National Math + Science Initiative Blog


Celebrating influential women in STEM

Women have made great strides in the past 100 years. From winning the right to vote to becoming major political figures, women have left their mark across history. Despite these accomplishments, women are still falling behind in efforts to narrow the gap in STEM jobs according the US News/ Raytheon STEM Index. Women are earning more STEM degrees each year but are struggling to keep up with their male counterparts. As we look to the future and strive the close the gender gap, it is important to take a step back and recognize the talented women who broke down barriers in the past.

 Since its debut in January, millions of people have seen the film “Hidden Figures,” which highlights the story of Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson.  These women were amongst the hundreds hired by NASA (then NACA) to serve as “human computers,” the job title designated for someone who performed mathematical equations and calculations by hand.

 Mary Jackson 

Mary Jackson began her career as a schoolteacher and took on several other jobs before joining NACA as a computer. During her career as a computer, Jackson specialized in reducing data from wind tunnel experiments and from actual aircraft data on the many flight experiments NACA was involved with. Jackson became known amongst the other computers for helping other women advance their careers by advising them in their pursuit of educational opportunities.


Katherine Johnson

When West Virginia decided to integrate its graduate schools, West Virginia State’s president offered Katherine Johnson and two male students the first spots at the school. While Johnson quickly accepted the offer, she later left and reentered the workforce. Her lengthy career at NACA began working with data from flight tests, but she later played a larger role in the Mercury missions, during which she did trajectory analysis for Shepard's Freedom 7 mission in 1961, and (at John Glenn's request) did the same job for his orbital mission in 1962.


Dorothy Vaughan

Dorthy Vaughan came to NACA from Farmville, VA, where she began her career as a high school math teacher. Although her initial role at NACA during WWII was a temporary position, two years later President Roosevelt signed an executive order into law prohibiting racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the country's defense industry. NACA began hiring black women to meet the skyrocketing demand for processing aeronautical research data. Although she and her black colleagues had to work separately from the white computers during the beginning of her career, Vaughan later went on to become an expert programmer and the first black supervisor.

 “[Jackson’s, Johnson’s and Vaughan’s] stories are extraordinary and so inspirational - they provide a wonderful insight into the power of hard work, determination and persistence in achieving your dreams as displayed by these amazing role models.” said Karen Miksch, a Calculus Content Specialist at NMSI. “I recently saw the new movie, and so the three women highlighted in it stick out in my mind as women in STEM history whom I admire.”

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. She began her career, like many other women during the time, teaching at a local school. During her time as a teacher, she boarded with the families of two southern physicians who mentored her and inspired her to pursue a medical degree. Blackwell was ultimately admitted to Geneva College in rural New York, even though her acceptance letter was intended as a practical joke. Blackwell faced discrimination and obstacles in college. Professors forced her to sit separately at lectures and often excluded her from labs and local townspeople shunned her as a “bad” woman for defying her gender role. Blackwell graduated first in her class in 1849 (becoming the first woman to do so) and eventually went on to open her own medical college for women.

“To me, Elizabeth Blackwell is a great modern champion of STEM,” explained Charla Holzbog, NMSI’s Math Director. “She persevered through so much discrimination and never let it intimidate her or hinder her desire to learn.”


Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin is perhaps one of the most controversial women in STEM, with much debate surrounding her life and work. Franklin was responsible for much

of the research and discovery work that led to understanding of the structure of DNA. In January 1951, Franklin began working at King's College in London in the biophysics unit, where she used her expertise and X-ray diffraction techniques on DNA fibers. During this time, Franklin made an amazing discovery. Through one of her X-ray diffraction pictures of DNA, she discovered that DNA was made up of two separate forms. This picture, which became known as Photograph 51, became famous as critical evidence in identifying the structure of DNA.

“Franklin is so interesting to me,” said Mary Payton, NMSI’s Science Content Specialist. “Even though [James] Watson and [Francis] Crick took credit for the discovery, she didn’t let that discourage her from stopping. She continued to work in the field, even though she was battling ovarian cancer. Talk about perseverance!”

NMSI is committed to working to ensure that the next generation of women in STEM is more expansive, but embodies the same hard-working spirit of their predecessors. Through our College Readiness Program, female students earning qualifying AP scores exceed the national average by more than five times. We are working to ensure that every student has the knowledge and skills to continue to break down barriers and inspire the next generation. Tell us which women in STEM, past or present, inspires you.  

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