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When people talk about women in science, their first thought is almost always of Marie Curie – the first female scientist to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics, and the first scientist to ever receive two Nobel Prizes. She won these thanks to her groundbreaking work studying radiation and discovering two new elements – polonium and radium. And while it's important to know about her contributions to science, many people's knowledge of women in STEM ends there. So today I'm going to help fix that.
Let's start off with another scientist who worked with radioactive elements – Lisa Meitner. Along with physicist Otto Hahn, she discovered a new element called protactinium. But more importantly, she also noticed a strange result when uranium atoms were bombarded with neutrons. See, whenever this happened, the neutron did not stick to the uranium atom. Rather, it caused the atom to split, forming lighter elements in the process and also releasing a tremendous amount of energy. Meitner called this 'nuclear fission', which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. In fact, after her discoveries were published, Albert Einstein wrote a warning letter to US President Franklin D Roosevelt, which resulted in the creation of the Manhattan Project.
If you watched our video on why humans reproduce sexually, you'll know that genes have the ability to move within and between chromosomes. By studying the changes of pigmentation of corn kernels over many generations, Barbara McClintock discovered that genetic information is not stationary. However, at the time, this went against everything that was known about genetics. In fact, it took over 30 years for her work to be seriously considered – eventually resulting in her winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
On a related subject, let's talk about DNA. You probably learned in school that its double-helix structure was discovered by scientists James Watson and Francis Crick, but this is only partially true. See, the real discovery was made by Rosalind Franklin in the 1950s. Her X-ray diffraction photographs of DNA were unknowingly shown to Watson and Crick by her colleague Maurice Wilkins. And after seeing the photo, the two scientists almost immediately published a paper in Nature, explaining their findings. Unfortunately, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson, Crick and Wilkins after Franklin's death, but it's unsure if she would have even been included if she had still been alive. But regardless, it's clear that we should know her name just as well as we know Watson and Crick.
And lastly, let's talk about Jane Goodall. She is a primatologist and best known for her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania. During her time with them, she discovered that chimpanzees were able to make and use tools, which, at the time, only humans were thought to do. This was a huge breakthrough, and she also discovered that chimpanzees ate meat, throw stones as weapons, embrace one another for comfort and formed familial bonds. In fact, the chimps even had a war! After years of research, she speaks out for these animals that cannot speak for themselves. And on top of all of this, she is an advocate for conservation and founded the Jane Goodall Institute, a global non-profit organisation.
So, clearly there are some incredible scientists that you should have learned about in school. But obviously there are tonnes more, so let me know who you want to learn about next time.