Let’s Talk International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Written by George Mitchell, Programme Executive

Take a moment to think about what a scientist looks like to you. The picture I have in my mind is an individual wearing the trademark lab coat and safety spectacles. While trying to decide whether he looks more like Walter White or Emmett Brown, I am struck by the fact that my scientist is undoubtedly a man. Despite the most influential scientists I worked with at university being women, I cannot shake the stereotypical image I was immediately drawn to. I believe this is an unfortunate reflection of a field in which women continue to be overlooked and underrepresented.

Science is supposed to be paving the way for the future and yet, when it comes to gender equality, it is stuck in the past. At present, less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women and with a lack of role models and equality in the field, only 30% of women choose to study STEM subjects at university.

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and, to mark the occasion, I would like to highlight three incredible scientists who made ground-breaking discoveries in the world of science and healthcare.

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

Rosalind Franklin was a chemist and x-ray crystallographer who, in May 1952, captured an image that would quite literally change the DNA of biological and healthcare research. The seemingly uninspiring and blurry ‘Photo 51’ would lead Watson and Crick to discover the DNA double helix, for which they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Since then, we have sequenced our genome, increased our understanding of genetic disease and even learned how to edit our DNA.

Franklin died in April 1958 from ovarian cancer, possibly caused by exposure to the very x-rays which led to her discovery, something for which she was not recognised until the years following her death. With the Nobel Committee still unwilling to award posthumous prizes, Franklin remains one of the greatest unsung heroes in the history of biology and healthcare research.

Tu Youyou (1930 – Present)

During the Vietnam War, malaria claimed the lives of more Vietnamese soldiers than the war itself. Tu Youyou is a pharmaceutical chemist who, in 1969, was appointed the leader of the ‘Project 523’ research group, tasked with finding a cure for malaria. In 1972, after turning to traditional Chinese medicine for a cure, Tu discovered that sweet wormwood had been used 1,500 years before to treat symptoms of malaria.

Tu had discovered the antimalarial medication, artemisinin, which is still used to treat malaria today. Her discovery saves 100,000 lives in Africa every year and has saved an estimated 3 million lives this century alone. However, Tu was not acknowledged for her discovery until 2007 and she would become the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize in 2015, 43 years after her lifesaving work.

Jennifer Doudna (1964 – Present)

60 years after Rosalind Franklin captured Photo 51, American biochemist Jennifer Doudna discovered CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing, argued to be the most significant discovery in the history of biology.

Doudna’s breakthrough has opened the gates to a new era of healthcare research, with endless possibilities and implications, one of which could be finding cures for genetic disease. In recognition of this monumental achievement, she was a runner-up for Time ‘Person of the Year’ in 2016, missing out to a certain President, Donald Trump.

These three scientists achieved their healthcare breakthroughs in a male dominated field, without role models or recognition. The current landscape is unfortunately not as balanced as it should be, and we need to better communicate the achievements of women in science and healthcare to inspire the next generation and possibly, the next great discovery.