Footnotes: Women in STEM

Women should have the freedom to aspire to greatness in STEM fields. But we should also have the right to be mediocre. #WomenInScience #WomenInSTEM

If you look through the hashtag #MedBikini on Twitter, you’ll find posts of physicians and medical professionals decrying the conduct of a recent study published in the Journal of Vascular Surgery. Three men (a vascular fellow, a medical student, and a medical school applicant) created dummy social media accounts to screen or stalk the social media pages of recent vascular surgery graduates for unprofessional or potentially unprofessional content.

Among the criteria were violations of health insurance and accountability laws, possession of drug paraphernalia, and uncensored profanity. “Unprofessional” also included controversial social comments on abortion and gun control, and inappropriate attire –specifically provocative posing in bikinis/swimwear. Not overt sexual poses, not partial nudity, not a one-piece swimsuit. Bikinis, in a pose that may have provoked two of the three male viewers. Gross.

This is a tiny peek into the long history of misogyny, conservatism, and erasure in science and medicine. It’s a symptom of a disease spanning the length of modern society.

This is the history of women in STEM.

Many brilliant women were treated as footnotes to another man’s legacy. Lovelace was a footnote to Lord Byron, Charles Babbage, and Luigi Menabrea. Lillian Gilbreth is spoken most often in conjunction with her husband. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) is the eternal what-could-have-been in the Watson and Crick model of biomolecular history. Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) needed a star-studded movie to bring her name to every household.

What made it even more frustrating is the amount of controversy and debate over attribution. Because these women were silenced by their contemporaries or ignored by the decades that followed, interest over their work only surfaced with active effort in the late 20th to 21st century. There are now many questions over whether these women truly deserved their accolades, or whether they were standing only on the sufferance of the men around them. 

This post is part of the same infographic series as Footnotes: Racism in medicine, which was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Anna Morandi, the Lady Anatomist (1714-1774) 

“This was discovered by me in my observations and I have found it always to be constant.” Morandi wrote the following words in her notes detailing the attachment of oblique eye muscles to the lachrymal sac and maxillary bone, an observation that went against the consensus of that time. 

As interest in the empirical and medical sciences grew in 18th century Bologna, Morandi and her husband led an intellectual resurgence in anatomy. The pair dissected hundreds of corpses and created beautiful anatomical wax sculptures. They also pioneered the systematic extraction of organ systems for isolated and detailed study.

Morandi became internationally famous for her scientific expertise and artistic skills, attracting many admirers, including the Bolognese pope and Empress Catherine the Great. She was later honored as the inventor and perfecter of anatomical preparations in wax. Morandi’s self-portrait in wax portrayed her in an aristocratic dress while dissecting the human brain.

Despite her fame and important discoveries, she made significantly less money compared to her male contemporaries. Morandi was unable to gain financial independence after her husband Giovanni Manzolini died in 1755.

Ada Lovelace, the visionary programmer (1815-1852)

“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal, as time will show.”

Augusta Ada Byron, also known as the Countess of Lovelace and daughter of famed poet Lord Byron, was heralded the “first computer programmer”. Born a century before the advent of the modern computer, Ada Lovelace had a deep love and talent for numbers and language at a young age. Later, she maintained correspondence with her friend and mentor Charles Babbage, the inventor of the “Difference Machine”.

In her 1843 interpretation and notes on Babbage’s “Analytical Engine”, her visionary mind articulated ideas on its possible applications, such as the calculation of “Bernoulli numbers”, the composition of music, and finally the science of complex operations now known as computing. 

Ada Lovelace’s ideas received little attention when she was alive. Her contributions to the field of computer science were noted only in the 1950s, when the computers she envisioned were finally being built.

Marie Curie, the Mother of Modern Physics (1867-1934)

“I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.”

Marie Curie was a French-Polish scientist who co-discovered polonium and radium, developed remedial treatments for cancer, and invented “Petite Curies”, small mobile x-rays used in the First World War. She won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics and the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which made her the first-ever recipient of two Nobel laureates. She died of aplastic anemia due to prolonged radiation exposure. 

This two-time Nobel Prize recipient was initially omitted from the 1903 nomination to the Nobel Committee. She was later discriminated for being a foreigner, vilified as a homewrecker, and called an opportunist after the death of her husband Pierre Curie in 1906. 

Lillian Moller Gilbreth, the First Lady of Engineering (1878-1972)

“What is there in the subject of psychology to demand the attention of the manager?”

Lillian Moller Gilbreth combined her expertise in psychology with the practice of management and industrial engineering. She was particularly concerned with the human aspect of automation. Along with her husband, she pioneered time-motion studies to improve efficiency in factories and surgical suites. She was known as “America’s First Lady of Engineering”. 

After the death of her husband Frank Gilbreth in 1924, Lillian Gilbreth faced significant discrimination in the male-dominated engineering field. As a result, she directed her skills towards the development of domestic management and home economics, inventing the now-ubiquitous foot-pedal trash can, refrigerator door shelves, and wall-light switches, among others. Her success propelled her to renown, and she continued her consulting business for large companies and even American presidents. 

The Gilbreth family inspired the work “Cheaper by the Dozen”. 

These are only four women in the long history of science. I highlighted the ways they are called now by society: the Mother of this-and-that, the First Lady of so-and-so. These women were exceptional and brilliant forces of nature that defied convention and systematic barriers.

As a consequence, many women today face what one author called “The Marie Curie Effect”. Women have to be geniuses of the same calibre as Marie Curie, maybe with the equivalent of two Nobel laureates, before they can earn a similar space in the scientific spotlight. While many men can get tenure and research grants even at mediocrity, women face greater pressures to excel.

Not everyone can stand to discover new elements or invent game-changing appliances. This is why I believe in a world where even mediocre women are welcome to participate in STEM.

Support #WomenInSTEM.

In the Philippines, only around 40% of STEM graduates are female. To properly answer the research questions they want to ask, Filipino scientists in general have more reasons to go abroad.

Off the top of my head, Reyna Reyes is an astrophysicist and data scientist known for her work proving Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on a galactic scale. But her research was conducted in the US –the tech infrastructure of our country needs more public investment to create similar impact. Now she’s back in the Philippines (and I think affiliated with Ateneo).

The FTW Foundation is a Philippine nonprofit providing scholarships for data science and AI training for women. Follow the lives of Filipino scientists at home and around the world through the blog PinoyScientists.

This has been a #GraphicDesignIsNotMyPassion project.

Queen shit. 👑

Check out the Footnotes tag for more.

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