7 Famous Women In STEM That Shaped the World As We Know It

October 30, 2019

by Andreea Sterea

Most famous women in STEM have had to overcome incredible obstacles to make their way in their fields. Gender bias, racism, or rigid social views on women’s status could have stopped them in their path. But they didn’t — quite the contrary.

The following seven ground-breakers, some of the famous women in STEM to date, changed the world with their innovative accomplishments, paving the way for entire generations of ladies of science who have a lot to say in computing, technology, medicine, and cutting-edge breakthroughs.

Mae C. Jemison​

October 17, 1956 – Present

United States

Achievements: The first African-American woman to travel to space

Worked on: NASA space missions

Mae C. Jemison graduated from Stanford University with a degree in chemical engineering and graduated from Cornell University with a medical degree. After being a doctor for the Peace Corps for two years, she joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1987.

Therefore, Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel to space. She served on the STS-47 missions, where she orbited the earth from September 12th to 20th, in 1992. A year later, Mae founded a technology research company and established a non-profit educational foundation that started the 100 Year Starship program funded by DARPA.

She wrote several books for young children, teaching them about the space sciences and being an astronaut, hoping to inspire young girls like her and paving the way for women in STEM fields.

Of course, she is still an inspiration for other amazing women at NASA that did not go to space but changed the way we understand the universe nonetheless.

Katherine Johnson

August 26, 1918 – Present

United States

Achievements: One of the most famous female mathematicians who crunched the numbers for NASA’s first space missions

Worked on: Orbital calculations, flight paths, trajectories, launch windows, return paths

We have talked about Katherine Johnson before, but when it comes to famous women in STEM, she is worth a mention as well.

At the age of eighteen, she graduated West Virginia State College with a degree in mathematics. In 1953, Katherine was offered a job with NACA to perform precise mathematical calculations with a group of African American women. Due to federal workplace segregation laws, they were separated from their white colleagues in work and eating spaces as well restrooms.

However, the “colored computers” pool was dispersed in 1958 when NACA was taken over by NASA, and Katherine was reassigned to an all-male team. But neither racism nor sexism vanished. Katherine stated that she always had to be aggressive as she insisted on doing things women had never done before, and due to her ambition, Katherine thrived at NASA.

She calculated trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for the first crewed spaceflight and the 1969 moon landing. In 2015, President Obama presented Katherine with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her vital work at NASA and for paving the way for famous women of color in STEM for years to come.

Tu Youyou 

December 30, 1930 – Present


Achievements: First Chinese woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize

Worked on: Malaria treatment

In 1955, while living in a culture that discouraged women in STEM fields, she graduated from the Beijing Medical University School of Pharmacy and studied herbal medicine for two years after.

In 1969, Tu was made the head of Project 523, a research group charged with finding a treatment for malaria that was plaguing China. While scientists from around the world had tried over 240,000 compounds, Tu had the idea to use herbal medicine.

She found a compound called “sweet woodworm,” which had been used for thousands of years to treat fevers. Tu discovered it using a lower temperature extraction process, rather than the traditional boiling water.

This innovation allowed her to extract an antimalarial substance from the woodworm. In 1972, she found the element – artemisinin – a compound that saved millions of lives. In 2015, she became the first Chinese woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

July 30, 1947 – Present


Achievements: Identified that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

Worked on: The implementation of procedures in prevention, clinical care, and treatment of AIDS

There was an AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and in 1983, Sinoussi’s work identified that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was the cause of the disease. Her discovery was the foundation for diagnostic testing and treatments to help combat this deadly illness.

Françoise, now named “The HIV Hunter,” started a research laboratory in 1988. There, she made vast discoveries and contributions in the fight against AIDs, including the development of “elite suppressors” to limit HIV spreading. Sinoussi also founded clinics in developing countries to help manage AIDS epidemics.

Through her research, she helped implement procedures in prevention, clinical care, and treatment around the world that could never have been done without her. This achievement alone makes her one of the most famous women in STEM that saved millions of lives.

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Marie Skłodowska Curie

November 7, 1867 – July 4, 1934


Achievements: The only woman of science to win the Nobel Prize twice in two different scientific fields

Worked on: Radioactivity, chemistry

Marie Curie lived her life as one of the most famous women in STEM who made a vital impact in the fields of both physics and chemistry.

She gained practical training in physics at the Flying University in Poland. In 1891, she moved to Paris, where she began her scientific career. She developed and coined the theory of radioactivity, and through this knowledge, invented mobile radiography units, later used to diagnose, operate, and treat French soldiers during World War I.

Marie Curie directed treatments of neoplasms using her discovery and research of radioactive isotopes and also uncovered two elements, polonium (named after her native country) and radium. She founded the Curie Institutes in both her homeland, Poland, and her adopted land, France, which remain prominent medical research centers to this day.

Curie was the first female scientist in history to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman of science to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person in history to win the Nobel Prize for outstanding achievements in two different scientific fields: physics and chemistry.

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Lydia Villa-Komaroff

August 7, 1947 – Present

United States

Achievements: Found a molecule responsible for the degeneration of brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease 

Worked on: DNA, medicine, technology

In 1970, Lydia Villa-Komaroff began attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for work in molecular biology. In 1973, while still working on a graduate’s degree at MIT, she became a founding member of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.

Just two years after that, she completed her Ph.D., thus becoming the third Mexican American woman of science in the United States to obtain a doctorate. She went to Harvard to research DNA, when her work was banned in 1976 over concerns of DNA experiments.

Six months later, she returned, and within another six months’ time, she discovered that bacterial cells could be used to generate insulin. Her research found a molecule that is linked with Alzheimer’s disease and is the origin of the degeneration of brain cells. Komaroff’s work helped present evidence that inspired a field devoted to the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Jane C. Wrigh

November 20, 1919 – February 19, 2013

United States

Achievements: Her research built the foundation for cancer treatments

Worked on: Chemotherapy

A woman of science whose name you’ve heard before if you read our previous articles, Jane C. Wright received a full scholarship at New York Medical College. In 1955 joined a research group at New York University Bellevue Medical Center. At the time, chemotherapy was not widely used to treat cancer.

Dr. Wright thought that chemotherapy could be a much more effective treatment. Jane was the first person to identify methotrexate, a groundbreaking chemotherapy drug, and successful treatment for cancerous tumors.

Methotrexate is still used today to treat breast cancer and skin cancer, and still is considered the basis of all chemotherapy. Jane worked internationally throughout her career, getting involved in treating cancer patients in China, the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Africa.

In 1971, Jane was the first woman to be president of the New York Cancer Society. She saved millions of lives and is not only one of the most celebrated female doctors in history, but one of the most important and famous women in STEM as well.

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So What Did We Learn?

Do you know other famous women in STEM whose research and discoveries helped save and shape the world as we know it? If you have other feminine role models in science, drop us a line and let’s keep the conversation going!

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