Cambridge women in STEM

Antonina Kielkowska celebrates the lives and contributions of successful Cambridge women in the STEM field.

As a child, I was lucky enough to be raised in an environment where I was always encouraged to do science... and somehow this made me oblivious to the issue of gender inequality in STEM. It wasn’t until last year that I realised how although I can list an array of male scientists with ease, it’s a struggle to muster even five female names. Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Rosalind Franklin, um… there was this one to do with stars… Jocelyn Bell Burnell? Off the top of my head, they are the only ones I can remember.

While it is tempting to consider the reasons for this disparity, and look further into gender inequality in the field of STEM, it is much more appropriate on International Women’s Day to celebrate the successes of Cambridge women in science, whose names should be as well known as their male counterparts.

Dorothy Hodgkin

Born in Cairo and raised away from her family, Hodgkin’s endeavours into science started when she was gifted a chemistry book containing crystal experiments. She was offered a place at Oxford University and was the third woman ever to graduate with a First. She then moved to Cambridge to study a PhD at Newnham College. Moving back to Oxford, Dorothy devoted her life to X-ray crystallography and discovered the structure of vitamin B12 – something incredibly complex - for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize. She also made the crucial discovery of the hormone, insulin, and of the first antibiotic, penicillin. Without her work, drug designing and treatment of diabetes would not be possible. Not only has she dedicated her life to phenomenal discoveries, she has also worked as a peace activist combatting social inequalities.

Barbara Sahakian

A fellow at Clare Hall, Sahakian is a well-known neuroscientist whose research has greatly contributed to our understanding of neural dysfunctions, including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and ADHD. A prolific researcher with over 400 published articles, she was amongst the first scientists to propose that the use of pharmaceutical drugs in the treatment of attention disorders, as well as co-inventing a neuropsychological test called CANTAB: Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery, now used world-wide. Currently she works as a professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the Department of Psychiatry in Cambridge researching impulsive and compulsive behaviour.

Val Gibson

Professor Valerie Gibson is the Head of the High Energy Physics Research Group in the Cavendish Laboratory, a fellow at Trinity College, and previously held a Stokes Research Senior Fellowship here in Pembroke. She carries out her research in CERN in Geneva, searching for new phenomena involving heavy quarks – bottom and charm using the Large Hadron Collider. Val works on CP (Charge Parity) violation, a subject that tries to explain why there is an imbalance between matter and antimatter in the universe – helping us to understand why things come into existence. She is also a great ambassador for women in STEM, stating that it’s not just her choice but her duty to promote to all women that “hey… it’s possible”.

Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey

Jane and Dian are the world’s leading primatologists. Jane has spent 55 years researching the life of chimpanzees, revolutionising research methodologies and proving that primates are capable of using simple tools and designing. She also observed that these animals have unique personalities – something previously thought to be an exclusively human attribute. Having spent her early life in Kenya and Tanzania studying primate behaviour, she has now finished her PhD in Newnham College in Ethology despite not having a BA or Masters degree.

illustrations by Phoebe Flatau

Alongside her work in the Jane Goodall Institute on primate behaviour, she is also an animal’s Dian Fossey has studied mountain gorillas to better understand their physiology, behaviour, and family life. It was largely due to her strong stances on poaching, tourism, and habitat destruction, that wildlife conservation has been more widely introduced. Like many activists, Fossey made sacrifices for her beliefs - potentially even her life, as she was found dead in a camp in Rwanda, and though the case has not been closed it is strongly suspected that she was murdered by a group of poachers frustrated by her interventions.

Dian’s last diary entry was: “When you realise the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.” This is what we need to do now. So much has already been achieved, and while International Women’s Day is the perfect occasion to celebrate these successes, we must also look forward to ensure the future will be even better and brighter. •

Antonina Kielkowska is a first year Natural Sciences student and is the JPC Access officer.