Scientists of the Week!

A new tradition has emerged at SWiP Chats to highlight the work of some incredible scientists. Join us in celebrating the accomplishments of these incredible women, listed here in the order they were featured during SWiP Chats (most recent first).

Chien-Shiung Wu (吳健雄)

Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese American experimental nuclear physicist. She worked on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University where she helped develop a process of enriching uranium using a process called gaseous diffusion. In 1956 she designed and conducted the Wu experiment, which showed that parity conservation is violated by the weak interaction. The theoretical physicists who derived the concept of parity violation were awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics while Wu was awarded the 1978 Wolf Prize for her contribution.

Ellen Ochoa

In 1993 Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman to go to space, serving a nine-day mission on the Space Shuttle Discovery. She has since spent nearly 41 days in space and in 2013 she became the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She serves on the National Science Board and she is a classical flautist, having played with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. She brought a flute with her on her first space mission.

Carolyn Beatrice Parker

Carolyn Beatrice Parker was the first Black woman to earn a postgraduate degree in physics. She earned two Master’s degrees, one in mathematics at the University of Michigan and one in nuclear physics at MIT where she later became a postdoctoral fellow. From 1943 to 1947 she worked on the Dayton Project, the part of the Manhattan Project that focused on plutonium research. She was prevented from finishing her doctorate in physics as a result of leukemia, an occupational hazard associated with working on the Dayton Project.


As part of our special Halloween sPoOkY SWiP Chat, we featured Aglaonice, a Greek astronomer from the 2nd or 1st century B.C.E.. She made accurate predictions of the occurrences of lunar eclipses, and she was often called a sorceress for making the Moon disappear.

Andrea Ghez

Andrea Ghez recently won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object [black hole] at the centre of our galaxy”. She is the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. The prize is shared with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel. She is a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA and she is interested in learning about the gravitational interactions around the Galaxy’s supermassive black hole as a test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In 1995 she published a book called “You Can Be a Woman Astronomer” and she is a passionate swimmer.

Wang Zhenyi (王贞仪)

Wang Zhenyi was born in the 18th century China under the Qing dynasty. She published a book on mathematics, made models and predictions of solar and lunar eclipses, and was an accomplished poet, archer, and horsewomen. She did all this before the age of 29 when she passed away. There is a crater on Venus named after her. Below is one of her poems (credit: Wikipedia).

It’s made to believe,
Women are the same as Men;
Are you not convinced,
Daughters can also be heroic?

Ruth Ella Moore

Prof. Ruth Ella Moore was highlighted here for Black History Month. In 1933 she became the first African American woman to get a PhD in the natural sciences. She attended Ohio State University and was a professor of bacteriology at Howard University for 33 years. She was also an accomplished seamstress – see the post linked above for a look at some of her wonderful clothing designs!

Mary Golda Ross

Mary Golda Ross was an aerospace engineer and the first woman engineer to work for the Lockeed Corporation. She was also a Cherokee tribal member and is known as the first Native female engineer. She taught math and science in rural Oklahoma during the Great Depression and while at Lockeed she worked on the Agena Rocket program, developed design concepts for interplanetary space travel, and researched Earth-orbiting flights (both crewed and uncrewed) and satellite programs. She is depicted on the 2019 US Sacagawea dollar.

Mildred (Millie) Dresselhaus

The daughter of impoverished Polish Jewish immigrants, Millie Dresselhaus became an Institute Professor (the highest title awarded to faculty at MIT) and professor of physics and electrical engineering at MIT. She is also widely referred to as the “queen of carbon” for her work on various forms of carbon including carbon nanotubes and buckyballs. The list of awards she received is lengthy, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. She served as president of the American Physical Society (which created a fund in her name to empower women in science) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. During her career she worked extensively to improve the inclusion of women in STEM.

Sally Ride

Sally Ride was a physicist and the first American woman astronaut in space. She flew twice on the orbiter Challenger, worked at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, and became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. She also helped study the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. It was revealed in her obituary that she had been in a 27-year relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy, which would make her the first (known) LGBTQ astronaut, although she never openly acknowledged her inclusion in that community.

Henrietta Leavitt

Henrietta Leavitt worked as a “computer” at Harvard College Observatory where she closely examined photographic plates in order to catalog the brightnesses of stars. She is well known for her groundbreaking discovering the period-luminosity relationship of Cepheid variable stars, providing astronomers with an invaluable “standard candle” that is still widely used today to determine distances to galaxies and other astronomical objects.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Dame Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland. She discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967 as a post graduate student, after looking into “a bit of scruff” in her data. The discovery won the 1974 Nobel Prize, but Bell herself did not receive an award. She has been a devout Quaker throughout her life, stating that her religion and astronomy are “comfortable bedfellows.” In 2007, she was made a Dame, and has served as president of the Institute of Physics and Royal Astronomical Society. In 2018, she won the “Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics”, and used her prize money to form a graduate scholarship fund for female, minority, and refugee students in physics in the UK.

Shirley Ann Jackson

Dr. Jackson is the second African-American woman to receive a doctorate in Physics. Her career has taken her from academia to industry to politics. She first researched in particle physics in the 1970s, both at Fermilab and CERN, then studied theoretical semi-conductor physics at AT&T Bell Labs. She has served on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Bill Clinton, and on several advisory boards under President Barack Obama. She has been the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute since 1999, and has been one of the highest paid college presidents in the US, while donating $1 billion to philanthropic causes. In February 2020, she joined the Nature Conservancy Global Board, a global environmental non-profit.

Maria Goeppert Mayer

She studied early quantum mechanics, and developed a theory of two-photon absorption for her PhD thesis. The Goeppert-Mayer (GM) unit, used to describe the 2 photon cross section, is named for her. Throughout her career, she collaborated with Max Born, Karl Hertzfeld, and Enrico Fermi, and contributed to the Manhattan Project. Despite these connections and accolades, she struggled to find a paid position in the US, taking part-time and unpaid positions at several prestigious schools. In 1960, she received her first full-time paid professorship at the University of California, San Diego, becoming the seventh straight generation of college professors. In 1962, she won the Nobel Prize for the mathematical development of the nuclear shell model. She is the second woman to win the prize, after Marie Curie.