Exposing young children to relatable role models is one of the most effective ways to engage them in STEM – and it’s been proven that the number of young girls interested in STEM almost doubles when they have a role model to aspire to. For centuries, the world’s most renowned scientists have been male, so it’s crucial that – regardless of gender – we introduce our children to some of the women paving the way for our future scientists.
Caroline Herschel (1750–1848)
In the summer of 1786, Caroline Herschel became the first woman to discover a comet – and by 1797, she had discovered six more. As a result, she was the first woman to be paid for her exceptional contribution to science and also to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. What’s far less known, however, is that prior to her extensive career as an astronomer and mathematician, Herschel was also a talented soprano singer who performed regularly in the city of Bath – proving that it’s possible to represent both the arts and sciences.
Mary Anning (1799–1847)
From an early age, palaeontologist Mary Anning began shattering stereotypes. After a challenging start to life, she began collecting fossils with her father at around the age of five or six – something reserved solely for boys in Georgian times. When she reached the age of 12, Anning unearthed the skeleton of an Ichthyosaur – a marine reptile which lived 201-194 million years ago. To the untrained eye, this looked like a mythical monster! She went on to discover a Plesiosaurus and a Dimorphodon (which we now know as a Pterodactyl), and with each discovery she continued to fuel public interest in geology and palaeontology.
Marie Curie (1867–1934)
As the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in 1903, radiology pioneer Marie Curie is often recognised as the world’s most famous female scientist. Not only did Curie discover two new chemical elements – radium and polonium – but she saved countless lives on the battlefield during World War I. By bringing her advanced theoretical knowledge to the front line, Curie was able to set up 200 stationary radiological units and equip a fleet of specialist vehicles
with X-ray technology. She taught herself how to operate the equipment, drive her new vehicles and fix any mechanical issues – as well as inspiring many other women to do the same.
Mary-Claire King (1946–present)
Professor Mary-Claire King made three major – and very diverse – contributions to medical science. Most notably, her discovery of the BRCA1 gene locus which causes hereditary breast cancer. Then, in the 1970s, she demonstrated that chimpanzees are genetically 99% identical to humans – and later that applying genomic sequencing could identify victims of human rights abuse. Her discoveries stemmed from a genetics course she took in her spare time, where she became hooked on how her logic and problem-solving skills could be used for the greater good.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock (1968–present)
As a child, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock was utterly fascinated by twinkling stars in the night sky. Her passion for science flourished at school, where she initially struggled academically but never let her dyslexia become a barrier between her and her future success. In 2013 she went on to receive the ‘Out of the Box Thinking’ award from Yale University’s Centre for Dyslexia. Now, Aderin-Pocock is a leading British space scientist and a presenter on BBC Four’s The Sky At Night. Examples of her work include the development of a high-resolution spectrograph for the Gemini telescope and managing observation instruments on a satellite to investigate climate change.
Maydianne Andrade (1969–present)
Jamaican-born Canadian ecologist, Professor Maydianne Andrade, is best known for her work on the mating habits of spiders. Having been named as one of the ‘Brilliant 10’ by Popular Science magazine in 2005, she was later named a Canadian Research Chair in Integrative Behavioural Ecology. Currently, Andrade is generating discussion around unconscious racial and gender bias – and last year she received the Ludwik and Estelle Jus Memorial Human Rights Prize in recognition of her work.
Fei-Fei Li (1976–present)
Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming increasingly prevalent in everyday life, yet just 22% of professionals working in this area are women. Professor Fei-Fei Li is not only paving the way for more women to become AI pioneers, but she’s an advocate for developing new technologies with diversity in mind too. Li often refers to AI as a ‘transformative voice for good’ – but only if imaginative, empathetic humans are the ones behind the engineering. Her talks, scientific papers and non-profit organisation AI4ALL all tackle injustice surrounding underrepresented groups in AI.
Role models aren’t always internationally acclaimed figures on the other side of the globe – sometimes they’re the people we surround ourselves with in everyday life, such as our pupil’s parents. Katy Alexander is the founder of The Remarkablz, an educational organisation that aims to bring more diversity to STEM. Through games and free educational resources, real-life scientists are turned into superheroes whose superpowers are based on their research and discoveries. One day, Katy’s daughter asked ‘can I be an astronaut if I’m a girl?’ – and thus, the idea was born. Since then, the company has been helping children to realise their potential, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or disabilities.