STEM legacies: Five researchers reflect on the women who inspire them

a silhouette of a woman with a cape standing on top of a hill

Women’s History Month provides an opportunity to commemorate the contributions made by women over many generations. Starting as a week-long celebration in the late 1970s, Women’s History Month has become a phenomenon that highlights and celebrates achievements made by women across the world. 

But while progress has been made in recent years, a gender imbalance continues to exist in STEM. Data collated by the National Science Foundation shows that while 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned in 2013 were earned by women, the number of women in certain fields was considerably lower, such as computer science (18 percent), engineering (19 percent), and the physical sciences (39 percent). And while women make up half of the country’s total college-educated workforce, they only hold 29 percent of the jobs in science and engineering. 

Penn Today asked five Penn researchers about the women in STEM who have been a source of inspiration and encouragement throughout their own careers. Their responses include active researchers who have paved the way for better inclusion in STEM and famous female scientists from the past who broke boundaries as they made strides with their research. 


    • Renee Bell

      The Hans Rademacher Instructor of Mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences shared her thoughts on two female mathematicians:

      Gigliola Staffilani: a professor at MIT, where I was a graduate student, who grew up on a farm in Italy and has had a wildly successful career in math despite initial lack of support from her parents for her to get even a high school education. She is a tireless advocate for women in math and for education and math research in general, working with the American Mathematical Society which has, for example, vehemently opposed the proposed tax on graduate students which would shut out all but the extremely wealthy from doctoral programs.

      “Also, Piper Harron: I admire Piper Harron's beautiful mathematics but also her unique and fearless style of writing math and her piercing insights into the intersection of social justice and mathematics. As stated in her tour de force of a thesis, she is ‘unwilling to pretend that all manner of ways of thinking are equally encouraged, or that there aren’t very real issues of lack of diversity. It is not [her] place to make the system comfortable with itself’ and indeed her eloquent indignation and open discussion about her experiences as a black woman in math have made many people more aware of social problems in mathematics and sparked necessary discussion about racial injustice in mathematics.”

    • Antonella Grassi

      A professor of mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences, Grassi mentioned four women of note: 

      “Two pairs of women come immediately to mind. Laura Bassi and Maria Gaetana Agnesi: The first female professors ever of physics and mathematics, respectively. They were both professors at the University of Bologna, Italy, in the mid 1700s. Also, Karen Uhlenbeck and Dusa McDuff: Two mathematicians who are currently working in the United States. 

      “Not only is their work of the highest quality and very influential, they are also concerned, generous, and dedicated human beings. Science, the profession, and the world are better because of their work and their presence. Beautiful from the inside out.”

      Uhlenbeck also recently became the very first woman win the 2019 Abel Prize, a prestigious international award modeled after the Nobel Prize, thanks to her pioneering work in geometric analysis. 

    • Megan Matthews

      An assistant professor of chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences highlights the achievements of two female chemists:

      Frances Arnold, a Caltech professor, chemical engineer, prolific inventor, breast cancer survivor, and mother of three, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018 for the directed evolution of enzymes, nature's spectacular catalysts that control the chemical reactions of life. Arnold was also the first woman to be elected to all three National Academies in the U.S.: Science, Engineering, and Medicine. I've been following her science for years and have always admired her brilliance and courage to think big, be bold, and change the field. I can't wait for an opportunity to meet her some day.

      Madeleine Joullie: The first woman in the country to have a tenure-track position in organic chemistry, a field that is considered to be among the oldest of old boys clubs in academic science. When I look at her career, I see a woman who was ahead of her time, who lived to advance the cause of women in science, and who didn’t care what other people thought or what obstacles they might erect. Penn Chemistry needed her then, and science still needs more like her today. This year my research group was honored to inherit one of her lab benches. In addition to it bringing us good luck in our experiments, it reminds us of her extraordinary impact and what women in science can accomplish in the future.”

      Joullie, who has been at Penn since 1949 and was also Penn’s first affirmative action officer, was featured in the July 3, 2018, issue of Penn Today

    • Robyn Sanderson

      An assistant professor of physics & astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences discusses a female physicist who inspires her: 

      Emmy Noether: She was a contemporary of Einstein’s (he greatly admired and championed her work) who pioneered the idea that symmetries in physical systems correspond to conservation laws—for example, that angular momentum should be conserved in a system with spherical symmetry. This is a concept that I now use every day in my research, and it underpins many of the great advances we’ve made in diverse branches of physics since her time. 

      “Stories about Noether sometimes mention that she didn’t conform to the expectations her society had for how women should behave; I can’t imagine this made her career any easier (holding a professorship was forbidden to women where she lived and worked for much of her life), but she persevered through the legally codified sexism of her time to make great advances in physics and mathematics that are still bearing fruit today.”

For more stories about pioneering women in STEM, follow the #WomenofPenn campaign, a year-long effort to highlight the enterprising women working at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.