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Mothers in science

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

Today is International day of women and girls in science, a day when we acknowledge the critical role women and girls play in science and technology. So in honour of this, below I have listed 10 unstoppable mothers who’ve managed to make a significant contribution to the world of science, all whilst raising young children.

Bettye Washington Greene

Dr Bettye Washington Greene was an American industrial research chemist and known as the first African American female PhD chemist to work in a professional position at the Dow Chemical Company (1).

She graduated with a B.S in Chemistry in 1955. She also married William Miller Greene in 1955, then soon began working on her doctorate in physical chemistry, and by 1957 she was already a mother (2).

In 1965, she joined the Dow Chemical Company's E. C. Britton Research Laboratory in Michigan where she specialised in Latex products. She was promoted in 1970 to senior research chemist, and her career continued to progress with further advancements in her position. She worked for Dow Chemical until 1990. She held a number of patents including a latex-based adhesive.

Unfortunately, she passed away in Midland, Michigan in 1995.

Chien-Shiung Wu

Dr Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American experimental physicist who made significant contributions in the field of nuclear physics. Born in China, she emigrated to the USA to study for her doctorate and landed a place at the University of Berkley in California (3).

She completed her PhD in June 1940 and married Luke Chia-Liu Yuan in 1942. She took on a teaching role at the Smith College but was feeling unfulfilled as she was keen to do some research work instead. She eventually landed a role as an associate professor, as well as an instructor for naval officers. In 1944, she joined the Manhattan Project (which produced the first nuclear weapons) Laboratories in Columbia, and in 1945 accepted a role as a research professor at Columbia.

She gave birth to her son in 1947 (4), and continued to have a thriving career, she became an associate professor in 1952, a full professor in 1958, and the Michael I. Pupin Professor of Physics in 1973.

Dr Wu died on February 16, 1997, in New York City at the age of 84 after suffering a stroke (5).

Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy Hodgkin is a British chemist who worked on the technique of X-ray crystallography, which became an essential tool in structural biology. Her work also includes the confirmation of the structure of penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B12 (which earned her a Nobel Prize in 1964) (6).

She graduated from Somerville College in Oxford with a first-class honours degree in 1932, and in 1933 began her research career at the same College. She married Thomas Lionel Hodgkin in 1937, and together they had three children; Luke born 1938, Elizabeth born 1941, and Toby born 1946.

Somerville College appointed her its first fellow and tutor in chemistry in 1936, a post which she held until 1977, and in 1960 was also appointed the Royal Society's Wolfson Research Professor, a position she held until 1970. During her time as a researcher, she published her discoveries on a number of molecular structures including steroid in 1945, penicillin in 1949, vitamin b12 in 1955. She began working on insulin in 1969, a move which was instrumental in paving the way for insulin to be mass-produced and used on a large scale for the treatment of both type one and type two diabetes.

Unfortunately, she passed away 1994 after a stroke, at her husband's home in the village of Limington, but left behind a huge legacy. To name a few of her honours, she was one of five women included in a 1996 set of British commemorative stamps. The Council offices in the London Borough of Hackney and buildings at the University of York, Bristol University and Keele University are named after her, as is the science block at Sir John Leman High School, her former school. And every year, the Royal Society awards the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship to a group of selected applicants, it is awarded "for outstanding scientists at an early stage of their research career who require a flexible working pattern due to personal circumstances, such as parenting or caring responsibilities or health-related reasons (7,8).

Irène Joliot-Curie

Daughter of Marie Curie, Dr Irène Joliot-Curie was a French chemist, physicist and politician. She earned a degree in mathematics and physics in 1918 and assisted her mother in teaching radiology at the Radium Institute, which had been built by her parents. She married Frédéric Joliot in 1926 and gave birth to Hélène 11 months later. She also had a son named Pierre in 1932 (9).

During her years as a mother, Dr Joliot-Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for her and her husband’s discovery of artificial radioactivity, and the Barnard Gold Medal for Meritorious Service to Science in 1940.

In 1948, the Joliot-Curies became a part of the organization in charge of the first French nuclear reactor, with Irène being the commissioner. Because of the work of the Joliot-Curies, France in 2020 generated approximately 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy. France also exports surplus energy to other European countries.

In 1956, Dr Joliot-Curie was admitted to the Curie hospital in Paris, where sadly she died on 17 March from leukaemia. The French government held a national funeral in her honour.

Ismahane Elouafi

Dr Ismahane Elouafi is a Moroccan-Canadian Chief Scientist of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and known for promoting neglected and underutilized crops, use of non-fresh water in agriculture (10).

She attended the Hassan II Institute of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine, Morocco, where she earned her bachelor's degree in Agricultural Sciences in 1993 and her master’s in Genetics & Plant Breeding in 1995. In 2001, she received a PhD in Genetics from the University of Cordoba, Spain, and has since built a glowing career in leadership positions and an admirable programme to empower Arab women scientists.

Her work has led to her being ranked among the 20 most influential women in science in the Islamic world in 2014, she’s been listed amongst the world’s 100 most powerful Arab women in science between 2014-2016, and won the prestigious Arab woman of the year by the London Ababia Organisation for Achievements in Science (11,12,13).

Dr Elouafi has spoken openly about how she manages her work-life balance whilst raising her two daughters, and shares her advice on how she assures her children know they are her priority (14).

Marie Curie

The infamous Dr Marie Curie was a Polish-French physicist and chemist who contributed groundbreaking work to the radioactivity field. Originally from Poland, at age 24 she moved to Paris for her studies, and received her 1st degree in physics in 1893 and began her career in an industrial laboratory. In 1895, she married her husband Pierre Curie, and they welcomed their daughter Irène in 1897, and, Ève in 1904 (15).

To support her family, she took on a teaching role at a graduate school in France, whilst continuing her research on radioactivity. In 1898 Dr Curie and her husband published the discovery of polonium and radium and even came up with the term radioactivity. Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies published, a total of 32 scientific papers. Dr Curie became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903, and was awarded her doctorate that same year.

In 1906, her husband was sadly killed in an accident, her eldest daughter was just 8 years old. Curie faced many challenges such as being a woman in science, and being a foreigner, but managed to become the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. She continued to gain international recognition for her work, gained a second Nobel Prize, and founded the Curie Institution in Paris in 1932.

Dr Marie Curie died in 1934, of aplastic anaemia from exposure to radiation in the course of her scientific research and in the course of her radiological work at field hospitals during World War I. Currently, several institutions bear her name including the Marie Curie charity in the UK, and in 2009 she was voted the most inspirational woman in science in a poll carried out by New Scientist.

Mary-Claire King

Dr Mary-Claire King is an American Geneticist and was the first to show that breast cancer can be inherited due to mutations in the gene she called BRCA1 (16).

Dr King completed her studies in 1972 and received her doctorate in 1973. She married ecologist Robert K. Colwell in 1973, and they had a daughter Emily King Colwell in 1975. Dr King worked as a professor of genetics and epidemiology in 1976, and between 1974 and 1990 carried out research on why breast cancer tends to appear in families. Despite the scepticism she faced for her research, she pioneered through and was able to prove that as many as 5-10% of all cases of breast cancer may be hereditary. In 1991 Dr King officially named the gene responsible for this as BRCA1.

Her other notable work includes showing that humans and chimpanzees are 99% genetically identical, and for using her skills to help identify victims of human rights abuse and reuniting them with their biological families. She has also used genetics in areas such as hearing loss and schizophrenia (17).

She has received many awards, including the Lasker Award and the National Medal of Science and in 2002 (18).

May-Britt Moser

Dr May-Britt Moser is a Norwegian psychologist and neuroscientist, who is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

She moved to Oslo for her studies, where she married her fellow high school peer Edvard Moser in 1985 and together they studied the relationship between the brain and behaviour. She was awarded her degree in psychology in 1990 and had her first child in 1991. She was employed as a research fellow at the Faculty of Medicine, and earned her doctorate in Neurophysiology in 1995, she also had her second child in 1995 (19).

The couple moved back to Norway in 1996, where Dr Moser was appointed an associate professor in biological psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Her career continued to progress as she was promoted to full professor in 2000, and became head of department of the NTNU Centre for Neural Computation.

Alongside her then husband, Dr Moser’s research on the brain and discoveries have contributed to the understanding of social learning, memory, and special defects associated with conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. And in 2014 earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Dr Moser’s has achieved many accolades such as the 2013 Madame Beyer award, which recognise brilliant female business leaders (20).

Rabia Salihu Sa'id

Dr Rabia Salihu Sa'id is a Nigerian physicist, professor of atmospheric and space-weather physics, and researcher at Bayero University Kano.

Originally from Wangara, a town in Gezawa Northern Nigeria where traditionally education was not really an option for girls, many often married in their teens and women are expected to stay at home. Dr Sa'id chose to marry at the age of 18, and has 6 children, two of her children needed medical care which added to her personal challenge to obtain higher education degrees (21).

She eventually resumed her studies when she was 29 years old, and ran a nursery school to pay for her fees. She earned her bachelorette, masters and PhD degrees in Physics from Bayero University Kano, and started her career as a graduate assistant at Bayero University in 1999, and is now a professor of undergraduate and graduate level courses in atmospheric and space-weather physics.

She is an advocate and mentor of Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and is a facilitator for the British Council's Active Citizens' Programme. In 2015, she received an Elsevier Foundation award for women Scientists in the developing world. She was also recognised in 2015 by the British council for her community work, and by the BBC as part of their 100 Women series.

Susana López Charretón

Dr Susana López Charretón is a Mexican virologist specialized in understanding the mechanisms of infection of rotavirus. She earned her bachelor's degree in 1980, her master's degree in 1983, and her doctorate degree 1986 at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and works for the Institute of Biotechnology of the same university. She has two children born in 1986 and 1989 (22,23).

She’s published more than 130 papers in international journals and has spent nearly nine years serving on the Editorial Board for the Journal of Virology. Her research on the rotavirus has contributed to new diagnostic tests, isolation of new strains, and vaccine development.

Alongside her husband, she earned the 2001 Carlos J. Finlay Prize for Microbiology and the 2008 TWAS Prize in Biology. In 2012, Dr López Charretón received the L'Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science – Latin America, for identifying how rotaviruses cause the death of 600,000 children each year (24,25).


One thing I did pick up on during my research, was how few profiles of female scientists there are compared to men in general. Let’s hope that awareness days like today’s help shift this pattern so that in 20 years’ time, there will be a better reflection and representation of women and girls in the industry.

Thank you again for taking the time to read my blog. If you like this type of content, follow me on my Pinterest and Instagram page so we can connect and talk more about life as a working mother x


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