10 Accomplished Women in Science

By: Lucy Core & Mila Selmic

We want to highlight 10 female scientists who led their respective fields and are inspiring future scientists!


Ada Lovelace (1815 - 1852) was an English mathematician and the first computer programmer. In Lovelace’s early life, her mother insisted that she receive a thorough mathematical education, even though it was highly uncommon for women of her time to be so highly educated. Lovelace later worked and studied alongside Charles Babbage, who is credited for inventing the first automatic computer. She was the first person to discover that codes could be created to solve complex problems and that computers could follow instructions through code. Therefore, Lovelace is considered to have been the first computer programmer, paving the way for women to be accepted in the world of science and technology (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 1999).

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Sofia Kovalevskya (1850-1891) was a Russian mathematician known for her work in partial differential equations and mechanics. She received her PhD from the University of Gottingen and was the first woman to earn a doctorate degree in mathematics. A pioneer for women in mathematics, Kovalevskya was also the first woman to be appointed as Full Professor in Northern Europe (she worked at the University of Stockholm) and the first woman to work as an editor for a scientific journal. In addition to a mathematician, Kovalevskya was a writer and women’s rights activist.

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Mileva Marić (1875-1948) was an accomplished Serbian physicist and mathematician. Best known as Albert Einstein’s first wife, there is evidence that the two often collaborated on projects and that Marić played a substantial role in his research. She attended the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich with Einstein, where they both received equally high grades in the physics-mathematics sector. When the two met, Einstein’s family tried to convince him not to marry, since Mileva seemed too-educated. Marić assumed many of the household tasks when the couple had children, but she still continued to solve complex physics problems with her husband during her free time. Although Marić was not recognized nearly enough for her accomplishments, those who knew her said that she was a brilliant, hardworking scientist, who was the behind-the-scenes supporting force of Einstein’s greatest accomplishments (Gagnon, 2016).

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Barbara McClintock (1902 - 1992) was an American scientist who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work in cytogenetics and molecular biology. She received her PhD from Cornell in 1927 studying Botany. McClintock is credited for discovering many important core concepts of molecular biology, such as the roles centromeres and telomeres in cells, the crossing over of chromosomes during meiosis, and ’jumping genes,’ or DNA transposons (Pray, 2008).

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Brenda Milner (1918- ) is a British-Canadian neuropsychologist best known for her contributions to memory research. She is often regarded as the “founder of neuropsychology.” Milner pursued her graduate studies at McGill University where she worked with a patient known as HM at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Due to severe epilepsy, Patient HM had the medial temporal lobes in both sides of his brain removed. Following the surgery, Milner conducted several experiments to uncover the consequences of the operation. Through careful and extensive evaluation, she discovered that humans have multiple memory systems which govern different functions such as language and motor skills. After earning her PhD in 1952, Milner continued to work with Patient HM until his death in 2008. Milner holds over 20 degrees and is the Dorothy J Killman Professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill. She recently celebrated her 102nd birthday, and still continues to take part in research activities.

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Evelyn Fox Keller (1936- ) born to an immigrant family, is an American physicist who worked as a Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Although Keller studied physics throughout her undergraduate and graduate studies, her later research focused on the intersection between biology and physics, as well as the philosophy of gender and science. Keller was a pioneer for women scientists by shedding light on the gender inequalities in higher education and critiquing the male dominated science field. Keller has also published more than ten books on a wide variety of topics, including feminism, physics, and biology.

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Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was a Kenyan biologist and environmental activist. In 2004, she became the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. She initiated the Green Belt Movement, which focuses on planting trees, environmental conservation and women’s rights. An inspiration to many, Maathai was also the first woman from East and Central Africa to obtain a doctorate degree in Biology (she attended the University of Nairobi) and was the first female professor in Kenya.

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Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (1947- ) is a French virologist, as well as the director of the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Division in Paris. Barré-Sinoussi was born in Paris, where she attended university and contributed to important work regarding the identification of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). The HIV crisis afflicted most of the world during the 1980s; the magnitude of its spread was largely due to the fact that there was no knowledge of this virus, and, therefore, no treatment. Barré-Sinoussi’s research earned her the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of HIV.

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Mae Jemison (1956- ) is an American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut. In 1987, out of a pool of approximately 2,000 applicants, she was one of fifteen people selected to be part of NASA’s Astronaut Group 12, the first group following the Challenger explosion. In 1992 after completing her training, she became the first Black woman to travel to space. She took flight for 8 days, logging 190 hours and orbiting Earth 127 times. During her mission, she worked on life science and materials processing experiments. Jemison retired from NASA in 1993 and has since founded several organizations including The Jemison Inc., The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, and BioSentient Corp, as well as worked as a Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College and Cornell University.

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Kim TallBear is an Associate Professor at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Native Studies. She is a descendant of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Okalahoma and was raised on the Flandreau Santee Sioux reservation in South Dakota. She has pursued many fields including environmental science, genetics, philosophy of science, anthropology, and indigenous studies. TallBear obtained her PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz where she worked with feminist philosopher of science, Donna Haraway. TallBear’s current work focuses on how the notions of race and indigeneity are so tightly intertwined with the field of genetics.


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©McGill Scientific Writing Initiative, 2020