Women in Science: In the Nobel Prize’s Shadow

Women scientists


Today we are celebrating the 8th International Day of Women and Girls in Science which was implemented by UNESCO and the UN Women. It has been an astonishing development for women and girls over the past century. We have gone from 0% of women among all researchers up to 33% over the last century. In the past 2 centuries, there have been a lot of firsts for women such as the first woman to attend college, the first woman to receive a Ph.D. honor, the first woman to be awarded a Nobel prize, and the first female entrepreneur.  

On this day we would like to take the opportunity to emphasize the importance of achieving gender equality and women empowerment. Should not science be about innovativeness and not about gender? For generations, women have had very little role to play in the field of science and instead were confined to domestic responsibilities. They had to find loopholes to get around the system and succeed in the missions they set out to accomplish. In the past era, we have had numerous women breaking these stereotypes and achieving the impossible, and going above and beyond the imagination of our patriarchal ancestors.   

This year, we are going to explore and celebrate the life of women whose passion, drive, and perseverance have given rise to some of the most significant contributions to science and revolutionized the scientific domain. And they do not need a Nobel Prize to be cherished.

First, on the list, we present to you, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.  

Elizabeth who was denied entry into medical schools in all of England was forced to study nursing. Despite the bias she faced in the early years, she qualified as a Doctor from the Society of Apothecaries. Following this, a ban was imposed on female recruits which only fuelled her passion and drove her to earn her medical degree from the University of Paris. After all, it is fair to assume that Elizabeth would be eligible to practice medicine. But shockingly, regardless of all her efforts, the British Medical Register still refused her application. At this point, she set out to establish the New Hospital for Women which would then come to be known as the London School of Medicine for Women. In the due course, her arduous journey was complemented by legalizing female entry into the medical profession in England in 1876.    

Another such unfabled story belongs to Dorothy Hansine Andersen.  

Dorothy graduated from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1926, following this she completed a surgical internship at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. However, she was denied surgical residency at Strong because of her gender. But this did not stop her from receiving a Doctor of Medical Sciences in 1935. This was also the same year she started as an assistant pathologist at Babies Hospital at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Centre.   

Dorothy went on to become the first physician to identify cystic fibrosis as a disease and developed tests to diagnose it. In addition, she devoted over a decade to researching glycogen storage disease and investigated cardiac malformations comprehensively. Given her vast knowledge and experience, she established a training program for cardiac surgeons of all genders at numerous institutions. She gained the trust of her peers and recognition for years of research.   

Despite gender inequality, adversities, and lack of recognition that remained a part of our system even though the 50s, women thrived on their passion. One such example is Rosalind Franklin.  

Rosalind was a British chemist and a renowned crystallographer. During her lifetime, she did not receive any credit for her contributions, but her work would lead to one of the biggest breakthroughs in the field of Biophysics and Molecular biology. What makes her exceptional is that the renowned “Photo 51” from the article “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” came from Rosalind’s unpublished data. It was nothing but the X-ray diffraction picture of a DNA molecule! This photograph along with some of Rosalind’s study on the structure of DNA ended up in the hands of biophysicists James Watson and Francis Crick in 1952. At the time, the duo had also been working on building a model of the DNA molecule. Using their data and Rosalind’s photo 51, they created their famous double-helix DNA model. Following her untimely death, Crick referred to the critical contributions of Rosalind Franklin. Although her contributions went unacknowledged, we cherish her work to this day.  

Reflecting on the current status of women, it has been a tremendous journey over the years deflecting several obstacles and it took a great many supportive men to stand our ground. In today’s world of science, I would like to introduce  Qiang Pan-Hammarström.  

Qiang is a professor of clinical immunology at Karolinska Institute. In 1993, she graduated as a medical doctor at Sun Yat-Sen Medical University, China. Soon after, she worked as a physician at Guangzhou Respiratory Disease Research Institute. Her immense research interest led her to pursue her doctoral studies at Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Further on, in 2000 she moved to the US where she carried out her post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical School.  

Qiang has published over 141 research articles and her specialties lie in clinical immunology, immunogenetics, cancer genetics, and infection biology. She has been a guest professor at several prestigious universities in China and the US sharing her research work and insights about immunology. Over the years, she has supervised and trained several prospective Ph.D. students and post-doctoral.   

Another remarkable woman is  Jenny Hallgren Martinsson who is an Associate Professor at Uppsala University. In 2012, she became the first scientist to receive Malin and Lennart Philipson Prize for her work on mast cells in asthma. Her group focuses their studies on the role of mast cells in the allergic process in asthma on a molecular level. Through their research work, the group aims to provide insight into drug development for the prevention of mast cell progenitors from entering the lungs thereby improving the disease outcome in asthma patients. Jenny is a young scientist with over 38 publications and is actively mentoring several Ph.D. and post-doctorates.  

Humans are very curious beings that drive us towards discoveries and innovations, which sets us apart as superior beings. When it comes down to the passion for science there is no man or woman, we exist as one species and we all deserve equal opportunity.  

 Article by Supreetha Toplar

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