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Meet 12 brilliant women scientists

As if anyone would care about anybody Not brilliant.

Everywhere you look, odds appear stacked against women in STEM.

Young male scientists receive up to twice as much funding as their female counterparts in Boston’s biomedical research institutions, a global research hub.

Only 30% of the world’s researchers are women, and women hold fewer than 25% of STEM jobs in the US.

In fact, one recent survey found 67% of Europeans and 93% of Chinese respondents don’t even believe women have the skills to do science — and Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Tim Hunt thinks women cause “trouble” in the lab. (Related to sexual harassment?)

But take a look at the above portrait, which was taken by photographer Bret Hartman at the TED Fellows Retreat in Pacific Grove, California in August 2015.

These 12 scientists represent a range of disciplines — from astrophysics, biology, genetics, archaeology, medicine, glaciology, data science and more — and represent 5 countries around the world. They also happen to all be women.

And while a portrait like this one shouldn’t be extraordinary in 2015, it sadly is — highlighting a very real, very large gender gap in the sciences.

Patsy Z  shared this link TED

Get to know their groundbreaking work:

These scientists represent a range of disciplines and 5 countries around the world.|By Karen Eng

“This week, a cab driver asked me, ‘What do men say when you tell them you’re a scientist? Because you don’t look like a scientist,’” marine biologist Kristen Marhaver says. “In this picture, I see a twinkle in each of our eyes, saying, ‘No, that’s the thing, sir. I do look like a scientist.’”

Get to know these extraordinary women and their groundbreaking work in the short bios below.

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Image: Jennifer Wolfe Design

1. Renée Hlozek, cosmologist

South African cosmologist Renée Hlozek studies the cosmic microwave background — radiation left over from the Big Bang — to better understand the initial conditions of the universe and how it grew into the structures, such as galaxies, we see today.

“My field is about asking questions about the nature and evolution of the universe, fundamental to our understanding of ourselves,” Hlozek says.

“While there is a history of women in astronomy, there are still so few in my field, I find that I’m noticed as more of an outsider.

But because there aren’t many of us, I find I can have a clear voice within the field. I’m proud to be a role model for young women interested in science, and am excited for the day that we have equal number of men and women scientists in cosmology and astrophysics.”

2. Janet Iwasa, molecular animator

We know a lot about molecular processes, yet they are impossible to observe directly.

Molecular animator Janet Iwasa’s colorful, action-packed 3D animations illustrate how molecules look, move and interact — allowing scientists to visualize their hypotheses and conveying complex scientific information to general audiences.

Iwasa uses high-end animation software to create her works, but to help scientists access visualization technology, she’s also created Molecular Flipbook, a free, open source 3D animation software tool that lets researchers intuitively and quickly model molecular hypotheses.

“The group of women in this image work on some pretty awe-inspiring science — from understanding the birth of the universe, to finding evidence of cancer in ancient human populations, to preserving animal species that may disappear without our help,” says Iwasa.

“My subjects are far too small to see, but through my work I hope to reveal a world within our cells that is chaotic and beautiful, and — hopefully — also awe-inspiring.”

3. Katie Hunt, paleo-oncologist/archaeologist

When archeologist Katie Hunt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 22, it catalyzed a deeper curiosity about cancer as an ancient disease.

Delving into ancient texts and analyzing ancient human remains, Hunt discovered cancer’s presence in antiquity — recorded as early as 1,500 BCE, and in skeletal remains from as early as 6,000 BCE — but no tools existed for rigorous scientific analysis.

So, with three other women in science, Casey Kirkpatrick, Jennifer Willoughby and Roselyn Campbell, Hunt launched the Paleo-Oncological Research Organization — a network of archaeologists, oncologists and cancer researchers working to develop scientific research standards and techniques — and an open source database of physical evidence of cancer from many eras and regions.

This growing field of paleo-oncology will raise interesting questions about how biology, culture and environment affect development of the disease, helping us better understand its prevention and treatment.

“Biological anthropology — a physical science in a gentle embrace with social science—happens to be a field predominantly led by women, so I have the fortune of working with brilliant woman scientists every day,” says Hunt.

“While sexism still exists in our lives, I’m privileged to witness a world in which women in science is commonplace and celebrated, as in this picture. And science is stronger for it!”

4. Kristin Marhaver, coral biologist

Based in Curaçao, marine biologist Kristen Marhaver researches how corals reproduce and what their juveniles need in order to survive on today’s reefs — an urgent task as corals struggle against pollution, overfishing and a changing climate.

By gathering coral spawn and raising larvae in the lab, Marhaver and her colleagues analyze corals’ habitat preferences in substrates, colors and even bacterial scents, in order to construct environments that encourage coral settlement in the wild and facilitate the reintroduction of lab-raised juvenile corals.

Marhaver’s research team was recently able to harvest the spawn of and successfully breed the Caribbean pillar coral, which until now scientists worried had stopped reproducing.

“This picture carries extra power for me because we all look like our real selves,” says Marhaver. “I have this photo hanging behind my desk, so that when people come to my office, I have a posse of 12 PhDs backing me up.”

5. Marcela Uliano da Silva, computational biologist

Invasive Golden Mussels, brought to South America from Asia in ballast water, threaten to destroy the ecosystem of the Amazon River. Brazilian computational biologist Marcela Uliano da Silva is sequencing the mussel’s genome to develop a genetic solution preventing mussels from being able to attach to substrates. But it’s a race against time: the mussel — which arrived in South America in the 1990s, choking river systems, altering aquatic ecosystems and damaging industrial and infrastructural facilities — is a mere 150 kilometres from the first river in the Amazon River basin. If it arrives, it would spell disaster for the Amazon and the health of the planet.

“It wasn’t until my work as a scientist got more well known that I felt, in rare moments, the prejudice: objectification, discredit,” Uliano da Silva says. “The only thing I could think when such things happened was that such behavior is based in insecurity. People are afraid of change, yet change is the thing that makes mankind move forward in extraordinary ways. Science has already shown us that each individual, regardless of origin or gender, has the potential to be as creative as anyone else.”

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Uliano-Silva collects mussels at Jacuí River, in the city of Porto Alegre, southern Brazil. Photo: Rogério da Silva

6. Jedidah Isler, astrophysicist

Astrophysicist Jedidah Isler studies supermassive, hyperactive black holes. These objects devour material at a rate upwards of a thousand times more than an average supermassive black hole. They pull in material via an accretion disk that spins around the black hole, and then shoot it out via jets that move at 99.99% the speed of light.

When these jets are pointed at the Earth, we call the supermassive, hyperactive black holes that produce them blazars, or blazing quasars. Isler is working to understand how and where the highest-energy light from the jet is made, and how that energy is transported through the galaxy.

“In this picture, see the future. I see a diverse set of explorers, thinkers, builders, achievers who are using their incredible intellect to improve the world we live in,” Isler says.

“As a woman of color in STEM, I see the opportunity to add my voice to the chorus of women redefining what it means to ‘be’ a scientist or ‘do’ scientific work. It’s an honor and privilege to stand with these women, but even more, to stand as an example for the next generation. I hope young women all over the world see themselves represented somewhere in this image, aspire to greater STEM dreams and find herself in the company of the next generation of women in STEM.”

7. Laura Boykin, computational biologist

Smallholder farmers in Africa rely on cassava for both sustenance and cash, but this crucial staple crop is threatened by whitefly, an insect that transmits a destructive virus to the plant.

Computational biologist Laura Boykin uses genomics, supercomputing and phylogenetics to identify whitefly species, gathering information necessary for researchers to modify cassava to resist both insect and virus. To accelerate progress, Boykin has launched WhiteFlyBase — the world’s first database of whitefly genetic information — with the hope of eradicating whitefly and bringing food security to East Africa.

“Being a woman in science can be lonely,” says Boykin. “When I see this image, I realize I will never be alone again. I also think about all the young females in science who can stand on our shoulders, because we will be providing a ladder for them — not pulling it up as so many before us have done.”

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Laura Boykin, right, inspects African whiteflies feeding on cassava leaves at a farm near Namulonge, Uganda. Photo: Courtesy of Laura Boykin

8. Patricia Medici, conservation biologist

Brazilian conservationist Patricia Medici has devoted her life to preserving the life and habitat of the South American lowland tapir, the largest terrestrial mammal of South America. Though not well known, tapirs are important to their ecosystems as an umbrella species: protecting tapirs also protects iconic species like peccaries, jaguars and pumas.

Tapirs also help distribute the seeds of the foods they eat, shaping and maintaining the structure of forests. Sadly, tapirs are threatened by deforestation, hunting and roads, and are especially vulnerable due to their long gestation periods.

“I started my tapir work in 1996 when it was a pioneer research and conservation program and we had nearly zero information about tapirs,” says Medici. “They are extremely difficult to study, mainly because they are nocturnal, solitary, very elusive animals. That’s exactly what fascinated me. The rest is history.

It’s not always easy to be a woman in the conservation world as it requires a significant level of commitment to spending long periods of time in the field, away from home and family. It also requires physical strength and the proper frame of mind to deal with the hardships of working in the wilderness — not to mention the mosquitoes, ticks and botflies!”

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Patricia Medici, a TED Fellow, works with tapirs — the largest land mammal in South America. Photo: Marina Klink

9. Lucianne Walkowicz, astronomer

Stellar astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz works with data from NASA’s Kepler mission, studying stars that host planets outside our solar system, and how stellar radiation influences whether life could thrive on those worlds.

Lucianne also mines astronomical datasets in search of signals from intelligent life in the universe, and is a leader in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a new project that will scan the sky every night for 10 years to create a huge cosmic movie of our Universe.

“Searching for habitable worlds and life in the universe really makes me value our home, Planet Earth!” says Walkowicz. Both our challenges and our opportunities are so great, we need the brightest minds to create the future we want to see — and that means making science open and accessible for all.”

10. Julie Freeman, artist/computer scientist

British artist and computer scientist Julie Freeman creates kinetic sculptures, compositions and animations from nature-generated data, such as the motion of fish swimming, or the quiver of moths’ wings.

“I use digital technology as a communication bridge between the natural world and ourselves,” she says. “I make artwork that allows me to be curious about nature in different ways, and to share that curiosity. What is it about natural systems that are so compelling? How can we understand phenomena that exist beyond our sensory perception? Technology allows us insight into hidden elements of biological systems, and can allow us to experience things in new ways.”

Freeman’s online, data-driven artwork “We Need Us” explores the nature of metadata, and the humanity in the life of data.

“One of the things I’m increasingly aware of is the multiplicity of roles we all play,” says Freeman. “I am an artist AND a scientist. A swimmer and a speaker. A consultant and an entrepreneur. I am shy and I am outspoken. I don’t believe any of us represent a single role or gender. We care about being given respect and equal opportunity to do whatever we are good at — without the fight, without the justifications that we find ourselves involuntarily pronouncing.”

11. Michele Koppes, glaciologist

Glaciologist Michele Koppes travels to the the coldest places on Earth to study glaciers: how they move, carve out valleys and mountains, and respond to the warming atmosphere, oceans, and rocks — as well as how these changes affect the landscape, water resources and biodiversity.

Her one-of-a-kind research in the Himalayas fills in gaps of unrecorded glacial change, and may help vulnerable populations adapt to shifting weather patterns.

“As a woman, I constantly need to prove I am not only scientifically capable, but hardy enough to thrive in the field, in the harsh environments of my research,” says Koppes. “Doing science properly is rife with failed attempts — on top of this, women must stand up for their legitimate seat at the table.

The time has come for both women and men to discard the cultural stereotypes of what a ‘proper scientist’ should be — we can all be curious, creative, brainy, rational, driven, successful, and loving partners and parents, playful and engaged teammates and citizens.”

12. Sheila Ochugboju Kaka, genetic virologist

As a child growing up in rural Nigeria, Sheila Ochugboju Kaka was urged to stay indoors to stay safe from an untamed environment — an upbringing that piqued her curiosity about invisible things that can so easily kill a child: bacteria, viruses, scorpions in the sand.

This curiosity led her to study baculoviruses as a postdoctoral research fellow at Oxford University, investigating genetic engineering as a way to produce commercially viable biopesticides. Today, Ochugboju Kaka is a science communicator and international development expert, promoting the intersection of art and science — such as the Wellcome Trust’s Danscience project, an exploration of the science of epigenetics through dance — to promote innovation and social change.

“It’s incredible to be amongst such a diverse mix of women scientists which in itself exemplifies the power that different perspectives, skills, experience and heritage brings to any discipline,” says Ochugboju Kaka.

I’m also encouraged that nearly 20 years after I got my PhD in biochemistry, the image of women in science is finally shifting. What a beautiful change that makes.”


20 books to read in 2015: TED-Ed Educators share their top 5 must-reads     

If one of your New Year’s Resolutions was the classic “read more books” and you haven’t so much as opened a magazine, we’re here to provide some inspiration.

TED-Ed asked a few of our favorite educators to weigh in on the best books in their subject — for students, teachers and lifelong learners alike — to crack into during 2015.

Here, find a list of their top 5 picks in literature, science, math and history.


*Recommendations from TED-Ed Educator Matthew Winkler, author of the ‘What makes a hero?’ lesson.

The Best American Nonrequired Reading by Dave Eggers
Remember your required reading from high school? Impressive samples of literature, certainly, but didn’t you wish for greater variety?

Thanks to Dave Eggers, variety is what you’ll find inside each edition of the BANR. A fresh panel of high school students curates a new anthology each year with surprising results.

Aesop’s Fables by Aesop
Aesop’s Fables have survived for 2,500 years because they are as well-constructed and immutable as the pyramids. Written as simple stories about animals, these parables pose ethical dilemmas and consider various responses – human behavior under a microscope.

The most telescopic works of literature could all be parsed into the handful of Aesop’s fables that they examine within a broader, deeper context.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
This sentence was composed to communicate information, and you are consuming it in the same spirit. In Dillard’s slender manifesto, she reminds us all to elevate this practical transaction, to connect our written words to what is vital and essential. This book will recharge your respect for language and its power in your life.

The Tiger’s Wife: A Novel by Téa Obreht
The Tiger’s Wife is a labyrinth of flashbacks and detours that hypnotizes the reader. The luxurious prose of this National Book Award Finalist draws us forward as the story unfolds, turn by turn. Long after finishing the novel, the reader is haunted by its revelations.

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair: Dual-Language Edition by Pablo Neruda (Author), W.S. Merwin (Translator)
If you are lovestruck, or brokenhearted, or in between these conditions, this book is required reading. Published when the great poet and statesman was only nineteen years old, this collection launched his literary reputation.

The dual-language edition is recommended: read the poems aloud and anyone listening is likely to burst into tears, or kiss you, or both.

(I have published several of his poems)


*Recommendations from TED-Ed Educator Lucianne Walkowicz, author of the ‘Light waves, visible and invisible’ lesson.

The Martian by Andy Weir
The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney. Separated from and presumed dead by his fellow crewmates while on a Martian expedition, Watney is left behind to struggle for survival.

Watney is a plucky, inventive character, immediately likable, and readers will plow through The Martian rooting for him with every word. This book is a delight to read for anyone who loves to think about space travel, or anyone who just loves to tinker, fix things, and solve problems through imaginative DIY solutions.

The science in the book is sound and detailed, but woven into the story in a way that makes it accessible and gives the reader a realistic sense of what it might be like to live on another planet.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
Though I’ve read a great deal of Ray Bradbury’s work over the years, it’s The Illustrated Man that comes back to me again and again. Prescient about a variety of technologies that exist in some form or another today, imaginative and magical while still being mostly grounded in reality, reading this book is like looking through a window into another dimension.

Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman was not only an incredible physicist, but an incredible character as well.

Surely You’re Joking is the first in a series of books recounting his own personal anecdotes from his life and scientific career. Irreverent and funny, Feynman’s voice has a cowboy, punk-rock aesthetic that transports the reader to the frontiers of physics as he lived them.

Radioactive by Lauren Redniss
Radioactive is a graphic novel recounting the story of physicists Marie and Pierre Curie. A winner of the Nobel Prize in both physics and chemistry, Marie Curie was also the first female Nobel medalist.

This book tells the story not only of her scientific work but of the love story between her and husband Pierre, also an accomplished scientist in his own right. The illustrations are artful, unique and eye catching, setting it apart from other graphic novels on the basic of visual style alone.

Managing Martians by Donna Shirley
Managing Martians was published on the heels of the Mars Pathfinder mission, which brought the first Martian rover, Sojourner, to the Martian surface.

Another first for the Pathfinder mission was that it was the first mission to be headed by a woman: Donna Shirley, who tells the story of her life and the mission in this book. Shirley’s story is not only interesting from the standpoint of the mission she led, which began the era of Mars surface exploration that continues today, but as a story of someone who succeeded in a male-dominated field at a time when her options were constantly limited by her gender.

Through hard work and a circuitous path, Shirley’s success story is an inspirational one of triumph over struggle.


*Recommendations from Natalya St. Clair, author of the ‘Music and math: The genius of Beethoven,’ ‘The unexpected math behind Van Gogh’s Starry Night’ and ‘Did Shakespeare write his plays?’ lessons.

The Code Book by Simon Singh
This book is for anyone who is interested in learning more about mathematics not normally taught in secondary-level school.

Simon Singh spins a compelling tale of the history of cryptography, starting from the ancient ‘Rome and the Caesar’ cipher to future speculation about quantum cryptography. I can remember first reading this book in high school and falling in love with math and physics — which is one of the reasons I majored in math in college! Singh is a great expositor and keeps the history (and math!) alive for a broad audience.

Secrets of Mental Math by Arthur Benjamin
Arthur Benjamin is a professor of mathematics who combines his passions for mathematics and magic in order to create a “mathemagics” show.

His TED Talk demonstrating his rapid mental calculations can be viewed here (and TED-Ed Lesson here!). In this book Benjamin discloses all his secrets to computing numbers quickly so that anyone can build his or her own “mathemagics” show. This book is appropriate for all ages and is a joy to read.

Love and Math by Edward Frenkel
Edward Frenkel tells an engaging and personal story of his journey in mathematics. Starting from his childhood under the mentorship of a family friend all the way to his present research in the Langlands Program, mathematics and Frenkel form a relationship that can only be called love.

Some of the math is higher level than high school, but Frenkel makes it accessible so that most readers can understand the hidden beauty in mathematics surrounding us. The book recently won the 2015 Euler Book Prize through the Mathematics Association of America.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
This touching novel brings mathematics to light with an interesting twist. Set in modern Japan, Ogawa tells the story of a “Housekeeper” who takes care of the “Professor,” a mathematician whose short-term memory only lasts about 80 minutes. The Professor builds a relationship with the Housekeeper and her son, “Root,” and all three share equations, stories, and relationships with each other.

Flatland by Edward Abbot
I include this book not only because it’s a classic, but because it’s also important both for learning some fun mathematics and as learning about Victorian satirical social commentary.

The novel features A. Square, a mathematician who lives in a two-dimensional infinitely flat plane, where women are straight lines and men have numbers of sides depending on their social status. There is a great dialogue about different dimensions, starting from the lowly zero-dimensional point all the way to the rather abstract three-dimensional spaceland (so what would a four-dimensional object look like?). For those hoping to “Dig Deeper,” check out Flatland the Movie as well.


*Recommendations from Kathryn Tempest, author of the ‘The great conspiracy against Julius Caesar’ lesson.

Annals and Histories by Tacitus
In these works, the Roman historian Tacitus tells of a world ‘rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace’. This is not my summary, but the words used by Tacitus himself to describe the years following the death of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, up to and including the death of Domitian (AD 14-96).

Featuring some of the most notorious episodes and personalities of Roman history – such as the reign of Nero and the great fire of Rome, the persecution of the Christians, the revolt of Boudicca, and the emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius – the Annals and Histories spin an intriguing, and at times shocking, narrative of the corruption of power in Imperial Rome.

Greek and Roman Lives by Plutarch
I love reading Plutarch’s Lives. If you want to know more about the famous men of Greece and Rome, then these short, accessible and immensely enjoyable biographies are for you. You can find out more about famous generals and statesmen from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar; read about the political contexts in which men like Pericles and Cicero operated; and even learn all the juicy gossip that circulated about their private lives.

Plutarch has a great eye for anecdotes and stories which he uses to illustrate both the personalities and exploits of his subjects, and to draw valuable moral lessons from them. There are numerous editions and translations available but I recommend these versions because, in my opinion, they cover some of the most fascinating lives.

Histories by Herodotus
Herodotus is the ultimate storyteller and, according to one famous verdict, the ‘father of history’ itself. His overarching goal is to explain the great clash between the Greeks and the barbarians which culminated in the Persian wars of 490 and 480-479 BC.

But this is no straightforward narrative. Rather, you will find yourself being taken on a wonderful tour of different lands, customs and peoples – all driven by Herodotus’ immense spirit of enquiry. I have only just started reading this new translation by Tom Holland, but it is without doubt one of the best I have read. The excellent introduction and notes by Paul Cartledge are a real added bonus! This book offers a really easy way to learn about Greece’s early history as well as the origins of an entire discipline.

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard
Pompeii never loses its ability to fascinate: from the grandeur of its largest houses down to the daily grind of its inhabitants, the tragedy that struck in AD 79 did not discriminate between its victims. The eruption of Mt Vesuvius left many of thousands dead.

‘But ghoulishness is not the whole story’, says Mary Beard in the introduction to this excellent book on Pompeian life. And what I love is the way she proceeds to tell that story. Beard does not shy away from the academic nitty-gritty or the difficult questions, but takes her reader on a fascinating excavation of the site of this Roman town and the challenges faced in interpreting its remains.

The no-nonsense and down to earth approach of this book makes it at once readable, gripping and hugely informative.

Myths and Legends by Anthony Horowitz
I recommend this book because it caters to kids of all sizes, even the grown up ones! Ancient myths and legends continue to enthral and excite everyone who reads or hears them. Yet Anthony Horowitz has such a fantastic and fun writing style that he really makes these stories come alive.

Packed full of weird and amazing tales – myths and legends from Greece, Egypt, Rome, China, India and more – it provides a compelling read.

What books would you add to this list? Happy reading! >>




March 2023

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