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Women in STEM
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
Bessie Coleman was an American aviator, and the first African American woman and first Native American (Cherokee) to earn a pilot’s license. She was also the first Black person and first Native American to earn an international pilot’s license. Born into a family of sharecroppers, Coleman worked in the fields when she was young while attending school. She excelled in school, particularly in math, but was unable to train in the United States because neither women nor Black people were allowed to train in American flight schools.
Coleman saved money, earned scholarships, took a French class, and went to Paris where she earned her pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. After receiving her license, she trained in the Netherlands to learn aerial tricks and maneuvers so she could make a living performing in airshows. She impressed the crowds with her daring tricks, but also used her platform to fight racism and help create opportunities for other Black people to pursue aviation.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. Blackwell was born in Bristol, England in 1821. Her family moved to New York in 1832, and her family became interested in issues such as slavery, child labor, and women’s rights. These discussions had an important impact on Blackwell. She initially began teaching to support her family, but after a friend of hers became sick, she was inspired to pursue medicine.
Blackwell applied to medical schools, and was rejected from every school except Geneva Medical College, where she became the first woman to ever attend medical school in the United States. She graduated first in her class in 1849. Along with her sister Emily Blackwell, the third woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, she started the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American physicist who conducted important work in the field of nuclear physics. She received her PhD in physics in 1940, and became the first woman to teach in the Physics Department at Princeton. She also worked on the Manhattan Project, the research program during World War II which produced the world’s first nuclear weapons. With the project, Wu helped develop the process of separating the element uranium into different isotopes.
She is best known for the Wu experiment, a nuclear physics experiment which resulted in important contributions to physics. Her two male colleagues received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work, but Wu was not honored until nearly 20 years later when she was awarded the first ever Wolf Prize for her work. She is often called the “First Lady of Physics.”
Rachel Carson was an author and marine biologist whose book Silent Spring helped spark the environmental movement. Caron was born in 1907 in Pennsylvania, and began her career as a marine biologist. However, she began writing full time in the 1950s, with her 1951 book The Sea Around Us winning her a U.S. National Book Award.
In the late 1950s, Carson began writing about conservation. In particular, she was concerned about pesticides and the problems they could cause for the environment. Her book on the subject, Silent Spring, led to changes in US pesticide policies. It also sparked the environmental movement. Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Carter in 1980.
Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician whose calculations were critical to NASA’s first crewed spaceflights. From a young age, Johnson was talented in math and skipped several grades. She was in high school by the age of 13, and later graduated from West Virginia State College, where she had continued to excel in math. She went on to work as a teacher before working for NASA, where she started out analyzing data from flight tests.
Johnson went on to do the trajectory analysis for the 1961 mission Freedom 6, which was America’s first spaceflight with a human on board. Johnson did her most famous work in 1962 when she was called to check the equations that had been programmed into the computer by hand for the Friendship 7 mission. The astronaut would not fly unless Johnson herself checked the equations by hand. The flight was a success, and Johnson went on to help with various missions and author 26 research reports. Johnson worked for the Langley Research Center at NASA for 33 years - from 1953 to 1986. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by President Obama.
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell