Monday, November 26, 2012

Notable Women in Science: A Few Modern Physicists

by Adrienne M. Roehrich, Chemistry Editor

In this edition of Notable Women in Science, I focus on women working in physics, typically traditional physics rather than astrophysics. There is no particular reason to make this distinction other than it allows me to choose a small group of women to highlight within a parameter set. These women are listed in no particular order.

Vera E. Kistiakowsky spent much of her career as a professor at MITBorn in 1928, she received her A.B. from Mt. Holyoke College in 1948 and her Ph.D. from the University of California – Berkeley in 1952, both degrees in chemistry. Her chosen career stemmed from advice from her father to support herself and not depend on another person to support her. Her father was a respected physical chemistry professor at Harvard and his support in her chosen activities was instrumental to her success. She entered college at the age of 15, choosing a pre-med major. She changed to chemistry due to Mt. Holyoke’s extraordinary female faculty at the time.  While her degrees are in chemistry, her studies and research were physics intensive.  Graduating with her Ph.D. before her newly married husband hindered her initial job opportunities. She had several positions before eventually settling into a professorship at MIT. During her tenure at MIT, she was scientifically prolific with 86 technical publications as well as highly active in feminist activities, including organizing for the National Organization of Women (NOW), Women In Science and Engineering (WISE), the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), and an ad hoc committee in the American Physical Society (APS) on women physicists to name a few.

Helen Thom Edwards is recognized for her work with the Tevatron. She was born in 1936 and received both her B.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1957 and 1966, respectively. Her interest in science was outside that of her family’s interests, so she was used to paving her own way. Her technical and mechanical acumen served her well as a group leader at the Fermilab. Dr. Edwards is a team player and insists upon acknowledging the contributions of her colleagues in her and Fermilab’s success.

Vandana Shiva in 2008.
[Edited, 11/26/12, 14:43 ET]: Vandana Shiva was trained in physics and the philosophy of science and now works as an environmentalist, achieving considerable global prominence. She was born in 1952 and, according to most sources, earned a B.A. in physics, a master's in philosophy of science, and a Ph.D. in physics. When she began her training as a nuclear scientist, she encountered a hostile environment, which caused her to emigrate west. Her experiences led her to become a prominent (and extremely controversial) environmentalist and into the position of Director at the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resources Policy in Dehradun, India. She writes books and publishes articles in the area of environmentalism. [ETA: As a commenter notes below, Shiva also has been embroiled in controversy and accused of taking an anti-scientific stance over her assertions about "terminator seeds."]

Ingrid Daubechies, 2005.
Ingrid Daubechies is a physicist and a mathematician known for her work in wavelets. 
Born in 1954, she received her B.S. and Ph.D. at Vrije University in Brussels in 1975 and 1980, respectively. Her interest in science and math was nurtured by her parents who also encouraged her independence. In 1984, she received the Louis Empain prize for physics for the work she accomplished before the age of 29. The prize was followed by tenure in her position at the Free University Brussels. She moved into a position at Rutgers and also worked at the AT&T Bell Laboratories. In 1992, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship followed by the Steele Prize from the American Mathematical Society in 1994. She has continued to receive honors and ovations to this day.

Janet M. Conrad researches neutrinosShe was born in 1963 and received her B.A. from Swarthmore College in 1985, her M.Sc. from Oxford University in 1987, and her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1993. After a postdoctoral stint at Columbia University, she moved into a professor position there. In 2008, she moved to MIT. She has received many awards, including an NSF CAREER Award, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, and the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award from the APS. She can be found involved in research and teaching at MIT, as well as communicating science to scientists and general audiences around the country.

Reka Albert blends cross and inter-disciplinary expertiseShe received her B.S. and M.S. from the Babes-Bolyai University in Romania and her Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 2001. After a postdoctoral position at the University of Minnesota, she joined the faculty at Pennsylvania State University, where she is currently a professor in the physics department. She has received several awards for her work, including a Sloan Research Foundation Fellowship, an NSF Career Award, and the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award.

Louis Empain Prize is awarded every five years to a young Belgian scientists on the basis of work done before the age of 29.

MacArthur Foundation Fellowship is awarded to individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.

The Steele Prize is awarded for cumulative work of mathematical contribution to the field.

The NSF Career Award is a highly competitive grant awarded to early career scientists.

Alfred P. Sloan Fellowships are awarded to distinguished scholars with high potential for impact in their respective fields.

The Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award recognizes outstanding achievement by a woman physicist in the early years of her career.

The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily agree or conflict with those of the DXS editorial team and contributors.


  1. Vandana Shiva? You have to be kidding. She's going around the world lying about terminator seeds.

    She's like an anti-vaxxer about GMOs.

  2. Vandana Shiva is included in this listing because she was considered a prominent female scientist in India.

    Many scientists travel off the science path. For example, Linus Pauling won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. He knew his principles. Yet he pushed for vitamin C as a cure-all in a highly pseudo-science maneuver. Whether or not we agree with someone's political stance and whether or not they are still working as a scientist does not negate their scientific career, in my opinion.

  3. Political stance? That's like saying the problem with Jenny McCarthy and vaccines is her political stance. Rather missing the point.

  4. I don't think "political stance" is exactly the right term here, and Jenny McCarthy's certainly not a good analogy, as she's not even a scientist, so her opinions about anything scientific are irrelevant, whether political or not. The point that I think Adrienne was making is that scientists are not all wholesale adherents to the scientific method, nor do they all have pure track records in science. Crick's ideas regarding panspermia come to mind, or Lynn Margulis and the Gaia hypothesis. That doesn't negate their relevance as scientists or the relevance of what they've done as scientists. I don't think we should exclude women scientists from these lists because they appear to have derailed from the scientific straight-and-narrow. That said, we can certainly add an ETA comment to the above entry and note/link to something about the controversy surrounding terminator seeds, something of which I was not aware, as I've never heard of her. Which is, rather, the point of this series.

  5. Well--someone lying about the science, and using lies to spread fear. Sounds like McCarthy to me.

    Shiva's responsible for a significant amount of misinformation on this topic, in exactly the same manner. Like McCarthy she also manages to get a lot of media exposure. It makes those of us trying to bring facts to this topic at a serious disadvantage.

  6. We've added a link from one of her critics in the entry.

  7. Spelling alert: it's "Vrije Universiteit Brussel", not "Vrige".