Hidden Figures: STEM Edition

Vilhelmiina Haavisto spotlights the women we all should’ve been taught about in school.

It’s been quite the journey for women in science, technology, engineering and maths, to say the least. Though we’ve come far in conversations surrounding women in STEM, white, cis women still almost invariably take centre stage. Marginalized groups of women and non-binary people tend to get little to no representation in these fields, and in related discussions about inclusivity and equality. This problem can only be solved if those with a platform to create change, work to amplify the voices and recognize the achievements of these women. So, join me in celebrating just a few such women in STEM and their amazing accomplishments.  

Alice Ball

Alice Augusta Ball was a chemist, as well as the first woman and the first African American to graduate from the University of Hawaii with a master’s degree, which she did in 1915. There, she started investigating chaulmoogra oil and its chemical properties. Chaulmoogra oil, extracted from the chaulmoogra tree, had been used to treat leprosy in the past, though with mixed results. Through her research, Ball managed to isolate the effective ingredients of the oil and subsequently created a medicine that became the default treatment for leprosy for over twenty years. However, despite the supreme importance of her research, she wasn’t given any credit for her work. Shortly after her death at the tragically young age of 24, her treatment, known as the ‘Ball method’, was renamed the ‘Dean method’ after the then-president of the university. Dean had hardly been involved in developing the cure, but completely eclipsed Ball in her work. Nearly 90 years later, the University of Hawaii finally honoured her with a plaque on the school’s only chaulmoogra tree. February 29th is now celebrated as ‘Alice Ball Day’ in Hawaii.

Ynes Mexia

Ynes Mexia was a Mexican-American botanist, who didn’t start her career in collecting and identifying plants until she was 50 years old. This was also the age at which she  enrolled at UC Berkeley as a special student, though she never earned a degree. She was an active part of her local environmental organisation, the Sierra Club, and through them was given the opportunity to undertake many, sometimes grueling botanical collecting trips throughout the United States and South America in the 1920s and 30s. She was passionate about these trips and the collecting work, as she felt it was important to identify and catalogue the plants at each location. She collected over 150,000 specimens on these trips, including many completely new plant types. Her findings completed previous botanical records, and many of the plants she discovered were named in her honour, such as the Mexianthus genus. Mexia proves that there is no set age in life for discovering your passion.


Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway is an American computer scientist whose career path has been anything but straightforward. In the 1960s while working at IBM, she produced pioneering research, however records of this were buried when she was fired for being transgender in 1968. After her transition, she began rebuilding her career from scratch. She soon landed a job in computer architecture at Memorex, and just ten years after her transition she had achieved great recognition in the field thanks to her groundbreaking research into chip design. She joined the University of Michigan in 1985, where she served as both a professor and associate dean. Conway is also a passionate LGBT+ rights activist. Thanks to her persistent lobbying, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) changed their ethics code to include transgender people in 2013. She was also selected as one of TIME magazine’s ‘21 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture’ in 2014.

Flossie Wong-Staal

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal is a well respected molecular biologist and virologist, who made groundbreaking advances in HIV and AIDS research in the 1980s. In 1985, she was a key figure in recognizing the virus that causes AIDS. Wong-Staal’s family lived in Hong Kong for most of her childhood, and she was the first woman in her family to attend university. She completed both her bachelor’s degree and doctorate at UCLA, and after earning her doctorate, went on to do research work at the National Cancer Institute, where she became the first person to successfully clone HIV. She also managed to genetically map the virus, which was a significant advancement in terms of screening donated blood and testing patients for HIV. Her publications were the most cited of all women researchers in the 1980s, a tribute to her importance and status within the scientific community.

Mae Jemison

Dr. Mae Jemison is a former NASA astronaut, and was the first African American woman in space. She has a background in both engineering and medical research, and was the first African American women to even be selected for NASA’s astronaut program in 1987, out of around 2,000 applicants. In September 1992, she spent eight days in space aboard the Endeavour shuttle, where she served as the science mission specialist, meaning that she carried out crew-related experiments on board. Since leaving NASA in 1993, Jemison uses her experience to encourage and empower young people to pursue STEM subjects, with her slogan ‘Daring Makes a Difference’. She has also pointed out that we tend to systematically undervalue the contributions of women and other minority groups to science, and has voiced how much more we could achieve if we gave these groups the opportunity to get involved. Clearly, it is vital for people such as Dr. Jemison to use their platform to highlight issues regarding inclusivity and diversity in STEM.

Illustration by Amy Knox.

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