5 Badass Scientists You’ve Probably Never Heard Of — But Should Have (Part 2)
4. Annie Easley
#Mathematician #ComputerProgrammer #RocketScientist.
Born in 1933 in the US.
Alabama, where Annie was born and raised by a single mother, was not the easiest place to be an African-American woman in the 30s. But she was an ambitious, driven and generous young girl who would not take no for an answer. There was a law preventing African-Americans from voting without taking a “voting test”: Annie gave classes for this test in her home. She wanted to become a nurse and studied pharmacy in New Orleans. After a few years, Annie got married and moved to Cleveland, where she discovered that the School of Pharmacy had shut down, to her severe disappointment. The closest pharmacy school was miles away from her new home and she decided to stay near her husband. One day, in the newspaper, Annie read about the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the ancestor of NASA. She drove there the next day and was hired to work as a computer — yes, the same human computers that are featured in Hidden Figures (go see it if you haven’t!!). When computer machines arrived at NASA, Annie became a programmer and used FORTRAN and other languages to develop and implement code that was used “in researching energy-conversion systems, analyzing alternative power technology — including the battery technology that was used for early hybrid vehicles, as well as for the Centaur upper-stage rocket”. After a few years there, Annie decided to switch careers from pharmacy to mathematics. She returned to school while working full-time (!!) and earned her mathematics degree at Cleveland State University in 1977. By the way, in an interview, she said: “I’d like to just throw in here at this time that I tell people that it doesn’t matter what your age is or what you decide to do when you’re eighteen or sixteen, it doesn’t matter if you change your mind later on and change fields, because we need to be flexible.” Besides her main tasks, Annie was also tutoring school students, recruiting for NASA and working as its Equal Employment Opportunity officer during her time there. She did a lot of work trying to inspire students, in particular women and minorities, to consider STEM careers. Annie always considered her mother to be her greatest role model, and strongly believed in what she taught her as a child: “You can be anything you want to be, but you have to work at it.”
#inspo: “When people have their biases and prejudices, yes, I am aware. My head is not in the sand. But my thing is, if I can’t work with you, I will work around you. I was not about to be so discouraged that I’d walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it’s not mine.”
#funfact: Annie was president of NASA’s skiing club (#random)
5. Maryam Mirzakhani
Born in 1977 in Iran.
Maryam was born in Tehran and, growing up, she was always reading novels and wanted to become a writer. Although times were tough during the Iran-Iraq war, she lived in a happy household with very supportive parents and felt encouraged to pursue her dreams throughout her childhood. Maryam was not particularly interested in science until her older brother told her about a mathematical problem: how to add up numbers from 1 to 100. Maryam was fascinated by this problem and immediately found beauty in Gauss’ elegant mathematical solution. In high school, Maryam met Roya Beheshti, who became a very close friend. They shared the same interests and spent hours perusing the shelves of Tehran’s bookstores — still today, Maryam recognizes how important it is to have a close friend that understands you (Roya became a mathematics professor at Washington University in St. Louis). It helped her stay motivated. Maryam completed her Ph.D. at Harvard in 2004 and is currently professor of mathematics at Stanford University where she spends most of her time working on geometric structures on surfaces and their deformations.
Aged 17, Maryam won a gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad — a first for an Iranian girl. One year later she won two gold medals at this same competition and was the first Iranian student to achieve a perfect score. At only 39, she has already received many awards during her career, the most important one being the Fields Medal: Maryam was the very first woman — and first Iranian — to receive this prestigious award (highest scientific award for mathematicians) for her work in 2014. She said in an interview that to her, discussing mathematics with colleagues of different backgrounds was one of the most productive ways of making progress.
#inspo: “”I like crossing the imaginary boundaries people set up between different fields — it’s very refreshing. There are lots of tools, and you don’t know which one would work. It’s about being optimistic and trying to connect things.”
#funfact: When she received the email saying that she was receiving the Fields Medal, Maryam assumed that the sender’s account had been hacked (it had not, obviously).
All these exceptional scientists have been featured in the very inspiring book “Women in Science — 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world”, written and beautifully illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky (you can buy it on Amazon!).
Bonus: Pierre and Marie Curie
The other day, I was watching an episode of the new TV show “Genius” — about the life of the (kind of famous) scientist Albert Einstein (by the way I really recommend it — it’s fascinating!). One scene particularly interested me: I decided to read more about it and was really inspired by what I think is a true #HeForShe episode in the history of science. It’s about Pierre and Marie Curie — here’s their story.
Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867 and was given physics and chemistry lessons from her father very early on. Brilliant student, she dreamed of studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, as advanced studies were not possible for women in Poland at the time. At 24, Marie was finally able to pursue her dream and came to Paris to study mathematics and physics. There, she met the well-known physicist Pierre Curie — and the rest is history. Pierre and Marie immediately discovered an intellectual affinity and later on fell in love and got married in 1895. The scientific journey of the couple is absolutely captivating. Their work on radioactivity was revolutionary — they discovered a new metal that they called Polonium and later on another new element that they called Radium. They were awarded half the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.” (Henri Becquerel was awarded the other half for his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity). And here’s the #HeForShe episode. Originally, Marie was not nominated for the Nobel Prize: only her husband Pierre. Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, who was an advocate for the cause of women scientists, wrote to Pierre to tell him about the situation. Pierre replied “If it is true that one is seriously thinking about me [for the Nobel Prize], I very much wish to be considered together with Madame Curie with respect to our research on radioactive bodies.” He basically refused to be considered for the Prize if his wife was not nominated with him. Some strings were pulled, and a nomination of Marie Curie in 1902 was validated for 1903.
For the record, Marie Curie was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911, after her husband sadly passed away in 1906, “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”