The history of women's contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is long and varied. This app highlights only a very few of the women who have had an impact on STEM fields. Today, women are in every STEM discipline, in every type of job, and represent the widest range of background and experiences. Learn about some of our featured inventors, explorers, and researchers here:
When Sally Ride flew aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, she became the first American woman to reach space. She graduated from Stanford University with a double major in physics and English, and then went on to earn a master’s and Ph.D. in physics from the university before applying to the astronaut core in 1978. Following the loss of Challenger in 1986, Ride served on the presidential commission to investigate the accident. Once she left NASA, Ride went to the University of California, San Diego and started her own company to inspire girls and young women to pursue their interests in science and related fields.
Jessica Watkins was selected by NASA to the 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class. The Colorado native earned her PhD in Geology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Excited to potentially go into space, Watkins also realizes that this wouldn’t be possible if not for women like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson. Currently, Jessica is training and preparing for her possible voyage to space. Many of her training tasks are out of the ordinary and simulate space environments, like the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations mission in the only Aquatic habitat in the world.
Christina Hernandez is a systems engineer who works on NASA’s Mars 2020, the newest rover headed to the Red Planet (currently scheduled to arrive in early 2021). Her job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California is to make sure that instruments aboard Mars 2020 are designed, built, tested, and will operate correctly once the rover arrives on the Martian surface. She says her advice to others is to be as fearless as possible since “every explorer fails, but they also learn from failures.”
After graduating from Howard University in 1950 with a Master’s degree in mathematics, Melba Roy Mouton worked for the Army Map Service and Census Bureau before transferring to NASA in 1959. She headed a group of NASA mathematicians, known as “computers,” who tracked early Echo satellites in Earth orbit. Her computations helped produce the orbital element timetables by which millions saw the satellite from Earth as it passed overhead. She received an Exceptional Performance Award and NASA’s Apollo Achievement Award.
Hedy Lamarr was a scientist and inventor who helped pioneer the technology that helped American naval torpedoes avoid being detected by the Nazis. Later, her work would become the basis for modern WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth technology. Born in Austria in 1914, Lamarr was a pianist, dancer, and could speak four languages, while always showing an interest and ability in inventing and improving devices. She began acting as a teenager and eventually starred in many Hollywood films. In 2014, Lamarr was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Mae Jemison is a physician, Peace Corps volunteer, teacher, astronaut, accomplished dancer, founder of two technology companies and speaks four languages. She attended Stanford University when she was just 16 years old, and earned her doctorate in medicine from Cornell University by the time she turned 25. In 1983 , she applied to the NASA program, after being inspired by Sally Ride, the first woman in space, and Nichelle Nichols, an actor in Star Trek. In 1992, Dr. Jemison flew into space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, becoming the first African-American woman in space.
By the time Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was launched into space on July 16, 1963, she had already spent much of her life in the air. She became interested in parachuting at a young age, which led her to be recruited into the Soviet space program. Along with four other women, Tereshkova trained for 18 months to prepare for space flight. She was the only one of the five who ultimately flew into space. During her mission, Tereshkova orbited the Earth 48 times. Afterward, she remained active in the space community, and her legacy as the first woman in space has been celebrated around the globe.
In the 1970s, astrophysicist Vera Rubin discovered evidence that the Universe was made of more than what could be seen with telescopes — today known as "dark matter". Born in 1928, Vera was drawn to watching the stars at an early age. Her passion would lead her to become the sole astronomy major in her graduating class at Vassar in 1948. After Princeton denied her admittance to graduate school due to her being a woman — a policy that stood until 1975 — Rubin pursued her advanced training at Cornell and then Georgetown, where she completed a Ph.D. She was a life-long advocate for women in science and scientific literacy.
Mary Golda Ross
Born in 1908, Mary Golda Ross was a member of the Cherokee Nation, and thought to be the first professional Native American female engineer. In 1942, after teaching math and science in rural Oklahoma, she earned a master’s degree and was hired as a mathematician for the Lockheed Corporation in California. During her career, she worked on many projects involving aeronautics and interplanetary spaceflight. Ross is considered one of the field’s “hidden figures” because her contributions have historically been overlooked.
Ellen Ochoa, trained as an engineer and astronaut, was the 11th director of NASA’s John Space Center in Houston, TX, making her the first Latina, and the second female to lead this storied organization. Ochoa studied electrical engineering at Stanford University where she ultimately received her Ph.D as a physics and optics researcher. She became the first Latina female astronaut to go into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on its flight in April 1993. In subsequent years, she joined three more space flights, logging more than 40 days in space. In 2018, she was inducted into the International Air and Space Hall of Fame.
By converting scientific data into sound, astronomer Wanda Diaz Merced is helping to explore the Universe in new and innovative ways. Through a process called “sonification,” she turns data from cosmic objects, including stars, into audible sound through physical properties like pitch and duration. After completing an undergraduate degree in astronomy, Wanda received her Ph.D. in computer science. "If we only see with our eyes, our perception is very narrow," said Diaz, who lost her sight as a young adult.
Cady Coleman’s accomplishments include achieving the rank of U.S. Air Force colonel, obtaining a Ph.D. in chemistry, and being selected for the astronaut core. She logged over 180 days in space. In 1999, she was the mission specialist aboard Space Shuttle Columbia that launched NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. After that mission, Cady became the Chief of Robotics for NASA’s Astronaut Office and then returned to space for a mission aboard the International Space Station. She took her flute with her for her stay and played the first ever Space-Earth duet.
When Ellen Stofan became the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in April 2018, she was the first woman to hold the position. Prior to this role, she had over 25 years working in space exploration. This includes serving as NASA’s Chief Scientist from 2013 to 2016, where she helped develop long-range plans to get humans to Mars as well as how to get more private companies into low-Earth orbit. Ellen is also a researcher who has focused on the geology of Venus, Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan and Earth.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
As a graduate student in 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and her colleagues discovered unusual radio signals emitting from space. These objects creating these signals came to be known as “pulsars,” which are rapidly rotating, dense cores of dead stars created by supernova explosions. In 2018, Bell Burnell was awarded the Breakthrough Prize for her role in the discovery of pulsars as well as for her scientific leadership. She donated a majority of the $3 million prize to fund students from underrepresented groups who are interested in becoming physics researchers.
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