Modern-day scientists don't spend much time in the spotlight. After hearing that most Americans could not name even one living scientist, Auburn biologist David Steen started the hashtag #actuallivingscientist. While this effort will not lead to movie-star-like fame, it could help put a human face on science and bring a bit more attention to the kind of research that's being done today.
A related social media trend, #womaninscience, highlights the work that female scientists, a minority in the research community, do. This goes along with a push for a greater focus on STEM education for girls.
Modern-day female scientists are, indeed, doing groundbreaking work in fields like medicine, astronomy and mathematics. Here are 10 of the most impressive woman scientists working today.
Cori Bargmann is uncovering the interaction between genes and human behavior. (Photo: The Rockefeller University)
Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann is a neurobiologist who studied at the University of Georgia and MIT. Bargmann is now based at Rockefeller University where she uses a seemingly simple, unique and effective approach to studying the interaction between genetic makeup and behavior. Bargmann uses roundworms, whose genetic mechanisms are similar to those in mammals, to study these interactions. After manipulating certain genes in the worms, Bargmann is able to observe and record how the behavior of the creatures changes.
The correlation between genes and brain function is interesting in and of itself, but Bargmann’s research has very practical applications. She has developed the Brain Research Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative (BRAIN Initiative) to study how brain function, genes and neural pathways affect people with diseases like Alzheimer's, PTSD and autism.
Sara Seager is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT. Her name might sound familiar to some readers because she has been featured frequently in magazines like Popular Science, Time and Nature.
Seager’s work is focused on extra-solar planets (or exoplanets), which are bodies that orbit around stars other than the sun, and as she mentions in the video above, "We know, statistically speaking, that every star has at least one planet [orbiting it.]"
Seager’s analysis of these planets has led to theories about their atmospheres and interiors. One of the main goals of this kind of research is to find planets with conditions that are suitable for life. In addition to her astronomy work, Seager is involved in projects to send low-cost probes to some of these far-off, potentially Earth-like planets.
Katie Hunt fought cancer and now is a leader in a new field: paleo-oncology. (Photo: Pacific Lutheran)
Archeologist Katie Hunt is involved in one of the most unusual fields of research in the world of science. She is one of the founding members of the Paleo-Oncology Research Organization. This group traces cancer's roots all the way back to ancient times. Hunt has found evidence of cancer in skeletal remains that are over 8,000 years old. One of the goals of her work is to create an open-source database of her findings so that scientists from different fields can study biological, cultural, social and environmental history as it relates to cancer.
Hunt, a cancer survivor, has been recognized for her creative approach to archeology and disease research. However, the field of paleo-oncology is very new. Scientific and ethical standards have not yet been clearly defined for this kind of research. Nonetheless, Hunt’s work has helped to create a more complete picture of all the factors related to cancer.
Gretchen Daily is the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, the same school where she received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. Daily, also the founder of the Natural Capital Project, focuses on harmonizing conservation and industry and on putting a practical value on nature, which she talks about in the video above. Her research revolves around how changes in biodiversity could create changes in the “services” that nature provides to humans (in terms of everything from business to quality of life).
The ultimate goal of this work is to make conservation issues an important variable in all major political and business decisions. To this end, Daily works with economists, lawyers, politicians, business executives and landowners.
Emily Levesque was educated at MIT and the University of Hawaii. She now works as an astronomer at the University of Washington. Levesque studies massive stars, both through computer models and observation, in order to gain a greater understanding of the origins of galaxies. Levesque’s models and theories about galaxy formation have helped other scientists form the basis of their own research.
While still an undergraduate at MIT, Levesque discovered some of the largest stars in the galaxy. They were estimated to be 1 billion miles in diameter and weigh 25 times more than the sun. These discoveries earned her praise from the astronomy community and helped set her research career in motion at a relatively early age.
Nina Tandon heads a company that is growing human bone. (Photo: TED)
Nina Tandon is a biomedical engineer who first studied electrical engineering. As an undergraduate student, she built an electronic musical instrument that was played using the human body’s electromagnetic waves. This same kind of creative thinking made her one of the foremost pioneers in the biotech industry. Tandon, the author of a book called "Super Cells: Building with Biology," now heads a company called EpiBone.
EpiBone grows human bone to use in skeletal reconstructions. The process involves scanning the damaged or defective bone in the patient and then using the patient’s own stem cells to grow a graft that can be inserted to correct the problem. Using the patient’s own stem cells eliminates problems associated with implanting artificial materials and also speeds recovery time.
Lisa Ng, educated and based in Singapore, earned her scientific reputation as a virologist in the early 2000s. Her work involved creating reliable and sensitive diagnostic tools for some of the deadliest viruses of recent history: SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and H5N1 (also known as Avian Flu). She received her PhD in molecular virology in 2002, only a short time before the height of the SARS outbreak.
Ng now helps with infectious disease preparedness in Southeast Asia and studies lesser known infectious diseases like the chikungunya virus (carried by the same mosquito that transmits dengue fever). She was also the lead virologist on a project to develop a biochip that can diagnose 13 different tropical diseases, including malaria, quickly and accurately.
Maryam Mirzakhani, a math professor at Stanford, is the first woman to receive the Fields Medal. (Photo: YouTube)
Maryam Mirzakhani, a math professor at Stanford, was awarded the Fields Medal (sometimes described as the Nobel Prize for mathematicians) in 2014. Even though the award dates to 1936, Mirzakhani was the first woman ever to receive the honor. Born and raised in Iran before enrolling in Harvard, she was also the first person of Persian descent to win the medal.
Much of Mirzakhani’s work involves complex geometry. She focuses on things like understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces. Though these subjects are seen as “pure mathematics” (abstract concepts without any obvious real world applications), they could have uses in materials sciences, engineering and even cryptography and quantum field theory.
Carolyn Porco is a veteran planetary scientist. She was a part of the famed Voyager mission, during which a probe was sent to the far ends of the solar system. Voyager gave astronomers the first up close look at Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus. Porco is currently the lead imaging scientist for the Cassini mission, which is orbiting Saturn collecting data on the planet’s rings and other features.
Porco is considered one of the foremost experts on the outer solar system. She is most recognized for her studies of Saturn's rings and moons. She has published more than 100 articles in scientific journals detailing her findings. Porco is also often featured in the media. She is a public speaker and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian.
German neuroscientist Katrin Amunts is one of the world’s most prominent brain mapping experts. Her research focuses on, among other things, creating a complete, multimodal atlas of the human brain that scientists can use to better understand how the different parts of the brain interact with and affect one another.
The result of Amunts’ work is something called BigBrain. This is an ultra-high-resolution, incredibly detailed 3-D model of the human brain. The renderings help scientists gain a new understanding of the factors that lead to widespread diseases like clinical depression, Alzheimer's, dementia and addiction.