5 Influential Women in STEM

We look at some of the most influential women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries.

Article By: Francesca Burke
Last Update: October 2018

Margaret Hamilton (b. 17th August 1936), Computer Scientist and Software Engineer

A professor of mathematics, Margaret Hamilton worked as a software programmer on the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment system, a weather mapping project in Massachusetts, America, in the early 1960s. She then moved to NASA to work on the Apollo 11 mission as lead developer for the Apollo flight software. One of Hamilton’s software tweaks prevented the 1969 moon landing from hitting a potentially catastrophic snag: she programmed the software to prioritise commands when overloaded with tasks. On the day of the moon landing, several computer alarms were triggered, but thanks to Hamilton’s programming, engineers could easily see that the issue wasn’t critical, so the landing proceeded.

At the time of the moon landing, software engineering and computer science were relatively new disciplines; Hamilton is credited with coming up with the term ‘software engineering’. After her work with NASA ended in the 1980s, Hamilton founded her own software businesses. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2016.

Margaret Hamilton standing next to a stack of books

Dr. Mae Jemison (b. 17th October 1956), Physician, Engineer, NASA Astronaut

Dr Mae Jemison astronaut portrait

Born in Alabama in 1956, Mae Jemison pursued a career in biomedicine, serving in the Peace Corps from 1985-87. In 1987 she joined NASA to pursue a long-held dream of becoming an astronaut. Jemison was part of the flight on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992, becoming the first African American woman in space. Her work during the mission included experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness.

Jemison left NASA in 1993 and founded the Jemison Group, a company that develops technology for daily life. She is a regular public speaker, promoting the STEM subjects and education. She also became the first real-life astronaut to appear on Star Trek.

Ada Lovelace (10th December 1815 – 27th November 1852), Mathematician, Writer & Computer Programmer

Ada Lovelace (full name Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace) was a mathematician and writer. She worked on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine proposal, which was a proposed mechanical computer first started around 1833, and was the first person to realise the proposed computer had potential beyond calculation. She then published the first algorithm to be carried out by a machine and is therefore often regarded as the world’s first computer programmer. Her notes inspired Alan Turing’s work in the 1940s and she has become something of an icon for women in science.

Interestingly, Ada’s interest in science and mathematics was encouraged by her strict mother, Annabella Milbanke, who had a keen interest in science and wished to prevent Ada from developing the perceived insanity of her father, Romantic poet Lord Byron.

Every second Tuesday of October is now known as Ada Lovelace Day.

Ada Lovelace portrait

Grace Hopper (9th December 1906-1st January 1992), Computer Programmer & United States Navy Rear Admiral

Born in New York City in 1906, Grace Hopper became one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934. A professor at Vasser University, Hopper joined the US Navy at the outbreak of World War II, where she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University. She worked on a precursor of the electronic computer, known as Mark 1. After the war, she devised the first ‘compiler’, chunks of code that could make computer programming easier. She added the compilers to a library, essentially compiling the first open source software. This helped pave the way for the distinction between hardware and software.

Hopper retired from the navy with the rank of commander in 1966, but returned to active duty the next year to help standardise the US Navy’s computer languages. She retired again in 1986 and, aged 79, was then the oldest officer on active US Naval duty. Hopper died in 1992 and in 2016 was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Grace Hopper

Chien-Shiung Wu (31st May 1912-16th February 1997), Experimental Physicist

Born in the Chinese province of Jiangsu in China in 1912, Chien-Shiung Wu was educated by her family, who promoted girls’ education, and showed an early aptitude for physics. After graduating from the National Central University in Nanking, China, in 1936 Wu traveled to the United States to pursue graduate studies in physics at the University of California.

During World War II Wu worked on the Manhattan Project, helping to develop the process for separating uranium. She continued her work in physics after the war, and in 1956 conducted an experiment that contradicted the hypothetical law of conservation of parity. The experiment became known as the Wu Experiment and earned her colleagues the 1957 Nobel Prize. Wu was controversially excluded, but she did win the 1958 Wolf Prize in Physics. Wu became known as ‘the First Lady of Physics’ and ‘the Chinese Madame Curie’.

Dr Chien-Shiung Wu

We hope you found this an interesting insight into some of the most influential women in STEM. Have anything to add? Leave a comment!

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