International Women’s Day is a day to collectively celebrate and recognise the social, economic and cultural contributions of women around the world.
In the field of science, women’s movements have long since pushed for progress and recognition. Women were barred from accessing university until the late 19th century, and their contributions to scientific research have, at times, been overlooked and even forgotten. Today, less than 30% of the world’s STEM researchers are women, and this under-representation occurs in every region of the world.
Despite this, women have played a crucial role in the history of scientific advancement. Countless discoveries have been made by some prolific female scientists and researchers; and between 2008 - 2021, the number of women in the UK who earned a STEM degree rose by 48%.
So today, in honour of International Women’s Day, we wanted to celebrate a few of the extraordinary scientists who have made some astounding contributions to the field of genomics and biology. Read on to discover their stories.
- Rosalind Franklin – Capturing an X-ray image of DNA
Rosalind Franklin was a British scientist born in London England in 1920. She was a chemist and expert X-ray crystallographer. Crystallography is an X-ray diffraction technology that is able to determine the size of atoms and biological molecules, including proteins, vitamins and DNA. She dedicated much of her life to capturing some of the most beautiful images of DNA in existence. Her work on DNA began in 1951 at King’s College London. At that point, very little was known about its chemical makeup or structure. After some years, she was able to produce clear images of DNA in a helical conformation. Her work laid the foundation for James Watson and Francis Crick, who were both credited for the discovery of DNA. Franklin’s work was critical to their observance and today, she is credited alongside both Watson and Crick for its discovery.
- Nettie Maria Stevens – Discovery of sex determination
Nettie Maria Stevens was born in Vermont, USA in 1861. She was a research scientist who dedicated her life to the study of cytology, embryology and theoretical genetics. Stevens was particularly interested in the process of sex determination. In 1905, she published a paper on the reproductive science of mealworms, unearthing some significant findings. In the paper, she described how male mealworms produce 2 types of sperm, one with a large chromosome and one with a small chromosome. She noted that when the sperm with large chromosomes fertilized eggs, they produced female offspring, and when the sperm with small chromosomes did so, they produced males. These ‘small’ and ‘large’ chromosomes would go on to be known as X and Y chromosomes – the sex determination characteristics we understand today.
- Barbara McClintock – Discovery of a transposon
Barbara McClintock was an American scientist and cytogeneticist who was born in Connecticut, USA in 1902. She spent a lifetime studying maize cytogenetics - the study of chromosomes. Her research focused on how maize chromosomes can change when they reproduce. Using these findings, she was able to produce the first genetic map. This linked regions of the chromosome to physical traits that shift by different generations. In the 1940s, she developed the concept of jumping genes, also known as a transposon. This is the idea that genes are responsible for turning physical characteristics on and off, which she was able to demonstrate through the expression of genetic information from one generation of maize plants to the next.
- Katalin Kariko – Development of mRNA technology
Katalin Kariko is a Hungarian-American biochemist who currently works as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Kariko specializes in mRNA-mediated mechanisms – a revolutionary technology that was responsible for reshaping the landscape of vaccine development and the future of gene therapies. MRNA vaccines differ from previous technologies as it does not induce an immune response, but rather, it ‘takes on’ the shape of pathogens. It teaches our cells how to make the protein that will trigger an immune response in our bodies. Using Kariko’s research, Pfizer was able to produce synthesized vaccines against the global COVID-19 pandemic at record-breaking speed.
The discoveries and successes these women have brought to the field of genetics are undoubtedly monumental and inspiring. To the women in STEM around the world who continue to make countless contributions, Dante Labs salutes you!