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Women in Science

Mina Rees mobilized the resources of modern mathematics for the national defense during World War II and used her influence in gaining government support for the development of the earliest computers.

Science has long been considered by many to be men’s territory. Yet history is peppered with significant women scientists who have repeatedly debunked the myth that women cannot be good scientists. Maria Mitchell, a self-taught Astronomer, became the first woman in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . In 1847, she was the first person to record a comet sighting; the comet was named for her. Mitchell was the first female astronomy professor in the country, teaching at Vassar College from 1865 to 1888.

In 1936, Chien Shiung Wu came to the U.S. from China as a young woman to escape political oppression. After obtaining her doctorate in Physics from Berkeley, she taught at Princeton and Smith before going to work for her old professor Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project, helping to develop the Atom bomb. Wu was the first woman president of the American Physics Society and the first woman to be awarded the Comstock Prize .

Dr. Alexa Canady, chief of neurosurgery at Children's Hospital of Michigan, talks with a patient and her father. The nationally renowned neurosurgeon became the youngest black female in her specialty at age 30.

Today, as medical doctors, biologists, physicists or mathematicians, women scientists are proliferating. Women now earn about half the science and engineering degrees awarded. Yet, significant social barriers still exist that hinder women’s entrance into the sciences. For example, in the Biological Sciences, the number of female biology teachers is increasing while the number of women becoming tenured biology professors remains stagnant at best.

Nonetheless, women scientists are making strides. Mina Rees, founder and first president of the CUNY Graduate Center , was a pioneer in the invention of computers; Rosalyn Yalow and Gertrude Elion , both Hunter College graduates, won Nobel Prizes in medicine for their work on Radioimmunoassay and the development of AZT and Chemotherapy drugs, respectively; Alexa Canady became the first female African-American neurosurgeon; and Antonia Coello Novello finished medical school in her home, Puerto Rico, and went on to become the first Latina Surgeon General of the United States in 1990.

Dr. Ellen Baker has served on three NASA space shuttle missions and is the lead astronaut for medical issues at the Johnson Space Center.


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