Bethan Foulkes, Science Subject Advisor
11 February 2023 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It is a day to recognise and celebrate the achievements of women scientists in their fields, as well as reflect on the impact future scientists may also have. Our science subject advisors have each highlighted a scientist and the work that she has done that inspires them.
Dr Yolanda Ohene is a British neuroscientist and science communicator. Working at the University of Manchester, her scientific research focuses on brain imaging. In 2019, she was awarded the Jocelyn Bell Burnell Medal and Prize by the Institute of Physics for her work on new MRI imaging techniques. Improved imaging may help in the treatment of brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Yolanda wants to encourage progress towards a more diverse community of professional physicists. Whilst she was completing here PhD at Imperial College London, Yolanda was one of the founding members of the The Blackett Lab Family (Twitter: @blackettlabfam) and she co-founded the Minorities in STEM network (Twitter: @MinoritySTEM).
I’m inspired by Yolanda’s scientific work and by her commitment to making the scientific community more inclusive and more representative of our society.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was a force to be reckoned with. The first woman to qualify as a surgeon in Britain, Elizabeth had to exploit a loophole to gain her medical licence, despite her male colleagues lodging complaints about her presence. Although qualifying with proficiency, no hospital would offer her a post, so she opened her own practice.
She eventually gained a full medical degree from Paris after studying French. Her practice eventually became the New Hospital for Women and Children, treating women from all over London. She co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women, the only teaching hospital in Britain to offer courses for women and staffed by an all-female staff. A suffragist in later years, she continuously campaigned for the right of any woman to become a doctor.
Dr Lydia Villa-Komaroff is a molecular and cellular biologist who was only the third Mexican-American woman in the United States to receive a doctorate degree in the sciences (1975). She had originally intended to study chemistry, but switched to biology after being told women do not belong in chemistry.
Dr Villa-Komaroff’s most notable discovery was during her post-doctoral research when she and the team she was part of discovered how bacterial cells could be used to generate insulin, and she became the first author of a landmark report showing how this process would work.
In 1973, Dr Villa-Komaroff realised there were not many Chicanos and Native Americans in her field of study, and so became a founding member of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. She is a role mode for aspiring “STEMers”, alongside being an award-winning researcher. Dr Villa-Komaroff makes it clear that race and gender are barriers that can be broken when aspiring to become a prominent figure in science.
When we study the structure of benzene in A Level Chemistry, August Kekulé often has the limelight with his fanciful daydream about a snake eating its own tail. However, our understanding of benzene’s structure today owes a lot to the work of Kathleen Lonsdale.
Lonsdale was one of the founding figures of crystallography, the science of determining the atomic and molecular structure of almost anything by taking crystallised solids of substances and firing X-rays at them. The diffraction of the X-rays forms a characteristic pattern from which the organisation of atoms can be discerned.
In 1929, Lonsdale used crystallography to probe the structure of hexamethylbenzene, with her results showing definitively that the benzene ring was flat – something that chemists had been trying to evidence for decades. She had to carry out all of the detailed calculations from the crystallography data to determine the structure by hand.
Lonsdale’s work in crystallography influenced Dorothy Hodgkin, the only British woman to win a Nobel prize (in 1964) for her work using crystallography to solve the structures of vitamin B12 and penicillin. There’s also a form of carbon, Lonsdaleite, named in Lonsdale’s honour. She deserves just as much attention as Kekulé when we discuss the history of benzene’s structure!
Katherine Johnson made the most of limited educational opportunities for African Americans, displaying a flair for mathematics from a young age and graduating at age 18 from West Virginia State College. She joined NACA (the predecessor to NASA) in 1953 as a computer, analysing data and carrying out mathematical tasks.
Through her curiosity and assertiveness in her role, and her determination to overcome racial discrimination, Katherine played a key role in several missions during the space race and earned a reputation for mastering complex calculations.
One of Katherine’s most famous tasks was, at the specific request of John Glenn, to run through the same equations that had been programmed into the new IBM computers (prone to hiccups) for the trajectory of the capsule Friendship 7.
Katherine was the first woman in the flight research division to be credited as an author on a research report (and went on to author a total of 26 through her career). She later went on to help develop the space shuttle program and Earth resources satellite. NASA have noted Katherine’s “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist”.
Dr Chien-Shiung carried out research for the Manhattan project in the 1940s, which established her as a leading expert in nuclear physics.
Her famous and eponymous Wu experiment in 1956, proved that parity is not conserved in beta decay, which was a commonly held view at the time. The discovery won the Nobel prize for her colleagues in 1957, but Dr Chien-Shiung was not recognised by the Nobel committee for the work herself.
She went on to achieve numerous awards and honours for her work in physics. However, I have chosen to highlight Chien-Shiung Wu as an example of how education opened up opportunities that resulted in her extraordinary contribution to science. She was from a small village in China, where access to education for girls was not common. Her father started his own school to ensure girls in the area had the opportunity to study.
In physics, we still have a disparity in the number of girls studying the subject. Scientific advancements in physics will only be hindered if we can’t encourage more girls to study the subject: who knows how many potential Chien-Shiung Wus we may have lost due to bias, conscious or unconscious, in education.
If you have any questions, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_Science. You can also sign up to subject updates and receive email information about our science resources and support.
Bethan joined OCR in April 2019 and is a subject advisor for GCSE Sciences and Applied Science. Before joining OCR, Bethan taught Biology to 11–18-year-olds for eight years and was responsible for planning her school’s biology schemes of learning. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Bethan mentored PGCE students and NQTs in science, and oversaw all the trainees and NQTs within the school as professional tutor. In her spare time, she enjoys dressmaking, quilting and many other different crafts.