During Women’s History Month, we are reminded of how important women’s contributions to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are. Since women make up half of the global population, society needs their brain power and insights to solve problems and make life-enhancing discoveries. In this article, we celebrate six women in history that were not only the first women to do something, but the first people to do so.
Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992) was an American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral. She created the first computer compiler, which is the program that allows a computer processor to “understand” a programming language. Essentially, it converts the statements written in a particular programming language into the code that the processor uses. It was Grace Hopper that had the idea of creating a programming language based on the English language, which made developing a computer program much simpler and easier to understand. She co-created COBOL, a computing language still in use today.
Marie Curie (1867-1934) was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist. She was the first person to win two Nobel Prizes and the only person in history to have won Nobel Prizes in two different scientific fields. The first prize (1903) was in Physics for her research on radiation (shared with her husband, Pierre), and the second (1911) was in Chemistry for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium.
Margaret Oakley Dayhoff (1925-1983) was an American physical chemist and a pioneer in the field of bioinformatics, which applies technology to understanding biological data. For her doctoral dissertation, Dayhoff was the first to apply mass-data processing to theoretical chemistry, which won her a Watson Computer Laboratory Fellowship. She innovated so many firsts that we don’t have room to mention them all in this article. Two examples are the application of computers to infer evolutionary relationships from molecular sequences, and the creation of the PAM substitution matrix, which helps evaluate the mutation or evolution of amino acid sequences.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. 1943) is an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland and the first person to observe pulsars (1967), objects with huge mass (second in density only to black holes) that scientists now use to study extreme states of matter, measure cosmic distances, and other pursuits. In 2018, Bell Burnell won the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. She used the full amount of prize money (US$3 million) to create the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund to help close the gender gap in physics research.
Lene Vestergaard Hau (b. 1959) is a Danish physicist who currently teaches Applied Physics at Harvard University. In 1998, she became the first person to slow down light. She led a team that succeeded in slowing light down to a speed of approximately 17 meters per second (vs. its normal speed of almost 300 million meters per second), and in 2001 was able to stop a light beam completely!
Amelia Earhart (b. 1897, disappeared 1937): On January 11, 1935, Amelia Earhart became the first aviator to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California. Of course, she is most known for being the first female aviator to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean. Earhart, her co-pilot and her plane all disappeared in 1937 while attempting a flight around the globe, and were never found.
Photo credits: U.S. Navy, NIH, Khan Academy, Physics World, Harvard.edu