Meet 7 women STEM Scientists with Impactful Contributions in the 21st Century!

7 Women Scientists with Impactful Contributions in the 21st Century

Women have historically contributed to science, for science is all about understanding the world we live in, and women have existed for as long as men have. Unfortunately the representation of women in research work today is less than 30% according to UNESCO, leading to gender inequality in science and technologyRecent research has shown that girls do better than boys at all ages in the STEM subjects. Incidentally they do way better in non-STEM subjects. Also more women than men have dropped out of the workforce while coping with the challenges of remote working, due to the covid-19 pandemic. Whatever be the representation of women in science, there is a need to convey the impactful work of women scientists.

Here are 7 women STEM scientists whose work has added great value to science, in the last two decades:

1. Catherine Dulac

Dulac won the 2021 Breakthrough Prize for her research into the neural circuitry underlying sex specific behavior in mice. Frequently certain behaviors are slotted as ‘male’ or ‘female’. E.g.: nurturing behavior of female mice towards pups, male mice occasionally attacking young pups.

Research at the Dulac Lab housed at, led by Catherine Dulac professor of molecular and cellular biology at the Harvard University, unearthed the fact that both sexes have both types of circuitry. Interestingly, hormones and other chemicals can actually switch behavior from one to the other. 

Although such work is usually the arena of social scientists, Dulac explores these behaviors in animals in creative ways, by exploring how genetics and environmental influences work in tandem. 

Although the Breakthrough prize is not as widely known as the Nobel Prize, the money awarded is three times that of the Nobel Prize.

2. Tu Youyou

Tu is an anomaly in the world of Nobel Prize winners, which she won in 2015 (Physiology and Medicine). She has neither a medical degree nor a PhD. Currently the chief scientist at China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, she is a pharmaceutical chemist whose interest in traditional medicine got her excited aboutn ancient Chinese texts which listed sweet wormwood to treat the intermittent fevers typical of malaria. 

She and her team extracted artemisinin (or qinghaosu in Chinese) from wormwood in the 1970s. Since then antimalarial drugs which included artemisinin, have had a remarkable impact on saving lives from malaria. 

3. Márcia Barbosa

Barbosa is a Brazilian physicist who has done pioneering work on understanding the structure of water. She is a professor at UFRGS, and a director of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. As she puts it, water is weird and actually has 70 anomalies, but understanding the many anomalies and harnessing them, can help relieve the ‘water stress’ on Earth. 

Based on her research, she has also created a series of models which can help people understand difficult problems like how earthquakes occur and how proteins fold. She was awarded the L’Oreal-UNESCO award for Women in Science in 2013.

4. Nandini Harinath

Nandini, Project Manager and Mission Design Deputy Operations Director of Mars Orbit Mission (MOM), catapulted to fame after the successful Mars Orbiter Mission out of India. Fifteen months after it was announced, the Mars mission team at Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) put together a concept plan and executed the mission of sending a small satellite to orbit Mars. 

Not only did the Mars Mission have time constraints(the best period to launch when Mars is close to Earth and positioned just right) , the project budget was just US $70 million in comparison to NASA’s Maven mission to Mars which cost US $671 million. 

The mission used the Hohmann transfer orbit, to get the satellite into orbit around Mars, and it went around Earth six times in a progressively longer elliptical path trying to gain the velocity to escape earth’s gravity, until it went out like a sling-shot at a very precise speed and time. 

This precision ensured that it was at the right point near Mars to latch on to its gravity, setting it to orbit the Red Planet. This engineering feat made India one of three nations with a spacecraft in Mars’ orbit, and also the first to be successful on its maiden mission. 

5. Fei Fei Li

Fei Fei Li is Professor in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University, and Co-Director of Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Institute. She is one of the handful of people who made remarkable contributions to make AI powered technology a reality. She built Image Net that helps computers recognize images. As AI technologies are adopted at top speed, the chances of misuse are also increasing. 

Understanding this early on, Fei Fei Li is also known for her nudging the AI associated community towards approaches to AI driven technology which are benevolent to humans. She believes in ‘thoughtful frontier research’. 

She was awarded the IEEE PAMI Longuet-Higgins Prize and the National Geographic Society Further Award, in 2019

6. Maryam Mirzakhani

Maryam is the first and only woman mathematician to win a Fields Medal in 2014, for her outstanding, albeit esoteric, contributions to the ‘dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces’. The Iranian mathematician who was Professor of mathematics at Stanford died at the age of 40 due to breast cancer. Although short, it was a full and impactful life. 

Her work has quickly found applications in understanding earthquakes and has helped find answers to previously unclear behavior.

7. Emmanuelle Charpentier

Charpentier is a French microbiologist, geneticist and biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 (shared with Jennifer Doudna), for creating a gene editing tool or molecular scissors, so to say. 

While working on the Streptococcus pyogenes, a bacteria which is quite the bane to humans, Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered the RNA molecule named tracrRNA. Although the bacteria had an immune system inherited from ancient times, the tracrRNA was like a pair of scissors which could cut virus DNA apart.

She met Jennifer Doudna who was an expert in RNA, at a conference. CRISPRs are specialized stretches of DNA and Cas9 is an enzyme which behaves like a pair of molecular scissors in the natural defense mechanisms of certain bacteria.  Emmanuelle Charpentier  and Jennifer Doudna collaborated and designed a gene editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9.

The tool’s precision and low cost have given fillip to the life sciences where scientists use it to change the DNA of plants, animals and microorganisms, as part of their research effort to increase agri output, cure cancer or even cure genetic diseases. 

Every person on this list, from various parts of the world, has enjoyed her work, however difficult the journey has been. They are just a sampling of the variety of women who make their way through what is a space predominantly occupied by men. They have stood on the shoulders of other women before them, and younger women scientists will follow this trend. 

One day this gender skew will no longer exist.