Breaking Barriers: 10 women that have changed the face of science

By: Carli King

Women have been historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) fields. Currently, women account for nearly half of the United States workforce; however, they represent only 27% of STEM employees1. While gains have undoubtedly been made – from 8% of STEM workers in 1970 being women – there is still work to be done to eliminate the gender gap in STEM1. In recognition of the global gender gap in STEM, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed February 11 as an annual observance day to promote full and equal access and participation of females in STEM2.

Mark your calendars – February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science (Figure 1)! To celebrate, honor the women who have paved the way for the current generation to participate in STEM by learning more about their empowering stories. The story of ten inspiring women in science are highlighted in this article.

Figure 1. February 11 marks International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Source:

After being accepted to medical school at Geneva College as a practical joke, Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 – 1910)graduated first in her class and was the first woman in America to receive a medical degree in 18493,4. Despite facing years of discrimination and backlash, Elizabeth opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children in 1857 with her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, as well as the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1868, and the London School of Medicine for Women around 18743,4. The infirmaries focused on treating impoverished communities, while the London School of Medicine for Women focused on training female physicians3,4.

American geneticist Nettie Stevens (1861 – 1912) received her PhD from Bryn Mawr College at the age of 41 and went on to publish a two-part book detailing her discovery that biological sex is determined by “X” and “Y” chromosomes in 19053. Nettie published 38 manuscripts before she died of breast cancer in 19125. Despite her short career, her discoveries became the foundation for many other researchers in the field.

Born Maria Salomea Sklodowska in Poland, Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) traveled to Paris where she became the first woman to get her doctorate in France and met her soon-to-be husband and fellow scientist Pierre Curie3. Together, Marie and Pierre pioneered research on radioactivity and discovered two elements: polonium and radium3. Marie received a Nobel prize in physics in 1903 for the discovery in physics and a Nobel prize in chemistry for the discovery of polonium and radium, making her the first woman to receive a Nobel prize, the only woman to receive two Nobel prizes, and the first person to win a Nobel prize in two different disciplines3,6. Despite learning of the danger surrounding her research, Marie continued pursuing her passion and discovered radium could be used as a cancer treatment3.

Chemist Alice Ball (1892 – 1916) earned a master’s degree in chemistry becoming the first African American and first woman to graduate from the University of Hawaii3. At the young age of 23, Alice discovered the first effective treatment for Hansen’s disease, commonly referred to as leprosy, by extracting oil from chaulmoogra fruit seeds using the “Ball method” to be injected into the bloodstream of patients7. The “Ball method” focused on freezing the oil’s fatty acids to isolate ester compounds, which were modified to be water soluble and injectable7. Unfortunately, following Alice’s death at the young age of 24, male researchers continued her work and published without crediting Alice and her discovery was overlooked due to sexism and racism7. However, the story of Alice Ball later resurfaced in the early 1990s and we are able to celebrate her accomplishments today.

Biochemist Gerty Cori (1896 – 1957) received her doctorate in medicine from the University of Prague, where she met Carl Cori, her future husband and forever lab partner3. Gerty was often forced to take lower-level positions compared to her husband, despite holding the same degree and level of experience8. However, Gerty and Carl laid the framework for understanding carbohydrate metabolism through their discovery of how the body converts glucose to lactate in a process dubbed the Cori cycle, earning them a Nobel prize in 19473. Gerty became the first American woman to win a Nobel prize and helped train six other Nobel prize winners in her laboratory with Carl3.

Despite graduating summa cum laude in medical school, Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012) was forbidden from practicing medicine in Italy due to anti-Semitic laws during World War II3. During this time, Rita started her research in her bedroom as she documented motor neuron growth and death in chicken embryos9. After the war ended, Rita formally began her research where she discovered nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein involved in the regulation of healthy neuron growth, earning her a Nobel prize in 19863,9. Despite her hardships, Rita became an Italian senator to fight for equality and continued to work until she died at the age of 1033.

Nicknamed the “gentle genius” and “cleverest woman in England” Dorothy Hodgkins (1910 – 1994) earned her PhD from Cambridge in 193710. Dorothy discovered the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin as a biochemist and X-ray crystallographer, earning her a Nobel prize in 1964 and making her the third woman to receive Nobel prize3,10.  Dorothy also achieved many humanitarian achievements including becoming chair of the Pugwash movement, which aimed to raise concern about potential dangers raised in scientific research, such as those surrounding the creation of the hydrogen bomb10.

Pharmacologist and biochemist Gertrude Elion (1918 – 1990) graduated from high school in New York City at the young age of 153. Gertrude then graduated from Hunter College with honors in chemistry at a time when graduate schools were offering no financial support to women and men were prioritized for job opportunities during the Great Depression3,11. Overcoming this challenge, Gertrude began her leukemia  research at the Burroughs Wellcome pharmaceutical company where she worked with George Hitchings to discover drugs that selectively blocked cancer cell growth3,11. After quitting her part-time PhD program, Gertrude developed two drugs used to treat leukemia and created antivirals used to treat herpes, earning her a Nobel Prize in 1988 and the title of the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame3. Her discoveries have laid the foundation for the creation of many other drugs used to treat a variety of diseases.

Oncologist Jane Cooke Wright(1919 – 2013) earned her medical degree from New York Medical College in 1945 in an accelerated three year program12. Jane is nicknamed “the mother of chemotherapy” for her discoveries in novel techniques for testing chemotherapies on human tissue cultures as well as developing a less invasive delivery method for chemotherapies via catheter3. While pursuing research, she also started research programs to study stroke, heart disease, and cancer at New York Medical College12. Among many other achievements, Jane became the first African American woman to be named Associate Dean of a nationally recognized medical institution12.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (1942 – ) completed her PhD in molecular biology from Eberhard-Karl University of Tübingen in 1973, despite the field being dominated by men and societal expectations for women to remain at home3,13. She won the 1995 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for her work in Drosophila discovering genes involved in pattern formation and segmentation1. Her research led newspapers to call her “Lady of the Flies” and “Dame Drosophila;” however, she now uses zebra fish in her research efforts3. After experiencing the expectations society places on women firsthand, the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation assists women scientists in paying for daycare3.

Women throughout history have faced a plethora of obstacles while pursuing scientific discoveries. However, the women highlighted in this article have broken every barrier set in their way and act as trailblazers for future generations of women in science.


  • International Day of Women and Girls in Science is celebrated annually on February 11.
  • Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) fields.
  • Celebrate February 11 by learning more about the gender gap in STEM fields and honoring the trailblazing women in science throughout history. 
  • Women continue to break barriers in science, making groundbreaking discoveries despite political, societal, and personal hurdles.


  1. Martinez A and Christnacht C. “Women are nearly half of U.S. workforce but only 27% of STEM workers.” United States Census Bureau. January 26, 2021.
  2. United Nations. “International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February.” United Nations.
  3. Ignotofsky, Rachel. Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World. Ten Speed Press. 2016.
  4. Michals, Debra. “Elizabeth Blackwell.” National Women’s History Museum, 2015.
  5. Carey SB, Akozbek L, and Harkess A. “The contributions of Nettie Stevens to the field of sex chromosome biology.” The Royal Society Publishing. March 21, 2022.
  6. Association for Women in Science. “Marie Curie.”
  7. Wong, K. “The Trailblazing Black Woman Chemist Who Discovered a Treatment for Leprosy.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 23, 2022.
  8. American Chemical Society. “Gerty Theresa Cori (1896 – 1957).”
  9. Holloway, M. “Finding the Good in the Bad: A Profile of Rita Levi-Montalcini.” Scientific American. December 30, 2012.
  10. Science History Institute. “Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin.”  December  8, 2017.
  11. American Chemical Society. “Gertrude Elion (1918 – 1999).”
  12. New York Medical College. “Jane Cooke Wright, M.D. ’45 (1919 – 2013).”
  13. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Britannica.     

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