Diverse Scientists and Their Impact on Science Today

By Stephanie Baringer

Historically, science was a white man’s club; women and minorities need not apply. Since its creation in 1901, only 58 of the 609 Nobel Prizes awarded have been given to women, more than half of which were given in the past 20 years1. While minority representation in science has improved over time, there is still a long path ahead. Those who identify as African Americans or Hispanic only make up about 9% and 8% of the STEM workforce, respectively, according to a Pew Research Center study, with no distinction made between Hispanic and Latinx2. With the baseline of so-called progress set so low, it is a wonder that any scientist of diverse identification was able to flourish. Nonetheless, there were many whose accomplishments still impact research today. Below are several influential scientists throughout history that, in addition to their great scientific achievements, overcame one or more barriers to their successful careers.

Image: Andy Brunning/Compound Interest

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992)

Barbara McClintock grew up in New England and attended Cornell University, earning a degree in botany, since women were not allowed to major in genetics3. Despite this, she was able to take genetics courses and was invited to take a course intended for graduate students. McClintock later described this invitation having “cast die for [her] future” as she remained in the genetics field thereafter4. Her Ph.D. work focused on the chromosomal analysis of corn, which lead to her observation that some genes “move” during plant breeding3. She continued this groundbreaking research throughout her career and more clearly defined the phenomenon as genetic cross-over5. Later in her career, McClintock discovered that certain genes could be turned on or off via transposable elements6. These principles have provided the basis for decades of genetic studies. In addition to her work being repeatedly questioned due to its novelty and her gender7, McClintock also faced social challenges from being autistic. Her neurodivergence led to her feature in Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes by Jennifer Elder8. Frustrated with her work being called too radical or ignored3, McClintock eventually stopped publishing and speaking publicly and instead focused her attention to research. Once the scientific community caught up with her brilliance, she was awarded the Noble Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983; the first woman to solely do so4.

Alan Turing (1912-1954)

In addition to race and gender inequality, sexual orientation has played a major setback to numerous scientist’s careers, including Alan Turing. Turing was always fascinated by mathematics and science, leading him to pursue a fellowship at the University of Cambridge and subsequent Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University9. While at Cambridge, Turing presented the idea of a universal machine that could compute anything that was able to be computed10. This would later be called a Turing machine and provide the basis for modern day computers and the computer science field11. A simple visual explanation of how Turing machines work can be found here. Essentially, Turing machines read a single point that has one of two symbols (think of binary code 1s and 0s) and based on a set of rules the machine follows, it responds to that symbol. During World War II, Turing lead a team tasked with deciphering the German Enigma, which was a cipher code used by the Nazi military to transmit messages9. After the war, Turing continued his work and asked “can machines think?”12. This led to his detailed procedure to determine if a machine could imitate human conversation. In fact, this concept is at play every time you check the box that states “I am not a robot” on a website. In the early 1950s, Turing became interested in patterns in biology, however, he never fully pursued this interest10. Around the same time, Turing was discovered to be gay during a police investigation of a home invasion he reported10. Because homosexuality was illegal at the time, Turing was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to hormonal treatment leaving him impotent10. The treatments also prevented Turing from concentrating, interfering with his mathematical abilties10. In 1954, Turing committed suicide by cyanide poisoning10. Given the advancements Turing facilitated in computer science and mathematics, we can only imagine the impact he would have made had he continued his biological work. 

Jane C. Wright (1919-2013)

From an early age, Jane C. Wright saw how people of color, like herself, could achieve greatness despite obstacles13. Wright’s father set an example for his daughter and was one of the first African American students to graduate from Harvard Medical School. Jane Wright attended New York Medical College and became a physician, at the time women of color made up less than 1% of physicians14. After some time, she chose to devote herself to medical research and joined her father in studying potential chemotherapeutic agents, which were in very early stages of development at the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem hospital15. Together, the Wrights revolutionized how chemotherapeutic agents were tested, using cultured cells rather than animals. They investigated the use of nitrogen-mustard agents for tumor remission and folic acid antagonists15. The pair published the long-term efficacy of folic acid antagonists, combination therapies, and adjusted dosing based on individual toxicity symptoms16. The Wrights work formed the basis for all modern chemotherapy research and introduced the concept of precision medicine15. Today, methotrexate, a folic acid antagonist, is one of the most commonly used chemotherapeutics. Wright faced barriers and adversity related to her gender and race throughout her career, particularly in a time before the Civil Rights Act. However, this did not stop her from pursing her dreams to ensure quality medical care for all.

Ben Barres (1954-2017)

As a child, Ben Barres, then known as Barbara, enjoyed mathematics and science, but was repeatedly denied access to such courses as an assigned female at birth17. Barres was finally able to gain exposure to STEM courses during a summer science program with no gender restrictions, leading him to pursue a career in science. In 1993, Barres started his own neuroscience lab at Stanford University aimed to initially uncover the mysteries of how synapses formed and how glial cells eliminated them18. After decades of “feeling like a man living in a woman’s body”, Barres announced his gender transition to his colleagues in a letter in 199719. Barres was a leader in the neuroscience field who discovered that signals from glial cells influence the survival of damaged neurons, optic-nerve and spinal-cord regeneration, and the assembly and maintenance of the blood-brain barrier17. These contributions have led to advances in a number of neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and glioblastoma. Along with his ground breaking work in glial biology, Barres spent his career advocating for the representation of minorities in science, even writing an essay in Nature20. He once said “People who don’t know I am transgender [now] treat me with much more respect. I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man”19. Barres became the first openly transgender member elected to the US National Academy of Sciences in 2013, however, his career was unfortunately cut short in 2017 when he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 63.  

The incredible scientists mentioned here are only a few of the hundreds who have impacted their respective fields. Diversity is not something we strive for in order to check a metaphorical box. Science requires collaboration to solve problems. In fact, it has been shown that diverse groups of people tend to be more creative and innovative21. Scientific advancement gains nothing by excluding minorities, but it gains everything by allowing everyone the opportunity to make an impact.

TL:DR

Women and minorities are continually overlooked in STEM. Despite this, a number of scientists throughout history have made huge impacts that influence research today.


References

1.         Nobel Prize facts. NobelPrize.org https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/facts/nobel-prize-facts.

2.         Woolston, C. Minority representation in US science workforce sees few gains. Nature 592, 805–806 (2021).

3.         The Barbara McClintock Papers. Barbara McClintock – Profiles in Science https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/spotlight/ll/feature/biographical (2019).

4.         The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1983. NobelPrize.org https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1983/mcclintock/facts/.

5.         Ravindran, S. Barbara McClintock and the discovery of jumping genes. PNAS 109, 20198–20199 (2012).

6.         Pray, L. & Zhaurova, K. Barbara McClintock and the Discovery of Jumping Genes (Transposons). Nature Education 169 (2008).

7.         Comfort, N. C. ‘The real point is control’: the reception of Barbara McClintock’s controlling elements. J Hist Biol 32, 133–162 (1999).

8.         Elder, J. Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes. (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2005).

9.         Biography com Editors. Alan Turing. Biography https://www.biography.com/scientist/alan-turing.

10.       Turing, A. M. On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society s2-42, 230–265 (1937).

11.       De Mol, L. Turing Machines. in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (ed. Zalta, E. N.) (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2021).

12.       Aron, J. Alan Turing. New Scientist https://www.newscientist.com/people/alan-turing/.

13.       Changing the Face of Medicine | Jane Cooke Wright. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_336.html/.

14.       More, E. S. & Greer, M. J. American women physicians in 2000: a history in progress. J Am Med Womens Assoc (1972) 55, 6–9 (2000).

15.       Elliott, E. Women in Science: Jane C. Wright revolutionized cancer research (1919-2013). The Jackson Laboratory https://www.jax.org/news-and-insights/jax-blog/2016/november/women-in-science-jane-wright.

16.       Wright, J. C., Prigot, A., Wright, B., Weintraub, S. & Wright, L. T. An evaluation of folic acid antagonists in adults with neoplastic diseases: a study of 93 patients with incurable neoplasms. J Natl Med Assoc 43, 211–240 (1951).

17.       Huberman, A. D. Ben Barres (1954–2017). Nature 553, 282–282 (2018).

18.       Freeman, M. Ben Barres: neuroscience pioneer, gender champion. Nature 562, 492–492 (2018).

19.       Ben Barres: A transgender scientist shares his story. Spectrum | Autism Research News https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/ben-barres-transgender-scientist-shares-story/ (2018).

20.       Barres, B. A. Does gender matter? Nature 442, 133–136 (2006).

21.       Gibbs, K. Diversity in STEM: What It Is and Why It Matters. Scientific American Blog Network https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/diversity-in-stem-what-it-is-and-why-it-matters/ (2014).

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