Earlier this week, I wrote a post about a European Commission video that encourages girls to get involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. At the suggestion of my editor, I decided to follow up that post with one about some of the most notable female scientists of our time. Little did I know what an undertaking this would be! Sure, there are the traditional and not-to-be-overlooked female pioneers in science such as Marie Curie, Rachel Carson, Grace Hopper and Rosalind Franklin. All amazing women who have made major contributions to science as we know it.

And then there are the women who are working in STEM fields today. For that list, I could have written hundreds of blog posts — each including bios of women who are breaking barriers, thinking outside the box, and excelling in fields that are still largely dominated by men. To keep it manageable, I present to you this list of nine pioneering female scientists. These nine are just a small sample of women who are changing the way science happens around the world. This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list or even a list of the top female scientists of today. Rather, I hope this list piques your curiosity (as it did mine) and sends you off and running in search of more info on the women who are breaking ground in their scientific endeavors.  

Jane GoodallJane Goodall

No list of female scientists would be complete without mention of Jane Goodall, the British anthropologist and primatologist best known for her discovery of tool-making among chimpanzees. In July 1960, at the age of 26, Jane Goodall traveled from England to Africa and began studying wildlife with nothing more than a notebook and a pair of binoculars. Her groundbreaking research redefined the way see chimpanzees and other mammals. Today, Goodall spends most of her time traveling to advocate on behalf of chimpanzees and the environment. 

"Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference."

Shirley Ann JacksonShirley Ann Jackson

American physicist Shirley Ann Jackson was the first African American women to earn a doctorate from MIT in nuclear physics. Her work significantly contributed to the understanding of charged density waves in layered compounds, polaronic aspects of electrons in the surface of liquid helium films, and optical and electronic properties of semiconductor strained-layer superlattices. In 1995, Jackson was appointed by then President Bill Clinton to serve as chairman of the U.S.. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), becoming the first woman and first African American to hold that position.

"Aim for the stars so that you can reach the treetops, and at least you'll get off the ground." — Jackson quotes her father as saying

Mae JemisonMae Jemison

Mae Jemison is an American physician and NASA astronaut who was the first black woman to travel in space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on Sept. 12, 1992. 

“When I grew up, in the 1960s, the only American astronauts were men. Looking out the window of that space shuttle, I thought if that little girl growing up in Chicago could see her older self now, she would have a huge grin on her face.”

Vera RubinVera Rubin

An American astronomer, Vera Rubin studied galaxy rotation curves and uncovered the discrepancies that led to the theory of dark matter. Her research suggests that 90 percent of the mass in the universe remains unseen. She is a considered a leading expert on the movement of stars in galaxies.

"Does Sex Matter? Of course it does. But does it matter enough to Matter? That's a different question."

Lene HauLene Hau

Danish physicist Lene Hau led a team of Harvard University scientists who were able to slow down and then eventually stop a beam of light. She has also conducted research on ultra cold atoms, nanoscopic scale systems, and the transference of matter into light.

"Neither of my parents had any background in science. My father was in the heating business and my mother worked in a store. But both of them believed in giving me the same advantages as my brother, which was very important to my education."

Lisa RandallLisa Randall

American physicist Lisa Randall is a leading expert on particle physics, cosmology and the string theory. Her work at attempting to explain the fabric of the universe led to models outlining the extra dimensions of space.  

"It's hubris to think that the way we see things is everything there is."

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Burnell is a British astrophysicist best known for her discovery of the first radio pulsars. In a bit of controversy, Burnell's postodoctorate thesis supervisor was one of the recipients of the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics for this work, but Burnell was not recognized as a co-recipient. Burnell is a former president of the Royal Astronomical Society as well as the Institute of Physics.

"One of the things women bring to a research project, or indeed any project, is they come from a different place, they've got a different background. Science has been named, developed, interpreted by white males for decades and women view the conventional wisdom from a slightly different angle — and that sometimes means they can clearly point to flaws in the logic, gaps in the argument, they can give a different perspective of what science is."

Ruzena BajcsyRuzena Bajcsy

Ruzena Bajcsy is a Czech-born computer scientist and electrical engineer who helped create robots that could sense and respond to their environment. She is currently working on developing low-powered sensors that can monitor energy consumption in buildings, watch for forest fires, or keep track of people, for example Alzheimer's patients who are prone to wandering away from home. 

"If I am greedy, I am greedy after knowledge. I want to know more. I always feel that there’s just not enough time to learn enough."

Sylvia EarleSylvia Earle

Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer, diver and the founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER), a research group that designs robotic sub sea systems. She has campaigned for public awareness of the need to protect ocean systems for more than 30 years.

"If people understand how important the ocean is and how it influences our daily lives, they'll be inclined to protect it, not just for its sake but for our own." 

Photo credits

Jane Goodall

Shirley Ann Jackson

Mae Jemison

Vera Rubin

Lene Hau

Lisa Randall

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Ruzena Bajcsy

Sylvia Earle

9 female trailblazers in science
Meet some the women who are changing the face of modern science.