Women in STEM ‘still gotta fight’
Gender equality in STEM may take some time, but things are moving in the right direction, writes Claire Marchand
Women have made immense contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), despite gender bias and the fact that there are far fewer women participating in these fields than men. According to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 29% of those in science research and development are women, with a low of 19% in South and West Asia and a high of 48% in Central Asia. Europe and North America are at 32%.
It may take some time before we see gender equality in STEM, but things are moving in the right direction. Actions are undertaken throughout the world. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 aims to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls. Many countries now have programmes that encourage young girls to embrace studies in these fields. The youngest inventor featured in this article, who participated in such a programme, is only nine years old!
The following women have all made outstanding contributions and are an inspiration to others. Some of them have also had to overcome a range of other obstacles, such as poverty and racism.
Gladys West (1930-) — GPS
Gladys Mae West (née Brown), born in 1930 in a rural county of Virginia, US, was determined from an early age to eschew farm or factory work, knowing that education was the key to her future. Thanks to her good grades, she won a scholarship to Virginia State College where she was one of the few women studying mathematics. “You felt a bit different,” she later said. “You didn’t quite fit in as you did in home economics.” After graduation, she worked as a teacher for a couple of years. In 1956, she joined the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in Dahlgren, Virginia — the second black woman ever to be employed by the Center.
West initially participated in an astronomical study that showed the regularity of Pluto’s motions relative to Neptune. Subsequently her supervisor recommended her as project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans. Over the following decades, this allowed her to develop and hone in further satellite modelling of the globe, with increasingly refined algorithms. She ended up creating an extremely accurate geodetic Earth model, factoring in details such as gravitational and tidal forces responsible for slightly modifying the Earth’s shape. The model later became the foundation of the GPS satellite system as we know it today. Sadly, after West retired in 1986, her contributions to the GPS were largely forgotten. But she didn’t remain idle in retirement, enrolling in a remote studies programme at Virginia Tech and obtaining her PhD in 2018.
Dr West’s achievements were rediscovered when she wrote a short biography for one of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority events. A fellow member read it and spread the word. In 2017, Capt. Godfrey Weekes, then-commanding officer at the NSWC Dahlgren Division, wrote about West: “She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy and contributed to the accuracy of GPS and the measurement of satellite data. As Gladys West started her career as a mathematician at Dahlgren in 1956, she likely had no idea that her work would impact the world for decades to come.”
On 6 December 2018, in a ceremony at the Pentagon, West was inducted into the US Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame. Hoping that her work will inspire a new generation of female pioneers, West said: The world is opening up a little bit and making it easier for women. But they still gotta fight.”
The work of Technical Committee (TC) 47: Semiconductor devices, and its Subcommittee (SC) 47F: Micro-electromechanical systems, are essential to technological advances in the modern GPS. Several other IEC TCs also develop standards related to various aspects of the GPS technology. Notably TC 49: Piezoelectric, dielectric and electrostatic devices and associated materials for frequency control, selection and detection; TC 80: Maritime navigation and radiocommunication equipment and systems: and CISPR Subcommittee CIS/D: Electromagnetic disturbances related to electric/electronic equipment on vehicles and internal combustion engine powered devices.
Ruzena Bajcsy (1933-) — robotics
Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, Ruzena Bajcsy was orphaned during World War II and placed in a Red Cross orphanage with her sister. Despite the hardships, her academic achievements were outstanding and she went on to study electrical engineering at Slovak Technical University, obtaining her MS in 1957 and PhD in 1967. That same year, she was offered the opportunity to go to Stanford University to study computer science. There she earned her second PhD.
At the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked for the next 30 years as professor and chair of computer science and engineering, she did research in many areas, including medical imaging. In 1979, she founded the General Robotics and Active Sensory Perception (GRASP) Lab, which, under her leadership, became a world-renowned research centre. In the early 2000s, she joined the University of California, Berkeley, as professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences.
Bajcsy is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science and the 2013 IEEE Robotics and Automation Award. Her current research focuses on artificial intelligence; biosystems and computational biology; control, intelligent systems and robotics; graphics and computer-human interaction, computer vision and security.
IEC International Standards prepared by IEC TC 47 and SC 47F are key to robotics. Several other TCs prepare standards that contribute to the safety and performance of modern robots. As for artificial intelligence, the IEC and ISO Joint Technical Committee, ISO/IEC JTC 1: Information technology, has set up ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 42, which carries out standardization activities in that field.
African-American women in the space race (1943–1958)
At the onset of World War II, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) — NASA’s predecessor — started hiring women as “human computers”, whose job was to do complex calculations. Those were done by hand, and often took a long time and many notebooks to complete. By the end of the war in in the 1950s there were hundreds of women working in aeronautical research.
In 1943, NACA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia began recruiting African-American women with college degrees to work as human computers. Segregation laws of the time forced them to form their own subgroup, totally isolated from the others. They were known as the West Area Computers because they were located in the west wing of the research center.
Their main responsibility was to process data, and on a number of occasions, they joined other teams to work on specific assignments. Nevertheless, many white women never knew about the West Area Computers. They were originally supervised by white women, but in 1949, Dorothy Vaughan became NACA’s first African-American supervisor in charge of the group.
Vaughan (1910–2008) was a mathematician who worked at Langley from 1943 through her retirement in 1971. She prepared for the transition to machine computers in the early 1960s, teaching herself and her staff the FORTRAN programming language and in later years, she headed the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD).
NACA recruited Mary Jackson (1921–2005) in 1951 as a research mathematician — human computer — at Langley where she worked under Vaughan. In 1953 she worked for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. He encouraged her to pursue her studies. Jackson was allowed to attend mathematics and physics night classes offered by the University of Virginia and originally reserved to white students. In 1958, she was promoted to aerospace engineer, NASA’s first black female engineer. Over the years she worked in several NASA divisions, obtaining the most senior position within the engineer division and as of 1979, she decided to take a demotion to be able to work on gender equality and affirmative action programmes to influence the career paths of women in science, engineering, and mathematics positions at NASA.
Mathematician Katherine Johnson (1918-) joined the West Area Computing group in 1953. She was subsequently reassigned to Langley’s Flight Research Division, where she performed notable work including providing the trajectory analysis for astronaut John Glenn’s MA-6 Project Mercury orbital spaceflight. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from President Obama. The work of all three women (Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson) is featured in the book and film Hidden Figures.
Ursula Keller (1959-) — ultrafast laser tech
Swiss scientist and inventor Ursula Keller discovered how to turn continuous laser light into ultrafast laser pulses, a technological breakthrough that was recognized twice in 2018: she received the European Inventor Award for “Lifetime achievement” from the European Patent Office, and the IEEE Photonics Award.
Keller invented the semiconductor saturable absorber mirror (SESAM) in 1992 while working at AT&T Bell Laboratories, which, at the time, had the leading and best-equipped lab in Keller’s field. Her invention gave science, industry and the medical sector an instrument of unprecedented precision — laser bursts that last from picoseconds (10–12seconds) to femtoseconds (10–15 seconds) and can be repeated up to several billion times a second.
In the medical field, Femto-LASIK for eye surgery, based on Keller’s technology, is able to make the tiniest of incisions with no risk of damaging nearby tissue. The ultrafast laser can cut away cancerous tissue without searing neighbouring healthy cells.
The technology is used in other sectors and has opened up numerous production and material-processing applications essential to, among others, the automotive and electronics industries. Most ultrashort lasers today utilize her SESAM mode-locking technology for optical communication, precision measurements, microscopy, ophthalmology, and micromachining applications. Her invention has had an impact on our everyday communications: smartphones wouldn’t exist without short-pulsed lasers.
Keller also works in the field of quantum physics and has developed a clock, the attoclock, that can measure attoseconds (10−18 seconds or one quintillionth of a second). Another significant breakthrough in her career happened in 1993 when Keller became the first woman offered a university professorship in the natural sciences faculty at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich, Switzerland.
In 2018, she said to Swiss newspaper Le Temps: “ETH had a few women professors in architecture and pharmacy but I was the first in hard sciences. I had totally underestimated what it was like to be in a man-only environment. It proved to be very difficult in the sense that, for example, important information was only discussed in insiders’ clubs, from which women were excluded.”
Keller is Director of NCCR MUST, an interdisciplinary research programme launched by the Swiss National Science Foundation in 2010. The programme brings together 16 Swiss research groups working in molecular ultrafast science and technology (MUST) across the fields of physics and chemistry.
Established in 1972, IEC TC 76: Optical radiation safety and laser equipment, is recognized as the leading body on laser standardization in this technical area. It also provides guidance to other TCs preparing standards for products containing optical radiation sources.
Xóchitl Guadalupe Cruz López (2009-) — solar heater
In February 2018, Xóchitl Guadalupe Cruz López, then aged eight, received the prestigious Women’s Recognition Award from the Institute of Nuclear Science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). This was the first time the prize, which recognizes women’s contributions to science, was awarded to a child. Her achievement: a solar water heater made entirely from discarded objects such as hoses, logs, and glass panels retrieved from a former construction site. With her father’s help, she installed the heater on the roof of her house in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
For more than half her life — i.e. since she was four –Cruz López has participated in scientific workshops through PAUTA, the “Adopt a Talent” programme, an initiative promoted by UNAM to bring science education to Mexican children and teenagers where educators, psychologists and scientists mentor students from school to university. Cruz López has benefited greatly from this initiative and several of her projects, all with high social impact, won prizes.
In August last year, Cruz López was a special guest and speaker at an educational forum in Chiapas, attended by then President Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador. She pled with him to save PAUTA, which faced possible closure due to lack of funding.
With her invention, Cruz López wanted to create a solution that was good for the environment and for low-income families in her community of Chiapas. She hopes to get support, in training and material, to help her neighbors in the near future.
The women and girl featured above have set the bar very high — they have all overcome many obstacles to succeed in their field. Their stories are uplifting and inspiring and should encourage a new generation of women to follow their example.