A Timeline of Firsts: Recognizing Brave Pioneers in STEM

Illustration courtesy of Mila Colizza.

When you think of famous scientists, what comes to mind? Maybe Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, or Isaac Newton — names you were first introduced to in your middle school science class. But where are the women? According to a 2019 report by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, only twenty-nine percent of workers in research and development are women. Despite that, women are behind many key innovations that improve our everyday lives. Here, we highlight some famous leaders in STEM whose work we use every day.

Lynn Conway (b. 1938) is a transgender computer scientist and electrical engineer. Conway attended MIT, only to drop out due to mental health issues related to her gender dysphoria. Later, she completed her education at Columbia University. During the 1970s, Conway was responsible for very large-scale integration (VLSI), which revolutionized efficient circuit design, and invented microchips that serve as the foundation for modern-day cell phones. Recently, it was also revealed that she made significant contributions to computer architecture and design as part of IBM’s Advanced Computing Systems research team in the 1960s, before she was fired for undergoing a gender transition. Conway kept this information under wraps for years, fearing that she would have to restart her career again if she revealed the existence of her previous identity.

Both beauty and brains, Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) was an actress regarded as both “the world’s most beautiful woman” and “the mother of Wi-Fi.” While most know Lamarr for her many leading roles under MGM Studios and Warner Bros., she was a prolific inventor whose creations include traffic lights for movement-disabled people and modifications to the Concorde supersonic aircraft. Most notably, along with colleague George Antheil, Lamarr pioneered a “frequency hopping” communication system that prevented Axis powers from hijacking torpedoes during World War II. This technology is the underlying basis for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth today. Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

Gladys West (b. 1930) is an African American mathematician who has spent her career as a public-school math teacher, a human computer for the U.S. Air Force, and an innovative technological pioneer. Only the second Black woman to be hired at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Dahlgren, West was an integral part of the effort to develop the modern Global Positioning System (GPS). She was able to use satellite data to program a computer to detect the irregular geoid shape of the Earth with increasing precision, a model that sits at the core of GPS technology. She has also conducted award-winning research on the motion of Pluto relative to Neptune. In 2018, West was inducted into the Space and Missiles Pioneers Hall of Fame, one of the highest possible honors presented by the Air Force Space Command.

After its first case appeared in 1959, Haemophilus influenzae type b bacteria (Hib) became the leading cause of meningitis in children under five, with more than twenty-thousand cases a year. With both a high mortality and morbidity rate, an estimated seven million lives would have been lost by 2020 without Rachel Schneerson’s Hib vaccine. Schneerson (b. 1932) was a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health from 1988 until 2012. There, Schneerson and her colleague John Robbins would create not only the Hib vaccine, but also the first conjugate vaccine, an advancement that made vaccines both safer and more effective than before. Shortly after the Hib vaccine was available worldwide, mortality from Hib dropped by as much as ninety-five percent. The conjugate vaccine technology Schneerson developed would also be used for the creation of the pneumococcal and meningococcal vaccines.

Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) was a social psychologist who specialized in child development. The first African American female to earn a psychology doctorate from Columbia University, Clark’s research was centered around race issues in very young children. Today, she is most known for her iconic “Doll Test,” which revealed that the majority of Black preschool children preferred white dolls over Black dolls. Clark’s study showed that students in racially mixed schools feel more distress due to internalized racism than do those from segregated schools. Her findings, which suggested that desegregation of schools could lead to healthy child development, were used as key evidence in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case.