led to the founding of a new scientific field called "biogeoscience." Fung has been a contributing scientist to the International Panel on Climate Change and currently serves on the National Science Board.
On January 1, Gianotti became director general of CERN, the first woman ever named to the position. For the next five years, she'll help select the experiments performed at the world's most famous particle collider. A noted lover of the font Comic Sans, Gianotti helped lead the team that discovered the Higgs boson.
If you're going to quit your MBA program to launch a tech startup, you'd better be sure you've got one hell of an idea. Fortunately, Julia Hu knew exactly what she was doing when she left MIT to start her health and fitness company Lark Technologies. She developed both a fitness app and wearable that collect your personal activity and biometric data and work as a digital personal trainer and motivational coach. In just a few years, Hu grew the company to become one of the most popular Apple HealthKit apps and it comes standard on Samsung S5 phones.
Perhaps best known for coining the term "visionary fiction," Walida Imarisha is an activist, author, academic, and editor who's pushing boundaries on the sci-fi frontier. Last year, she was behind the essential Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, an Octavia Butler-inspired work that linked activism to speculative fiction.
The first African American woman in space, Jemison has spent her terrestrial days dreaming up ways to send humans into deep space. She's currently the principal of 100 Year Starship, a DARPA-backed organization dedicated to achieving interstellar human space flight by 2112. Better hope we get started on some serious life-extension technologies while we're at it.
As an astrophysicist at McGill University in Montreal, Kaspi hunts down and studies neutron stars—the zombie stars of the Milky Way—and discovered the fastest rotating star we've seen. Neutron stars are incredibly dense: a teaspoon would weigh around 100 million metric tons. These dead stars will feed on others that get too close. This year, Kaspi became the first woman to win Canada's top science award, the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal, which comes with a $1 million grant to further her work.
Janna Levin's fascination with the universe and its origins bridges science and storytelling. Her 2002 debut book, How the Universe Got Its Spots, melded geometry, topology, chaos, and string theory to demonstrate the ways cosmologists like her hunt for the true size and shape of the universe. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines delved into math, history, and fiction, and earned her a PEN/Bingham Fellowship for Writers. Her next book sheds light on the hunt for evidence of the holy grail of modern cosmology: gravitational waves. A professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University, Levin has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a member of Brooklyn's madcap art-and-engineering Metropolitan Exchange, and a scientist-in-residence at Pioneer Works, where she hosts a public discussion series about scientific controversies.
In 2014, mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani won the Fields Medal for her work in geometry and dynamics. Currently a professor at Stanford University, she was the first woman to be awarded the prize—often considered the highest in mathematics—since it was first introduced in the 1930s.
Developmental biologist Kathy Niakan became this year the first scientist to get regulatory approval to genetically modify human embryos. Based at the UK's Francis Crick Institute, Niakan is researching the genes needed for an embryo to develop, which could help in the development of fertility treatments and the prevention of miscarriages.
A historian of science, Oreskes has honed in on the ways that climate science has been distorted by a system of climate denial. She and co-author Erik Conroy documented the ways that "merchants of doubt"—scientists, journalists, and executives in the pocket of conservative groups and energy companies—have sought to tear apart evidence about anthropogenic climate change, just as they had once sought to question the dangers around cigarettes on behalf of the tobacco industry. In the process she's been vilified by her critics, labeled a communist, and worse. None of it has deterred her; last year she and Conroy even delved into science fiction. Set in the future, their The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future makes the argument that those who choose to ignore climate change will eventually bring about the big government regulation they often fear. Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University.
Phillips wrote This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, a sociological and anthropological journey into the depths of 4chan and the world of online trolling. Phillips spent four years posing as a 4chan troll, eventually revealing herself to be a researcher. She's currently a professor at Mercer University, where she regularly researches the cultural impact of memes, online harassment, trolling, and the online spaces we all inhabit.
After working in finance and investment banking during her post-college years, Quazzo eventually went on to found GSV Advisors, a firm that provides advisory services to educational tech companies. Her firm, along with Arizona University, co-hosts the annual ASU GSV Summit, a prestigious conference celebrating educational startups and new technologies changing the way we learn.
Rionge is a serial entrepreneur from Kenya who co-founded Wanachi Online, an internet service provider that became one of East Africa's most successful cable, broadband, and internet-based phone companies. She has also co-founded several other companies, including a startup incubator and coworking space. Rionge got her start selling yoghurt and working at the local hairdresser, before venturing into business.
Socia heads up Next Century Cities, a nonprofit coalition of 128 cities (and counting) that have vowed to find a way to provide their residents with gigabit fiber broadband internet connections. Founded in 2014, Next Century Cities's plan is to help American communities get fiber via any means, whether it's partnering with an internet service provider or building out a network themselves. Socia is dedicated to providing everyone with high speed, affordable internet.
Thuy Truong is a budding entrepreneur who the BBC recently dubbed "Vietnam's start-up queen." Born in Vietnam, she was educated in the US and then moved back to Vietnam to start up several business ventures with friends. After testing the waters with a frozen yoghurt business and a collaborative drawing app, Truong founded a social messaging app called Tappy. Around 10 months after it launched, Silicon Valley-based mobile gaming company Weeby acquired the app. Truong is currently working as Weeby's Asia business development director, splitting her time between San Francisco and Vietnam.
After receiving her PhD in mathematics from Princeton in 2007, Italian mathematician Corinna Ulcigrai went on to receive an award from the European Congress of Mathematics for solving a long-standing question about chaotic properties of area-preserving flows. She was awarded the European Mathematical Society Prize in 2012, and the Whitehead Prize in 2013. She now teaches at the University of Bristol in the UK.
Born to a Mexican family in Santa Fe, Villa-Komaroff went on to receive a PhD in cell biology from MIT and to become one of the founding members of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). In 1978, she became the first author of a report showing that bacteria could be induced to make proinsulin—representing the first time a mammalian hormone was ever synthesized by bacteria. She is also the recipient of the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Award, and she has been inducted into the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Hall of Fame.
Williams is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work focuses on large mammalian predators, especially aquatic species. She has traveled around the world studying animals such as whales, seals, and dolphins. Her research interests primarily include swimming and running energetics. In 1989, she began dedicating much of her time to conservation. During the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Williams was on the front lines, directing sea otter rescue efforts. Each year since the spill, she has traveled back to Alaska in order to train a new batch of wildlife responders, so that when another spill happens there is a team prepared to handle it.
Women In Technology International (WITI) Hall of Fame inductee Jian Xu works as a distinguished engineer at IBM and is part of the IBM Academy, an elite group of the company's top engineers. She held the highest non-executive position as an engineer at IBM, and now runs the company's China Systems and Technology Labs in Shanghai. She has filed over 20 patents and mentors fellow women engineers.
Chinese scientist Tu Youyou became her country's first female Nobel Prize recipient when she won the award for medicine in 2015. She was honored for her kickass research on malaria, which paved the way towards a new treatment for the disease. Tu and her team extracted a substance from Artemisia annua, a kind of roundworm, that proved capable of reducing malaria rates for millions across the globe. She won the award with two others, America's William Campbell and Japan's Satoshi Omura. What makes Tu even more badass is that she doesn't have a medical or doctorate degree, but got her start instead as a researcher at the Academy of Chinese Traditional Medicine after attending pharmacology school.
Zomorodi is the host and managing editor of Note to Self, a weekly WYNC Studios podcast that aims to explore how technology is changing our everyday lives. The show's tens of thousands of listeners have tuned in to Zomorodi's discussion of topics like sexting, digital eavesdropping, and information overload. She also created Bored and Brilliant, an interactive project that got people around the globe thinking critically about their relationship with smartphones. She is the recipient of four awards from the New York Press Club, and in 2014, the Alliance for Women in Media named her Outstanding Host.