Tag Archives: women in science

Happy International Women’s Day on March 8, 2019—with a shout-out to women in science

I did a very quick search for today’s (March 8, 2019) women in science stories and found three to highlight here. First, a somewhat downbeat Canadian story.

Can Canadians name a woman scientist or engineer?

According to Emily Chung’s March 8, 2019 article on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) online news site, the answer is: no,

You’ve probably heard of Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein and Mark Zuckerberg.

But can you name a woman scientist or engineer? Half of Canadians can’t, suggests a new poll.

The online survey of 1,511 Canadians was commissioned by the non-profit group Girls Who Code and conducted by the market research firm Maru/Blue from March 1-3 and released for International Women’s Day today [March 8, 2019].

It was intended to collect data about how people felt about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers and education in Canada, said Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of the group, which aims to close the gender gap in technology by teaching girls coding skills.


The poll found:

When asked how many women scientists/engineers they could name, 52 per cent of respondents said “none.”

When asked to picture a computer scientist, 82 per cent of respondents immediately imagined a man rather than a woman.

77 per cent of respondents think increased media representation of women in STEM careers or leadership roles would help close the gender gap in STEM.


Sandra Corbeil, who’s involved a Women in STEM initiative at Ingenium, the organization that oversees Canada’s national museums of science and innovation, agrees that women scientists are under-recognized.

… Ingenium organized an event where volunteers from the public collaborated to add more women scientists to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science this past February [2019].

The 21 participants added four articles, including Dr. Anna Marion Hilliard, who developed a simple pap test for early detection of cervical cancer and Marla Sokolowski, who discovered an important gene that affects both metabolism and behaviour in fruit flies. The volunteer editors also updated and translated several other entries.

Similar events have been held around the world to boost the representation of women on Wikipedia, where as of March 4, 2019, only 17.7 per cent of biographies were of women — even 2018’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Donna Strickland, didn’t have a Wikipedia entry until the prize was announced.

Corbeil acknowledged that in science, the individual contributions of scientists, whether they are men or women, tend to not be well known by the public.[emphasis mine]

“We don’t treat them like superstars … to me, it’s something that we probably should change because their contributions matter.”

Chung points to a criticism of the Girls Who Code poll, they didn’t ask Canadians whether they could name male scientists or engineers. While Reshma Saujani acknowledged the criticism, she also brushed it off (from Chung’s article),

Saujani acknowledges that the poll didn’t ask how many male scientists or engineers they could name, but thinks the answer would “probablybe different. [emphasis mine]

Chung seems to be hinting (with the double quotes around the word probably) but I’m going to be blunt, that isn’t good science but, then, Saujani is not a scientist (from the reshmasujani.com’s About page),

Reshma began her career as an attorney and activist. In 2010, she surged onto the political scene as the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress. During the race, Reshma visited local schools and saw the gender gap in computing classes firsthand, which led her to start Girls Who Code. She has also served as Deputy Public Advocate for New York City and ran a spirited campaign for Public Advocate in 2013.

I’m inclined to believe that Saujani is right but I’d want to test the hypothesis. I have looked at what I believe to be the entire report here. I’m happy to see the questions but I do have a few questions about the methodology (happily, also included in the report),

… online survey was commissioned by Girls Who Code of 1,511 randomly selected Canadian adults who are Maru Voice panelists.

If it’s an online survey, how can the pollsters be sure the respondents are Canadian or sure about any other of the demographic details? What is a Maru Voice panelist? Is there some form of self-selection inherent in being a Maru Voice panelist? (If I remember my social science research guidelines properly, self-selected groups are not the same as the general population.)

All I’m saying, this report is interesting but seems problematic so treat it with a little caution.

Celebrating women in science in UK (United Kingdom)

This story comes from the UK’s N8 Research Partnership (I’m pretty sure that N8 is meant to be pronounced as ‘innate’). On March 7, 2019 they put up a webpage celebrating women in science,

All #N8women deliver our vision of making the N8 Research Partnership an exceptionally effective cluster of research innovation and training excellence; we celebrate all of your contributions and thank you for everything that you do. Read more about the women below or find out about them on our social channels by searching #N8Women.

Professor Dame Sue Black

Professor Dame Sue Black from Lancaster University pioneered research techniques to identify an individual by their hand alone, a technique that has been used successfully in Court to identify perpetrators in relation to child abuse cases. Images have been taken from more than 5000 participants to form an open-source dataset which has allowed a breakthrough in the study of anatomical variation.

Professor Diana Williams

Professor Diana Williams from The University of Liverpool has led research with Farming Online into a digital application that predict when and where disease is likely to occur. This is hoped to help combat the £300m per year UK agriculture loses per year through the liver fluke parasite which affects livestock across the globe.

Professor Louise Heathwaite

Professor Louise Heathwaite from Lancaster University has gained not only international recognition for her research into environmental pollution and water quality, but she also received the royal seal of approval after being awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2018.

Professor Sue Black

Professor Sue Black from Durham University has helped support 100 women retrain into tech roles thanks to the development of online programme, TechUP. Supported by the Institute of Coding, the programme lasts six months and concludes with a job interview, internship or apprenticeship.

Dr Anna Olsson-Brown

Dr Anna Olsson-Brown from the University of Liverpool has been instrumental in research into next-generation drugs that can treat patients with more advanced, malignant cancers and help them deal with the toxicity that can accompany novel therapies.

Professor Katherine Denby

Professor Katherine Denby, Director of N8 Agrifood, based at the University of York has been at the forefront of developing novel ways to enhance and enable breeding of crops resistance to environmental stress and disease.

Most recently, she was involved in the development of a genetic control system that enables plants to strengthen their defence response against deadly pathogens.

Doctor Louise Ellis

Dr Louise Ellis, Director of Sustainability at the University of Leeds has been leading their campaign – Single Out: 2023PlasticFree – crucially commits the University and Union to phase out single-use plastic across the board, not just in catering and office spaces.

Professor Philippa Browning

Professor Philippa Browning from the University of Manchester wanted to be an astronaut when she was a child but found that there was a lack of female role models in her field. She is leading work on the interactions between plasmas and magnetic fields and is a mentor for young solar physicists.

Doctor Anh Phan

Dr Anh Phan is a Lecturer of Chemical Engineering in the School of Engineering at Newcastle University. She has been leading research into cold plasma pyrolysis, a process that could be used to turn plastic waste into green energy. This is a novel process that could revolutionise our problem with plastic and realise the true value of plastic waste.

So, Canadians take note of these women and the ones featured in the next item.

Canada Science and Technology Museum’s (an Ingenium museum) International Women’s Day video

It was posted on YouTube in 2017 but given the somewhat downbeat Canadian story I started with I thought this appropriate,

It’s never too late to learn about women in science and engineering. The women featured in the video are: Ursula Franklin, Maude Abbott, Janice Zinck, and Indira Samarasekera

Donna Strickland, first female Nobel Prize winner in 55 years and one of only three (so far) in history

It’s been quite the fascinating week in the world of physics culminating with Donna Strickland’s shiny new Nobel Prize in physics.

For my purposes, this week in physics started on Friday, September 28, 2018 with Allesanndro Strumia’s presentation at CERN’s (European Particle Physics Laboratory) “1st workshop on high energy theory and gender” where he claimed and proved ‘scientifically’ that physics has become “sexist against men.” I’ll get back to Strumia in a moment but, first, let’s celebrate Donna Strickland and her achievements.

Only three women, including Strickland, in the history (117 years) of the Nobel Prize for Physics have won it, Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963, and, now, Strickland in 2018.

The University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) had this to say in an October 2, 2018 news release,

Donna Strickland wins Nobel Prize in Physics

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Dr. Donna Strickland

Donna Strickland, a University of Waterloo professor who helped revolutionize laser physics, has been named a winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

Strickland, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, shares half the $1.4 million prize with French laser physicist Gérard Mourou. The other half was awarded to U.S. physicist Arthur Ashkin.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated that Mourou and Strickland paved the way toward the shortest and most intense laser pulses created by mankind. Their revolutionary article was published in 1985 and was the foundation of Strickland’s doctoral thesis.

Strickand conducted her Nobel-winning research while a PhD student under Mourou in 1989 at the University of Rochester in New York. The team’s research has a number of applications in industry and medicine.

It was great to have had the opportunity to work with one of the pioneers of ultrafast lasers, Gerard Mourou,” said Strickland. “It was a small community back then. It was a new, burgeoning field. I got to be part of that. It was very exciting.”

A Nobel committee member said billions of people make daily use of laser printers and optical scanners and millions undergo laser surgery.

“This is a tremendous day for Professor Strickland and needless to say a tremendous day for the University of Waterloo,” said Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo. “This is Waterloo’s first Nobel laureate and the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics in 55 years.”

During an interview, Strickland told the Globe and Mail [national newspaper]: “We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there, and hopefully in time it’ll start to move forward at a faster rate.”

Charmaine Dean, vice-president research at the University of Waterloo said: “Donna Strickland exemplifies research excellence at Waterloo. Her groundbreaking work is a testament to the importance of fundamental research as it has established the foundation for laser-based technologies that we see today from micromachining to laser eye surgery.”

An October 2, 2018 news item on Nanowerk focuses on the three winners,

Arthur Ashkin, an American physicist has been awarded half the prize for his invention of optical tweezers and their application to biological systems. His amazing tool has helped to reach the old dream of grabing [sic] particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells. The optical tweezers work with the radiation pressure of light to hold and move tiny object and are widely used to study the machinery of life.

French physicist Gérard Mourou and Canadian physicist Donna Strickland share the other half for their method of generating ultra-short and very intense optical pulses. Ultra-sharp laser beams have made possible to cut or drill holes in various materials extremely precisely – even in living matter. The technique this duo pioneered is called chirped pulse amplification or CPA and it has led to corrective eye surgeries for millions of people.

An Oct. 2, 2018 article by Marina Koren for The Atlantic is my favourite of the ones focusing on Strickland. One of Koren’s major focal points is Strickland’s new Wikipedia page (Note: Links have been removed),

It was about five in the morning in Ontario, Canada, when Donna Strickland’s phone rang. The Nobel Prize committee was on the line in Stockholm, calling to tell her she had won the prize in physics.

“We wondered if it was a prank,” Strickland said Tuesday [October 2 ,2018], in an interview with a Nobel official after the call. She had been asleep when the call arrived. “But then I knew it was the right day, and it would have been a cruel prank.”

Lasers, focused beams of light particles, were invented in the 1960s. Scientists immediately started tinkering with them, looking for ways to harness and manipulate these powerful devices.

Strickland and [Gérard] Mourou] found a way to stretch and compress lasers to produce short, intense pulses that are now used, among other things, in delicate surgeries to fix vision problems. [Arthur] Ashkin figured out a way to maneuver laser light so that it could push small particles toward the center of the beam, hold them in place, and even move them around. This technique became the delightfully named “optical tweezer.” It allowed Ashkin to use the power of light to capture and hold living bacteria and viruses without harming the organisms.

Unlike her fellow winners, Strickland did not have a Wikipedia page at the time of the announcement. A Wikipedia user tried to set up a page in May, but it was denied by a moderator with the message: “This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article.” Strickland, it was determined, had not received enough dedicated coverage elsewhere on the internet to warrant a page.

On Tuesday, a newly created page flooded with edits: “Added in her title.” “Add Nobel-winning paper.” “Added names of other women Nobelists [sic] in physics.”

The construction of the Wikipedia page feels like a metaphor for a historic award process that has long been criticized for neglecting women in its selection, and for the shortage of women’s stories in the sciences at large. To scroll through the “history” tab of Strickland’s page, where all edits are recorded and tracked, is to witness in real time the recognition of a scientist whose story likely deserved attention long before the Nobel Prize committee called.

Strickland’s historic win comes a day after CERN, the European organization that operates the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, suspended a senior scientist for saying that physics was “invented and built by men.” Alessandro Strumia, a professor at the University of Pisa, made the statement during a recent speech at a seminar on gender issues in physics that was attended by mostly female physicists. Strumia said “men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people,” and that between men and women there is a “difference even in children before any social influence.” His remarks were widely circulated online and prompted fierce backlash.

The remarks don’t faze Strickland, who very publicly proved them wrong on Tuesday. In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, she called Strumia’s claims “silly.”

For anyone curious about the Strumia situation, there’s an October 2, 2018 CBC Radio (As It Happens) online news article. Note: Links have been removed,

Not only was Alessandro Strumia being offensive when he said that physics “was invented and built by men” — he was also wrong, says physicist Jess Wade.

“Actually, women have contributed hugely to physics throughout the whole of history, but for an incredibly long time we haven’t documented or told those stories,” Wade told As It Happens host Carol Off.

And she would know. The Imperial College London research associate has made it her mission to write hundreds of Wikipedia entries about women in science and engineering.

Wade was in the room on Friday when Strumia, a physicist at Pisa University, made the inflammatory remarks during a gender workshop in Geneva, organized by the European nuclear research centre CERN.

CERN cut ties with Strumia after the BBC reported the content of his presentation.

This article includes some of the slides in Strumia’s now infamous presentation.

Tommaso Dorigo in an October 1, 2018 posting on the Science 2.0 blog offers another analysis,

The world of particle physics is in turmoil because of a presentation by Alessandro Strumia, an Italian phenomenologist, at CERN’s “1st workshop on high energy theory and gender”, and its aftermath.

By now the story has been echoed by many major newscasters around the world, and discussed in public and private forums, blogs, twitter feeds. I wanted to stay away from it here, mainly because it is a sensitive issue and the situation is still evolving, but after all, why not offer to you my personal pitch on the matter? Strumia, by the way, has been an occasional commenter to this blog – you can find some of his comments signed as “AS” in threads of past articles. Usually he makes good points here, as long as physics is the subject.

Anyway, first of all let me give you a quick recall of the events. The three-day workshop, which took place on September 26-28, was meant to”focus on recent developments in theoretical high-energy physics and cosmology, and discuss issues of gender and equal opportunities in the field“; it followed three previous events which combined string theory and gender issues. Strumia’s presentation was titled “Experimental tests of a new global symmetry“, a physicist’s way of describing the issue of man-woman equality. It is important to note that the talk was not an invited one – its author had asked the organizers for a slot as he said he would be talking of bibliometrics, and indeed his contribution was listed in the agenda of September 28 with the innocuous title “Bibliometrics data about gender issues in fundamental theory“.

Strumia’s slides contain a collection of half-baked claims, coming from his analysis of InSpire data from citations and authorship of articles in theoretical physics. I consider his talk offensive on many levels. It starts by casting the woman discrimination issue in scientific academia as a test of hypothesis of whether the “man-woman” symmetry is explicitly broken (i.e. there is no symmetry) or spontaneously broken (by a difference of treatment) – something that could even raise a smile in a geeky physicist; but the fun ends there.

Dorigo offers a detailed ‘takedown’ of Strumia’s assertions. I found the post intriguing for the insight it offers into physics. Never in a million years would I have thought this title, “Experimental tests of a new global symmetry,” would indicate a discussion on gender balance in the field of physics.

As I said in the opening, it has been quite the week in physics. On a final note, Brava to Doctor Donna Strickland!

Five new laureates for the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards

There will be a ceremony in March 2011 to welcome the five women being hnoured with the 2011 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards. From the news item on Nanowerk,

More than 1,000 high-level scientists from around the world were involved in the nomination of the Awards’ candidates, who come from five continents. The International Awards Jury, comprised of 16 eminent members of the scientific community, and presided by Professor Ahmed Zewail, recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, then selected the five women researchers in the Physical Sciences as the Laureates of the 2011 Awards. Their pioneering projects contribute to finding solutions to major challenges for our planet.

Professor Faiza AL-KHARAFI
Professor of Chemistry, Kuwait University, Safat, KUWAIT

For her work on corrosion, a problem of fundamental importance to water treatment and the oil industry.

Born in Kuwait, Faiza Al-Kharafi earned a BSc degree from Am Shams University in Egypt before returning to Kuwait to pursue her MSc and PhD degrees from Kuwait University. She has filled in a number of teaching and research positions at the Kuwait University, including serving as the first female president of the university from 1993 to 2002. The first Kuwait-France Chemistry Symposium was held under her patronage in 2009, and she is currently Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World.

Professor Vivian Wing-Wah YAM
Professor of Chemistry and Energy, The University of Hong Kong, CHINA

For her work on light-emitting materials and innovative ways of capturing solar energy.

Vivian Wing-Wah Yam was born in Hong Kong, where she pursued her university studies, obtaining her PhD at the University of Hong Kong. After two years at the City Polytechnic of Hong Kong, she moved to the University of Hong Kong in 1990 where she became Professor in 1997 and Chair Professor in 1999. She was Head of Chemistry for 6 years from 2000 to 2005, and became the Philip Wong Wilson Wong Professor in Chemistry and Energy in 2009 at the University of Hong Kong. She is an Academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, and has been awarded a Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) Centenary lectureship and medal.

Professor Anne L’HUILLIER
Professor of Atomic Physics, Lund University, SWEDEN

For her work on the development of the fastest camera for recording events in attoseconds (a billionth of a billionth of a second).

Anne L’Huillier obtained her PhD in Physical Sciences in France, the country of her birth, at the Université de Paris VI. After postdoctoral research in Sweden and the United States, she spent the years 1986-1995 as a researcher at the French Atomic Energy Commission. She then transferred to Lund Unversity, where she has been Professor Atomic Physics since 1997. She has received numerous awards, is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Professor Silvia TORRES-PEIMBERT
Professor Emeritus, Institute of Astronomy, Mexico City University (UNAM), Mexico City, MEXICO

For her work on the chemical composition of nebulae which is fundamental to our understanding of the origin of the universe.

A native of Mexico, Silvia Torres-Peimbert obtained her PhD at the University of California Berkeley, USA. She then became Professor in the Faculty of Sciences and the Institute of Astronomy at UNAM. Today she is Emeritus Professor and since 2009 has been Coordinator of Physical, Mathematical and Engineering Sciences at the university. She is a member of the American Astronomical Society, the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World, and is a past Vice-President of the International Astronomical Union.

Professor Jillian BANFIELD
Professor of Earth and Planetary Science, of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, and of Materials Science and Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, UNITED STATES

For her work on bacterial and material behaviour under extreme conditions relevant to the environment and the Earth.

Originally from Australia, Jillian Banfield received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Geology from the Australian National University. She subsequently completed a PhD in Earth and Planetary Science at Johns Hopkins University, USA. From 1990-2001 she was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since then she has been a professor at the University of California-Berkeley and an affiliate scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She has been honored with numerous prestigious awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, The Dana Medal of the Mineralogical Society of America, and a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. She was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2006.

Congratulations to all of the recipients! (Earlier this year I noted the L’Oréal Singapore for Women in Science Fellowships in my Sept. 2, 2010 posting as part of my informal series on women in science.)