There Are Plenty More ‘Hidden Figures’

Contributed by Robin Stevens Payes

The book and subsequent movie “Hidden Figures” brought to light true stories about a group of black women mathematicians and polymaths who were instrumental in the NASA’s (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) success in the 1960s Space Race -- putting the first Americans on to the moon on the back of their calculations.

To the stars of the movie, and most of the country, we had no idea of the vital role these women played.

Marie Curie, Sally Ride and Rachel Carson are among the best-known women in STEM, but there are so many “hidden” women in science and technology history.

Here are a few whose achievements are worth highlighting:  

Émilie du Châtelet
The 18th-century French Marquise du Châtelet’s many accomplishments were eclipsed by being known mostly for her decades-long love affair with Voltaire. But she was also a noted physicist, philosopher and mathematician, and the first to translate Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia into French in a translation still in use. Not only were her ideas present in some of the most noted French Enlightenment texts such as Diderot’s Encyclopedie, but she also help shape Newtonian mathematics through study of kinetic energy of motion. Not only that but, as a young woman, she challenged the court duel master, and won, duels at the court of Louis XV to afford textbooks that would further her studies.

Mae Jemison
The first African-American woman astronaut, Mae Jemison is also a computer programmer, medical researcher, engineer, and reproductive biologist. After working as a medical officer in Sierra Leone and West Africa with the Peace Corps, she was recruited by NASA. Jemison participated in bone cell research during her more than half a decade career with the organization.

Ada Lovelace
Have you ever thought that those who have innovated today’s advances in computer science may be standing on a woman’s shoulders? Ada Lovelace is credited with writing the first lines of computer code in the 1800s, making her the world’s first computer programmer. (And as a nod to STEAM education, Ada Lovelace’s father was the famed English poet Lord Byron.)

Patricia Bath
A groundbreaking opthamologist, Bath not only founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness but was also the first African-American woman to, as a doctor, receive a patent related to medicine. Her invention, a laser used in cataract surgeries, is now an international standard in medical device technology. The Laserphaco Probe is just one of four patents Bath holds.

Kalpana Chawla
The first Indian woman in space, Chawla broke down barriers in the sciences for Asian women. Honored with Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, Chawla earned a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering before completing cited work on aerodynamic optimization. She even operated robotics in space across two space missions.  

Calutron Girls
Among the women who joined the workforce after World War II were a group of women instrumental in the development of atomic weaponry. The rub, though? They weren’t told what they were looking for. Throughout their work with the Manhattan Project, the Calutron Girls monitored or operated calutrons, or uranium isotope separating mass spectrometers that helped identify and enrich these isotopes.

Rosalind Franklin
The winners of the Nobel Prize in 1962 found deoxyribonucleic acid on the back of Rosalind Franklin’s work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA molecules. Although she also studied coal and graphite through her work as a chemist, her groundbreaking work as an X-ray crystallographer went largely unrecognized until much after her passing from ovarian cancer. In fact, the Nobel Prize-winning team that discovered DNA, Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, admitted that without Franklin’s work, their discovery would have been impossible.

Ana Roqué de Duprey
A Puerto Rican feminist and author, de Duprey is a shining example of the impact of the ‘A’ in achievements in STEM. Beyond her passion for astronomy and her founding of the first women-only magazine in Puerto Rico, she also wrote the standard geography text of the island which was widely adopted across the island.

woman on cliff overlooking viewWhat does this wildly incomprehensive list teach us? That the impact of women on science, technology, engineering, and math is far-reaching. And it’s far from over. Look out for these names in the news: Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe. Chief Operating Officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg. Nancy Abu-Bonsrah as Johns Hopkins’ first black woman neurosurgeon or MIT-grad and Harvard Ph.D. candidate Sabrina Pasteriski who is heralded as the next Einstein.

These are but a few of the female superheroes whose STEM contributions exceed their visibility. Who will be the STEM heroes of tomorrow?

By recognizing the hidden figures of the past, we may inspire the girls of today to  become tomorrow’s STEM superheroes. Let’s make sure their achievements are not hidden from history.  

Robin Stevens Payes is a Maryland-based author, science writer, and consultant in social marketing specializing in health, science and education. The author of Edge of Yesterday, a novel about girls in STEM, and creator of a learning through story platform based on the novel.