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Meet 12 Female Scientists Who Are Role Model For Every Female Science Enthusiast

Everywhere you look, odds seem stacked against women in STEM. Young male researchers receive up to twice as much finance as their female colleagues in Boston’s biomedical research institutions, a global research hub. Only 30% of the world’s scientists are women, and women hold less than 25% of STEM jobs in the US. In fact, one new survey discovered 67% of Europeans and 93% of Chinese respondents do not even consider women have the skills to do science — and Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Tim Hunt thinks women cause “trouble” in the lab.

But take a look at the portrait below, which was captured by photographer Bret Hartman at the TED Fellows Retreat in Pacific Grove, California in August 2015. These 12 researchers belong to a range of disciplines — from astrophysics, biology, genetics, archaeology, medicine, glaciology, data science and more — and represent 5 countries around the world. They also turn out be women. And while a portrait like this one should not be extraordinary in 2015, it sadly is — highlighting a very real, very large gender gap in the sciences.

1. Renée Hlozek, cosmologist

South African cosmologist Renée Hlozek studies the cosmic microwave background — radiation left over from the Big Bang — to better comprehend the initial circumstances of the universe and how it grew into the structures, such as galaxies, we witness today.

“My field is about asking questions about the nature and evolution of the cosmos, important to our understanding of ourselves,” Hlozek says. “While there is a history of women in astronomy, there are still so little in my field, I find that I am seen as more of an outsider. But as there are not many of us, I can have a clear voice within the field. I’m proud to be a role model for young women fascinated about science, and am eager for the day that we have equal number of men and women researchers in cosmology and astrophysics.”

2. Janet Iwasa, Molecular Animator

We know a lot about molecular procedures, yet they are impossible to witness directly. Molecular animator Janet Iwasa’s colorful, action-packed 3D animations demonstrate how molecules look, move and interact — letting researchers to picture their hypotheses and conveying complex scientific information to general spectators. Iwasa uses high-end animation software to produce her works, but to help researchers to access visualization technology, she’s also created Molecular Flipbook, a free, open source 3D animation software tool that allows researchers intuitively and quickly model molecular hypotheses.

“The group of women in this picture work on some pretty awe-inspiring science — from understanding the birth of the cosmos, to discovering proof of cancer in ancient human populations, to preserving animal species that may vanish without our help,” says Iwasa. “My subjects are far too small to see, but through my work I hope to reveal a world within our cells that is chaotic and beautiful, and — hopefully — also awe-inspiring.”

3. Katie Hunt, Paleo-oncologist/Archaeologist

When archeologist Katie Hunt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 22, it catalyzed a deeper curiosity about cancer as an ancient disease. Delving into ancient texts and analyzing ancient human remains, Hunt found cancer’s existence in antiquity — recorded as early as 1,500 BCE, and in skeletal leftovers from as early as 6,000 BCE — but no tools existed for severe scientific analysis. So, with three other women in science, Casey Kirkpatrick, Jennifer Willoughby and Roselyn Campbell, Hunt launched the Paleo-Oncological Research Organization — a network of archaeologists, oncologists and cancer researchers working to make scientific research standards and techniques — and an open source database of physical proof of cancer from many eras and areas. This growing field of paleo-oncology will raise interesting questions about how biology, culture and environment affect development of the disease, aiding us better understand its prevention and treatment.

“Biological anthropology — a physical science in a mild embrace with social science—turns out to be a field mainly led by women, so I have the luck of working with brilliant woman researchers every day,” says Hunt. “While sexism still exists in our lives, I’m fortunate to observe a world in which women in science is commonplace and celebrated, as in this picture. And science is stronger for it!”

4. Kristin Marhaver, Coral Biologist

Based in Curaçao, marine biologist Kristen Marhaver studies how corals breed and what their juveniles require in order to live on today’s reefs — an urgent task as corals struggle against pollution, overfishing and a changing climate. By collecting coral spawn and raising larvae in the lab, Marhaver and her associates analyze corals’ habitat preferences in substrates, colors and even bacterial scents, in order to build environments that inspire coral settlement in the wild and facilitate the reintroduction of lab-raised juvenile corals. Marhaver’s research team was newly able to yield the spawn of and successfully breed the Caribbean pillar coral, which until now researchers worried had stopped reproducing.

“This image carries extra power for me as we all look like our real selves,” says Marhaver. “I have this photo hanging behind my desk, so that when people come to my office, I have a crew of 12 PhDs backing me up.”

5. Marcela Uliano da Silva, Computational Biologist

Invasive Golden Mussels, transported to South America from Asia in ballast water, threaten to abolish the ecosystem of the Amazon River. Brazilian computational biologist Marcela Uliano da Silva is sequencing the mussel’s genome to make a genetic solution stopping mussels from capability of attaching to substrates. But it’s a race against time: the mussel — which reached in South America in the 1990s, choking river systems, altering aquatic ecosystems and damaging industrial and infrastructural facilities — is a mere 150 kilometers from the first river in the Amazon River basin. If it reaches, it would spell catastrophe for the Amazon and the health of the planet.

“It was not until my work as a researcher got better known that I felt, in exceptional moments, the prejudice: objectification, discredit,” Uliano da Silva says. “The only thing I could think when such things occurred was that such behavior is based in insecurity. People are afraid of change, yet change is the thing that makes mankind move forward in astonishing ways. Science has at present shown us that each individual, irrespective of origin or gender, has the potential to be as creative as anyone else.”

6. Jedidah Isler, Astrophysicist

Astrophysicist Jedidah Isler studies supermassive, overactive black holes. These objects consume material at a rate upwards of a thousand times more than an average supermassive black hole. They pull in material via an accretion disk that spins about the black hole, and then shoot it out via jets that travel at 99.99% the speed of light. When these jets are directed towards the Earth, we call the supermassive, hyperactive black holes that yield them blazers, or blazing quasars. Isler is working to comprehend how and where the highest-energy light from the jet is created, and how that energy is conveyed through the galaxy.

“In this picture, see the future. I see a diverse set of explorers, thinkers, builders, achievers who are using their implausible intellect to advance the world we live in,” Isler says. “As a woman of color in STEM, I see the chance to add my voice to the chorus of women redefining what it means to ‘be’ a researcher or ‘do’ scientific work. It is an honor and pride to stand with these women, but even more, to stand as an example for the next generation. I hope young women all over the world see themselves signified somewhere in this image, seek greater STEM dreams and find herself in the company of the next generation of women in STEM.”

7. Laura Boykin, Computational Biologist

Smallholder farmers in Africa depend on on cassava for both sustenance and cash, but this crucial principal crop is threatened by whitefly, an insect that transfers a damaging virus to the plant. Computational biologist Laura Boykin uses genomics, supercomputing and phylogenetics to detect whitefly species, collecting information essential for scientists to modify cassava to fight both insect and virus. To accelerate progress, Boykin has launched WhiteFlyBase — the world’s first database of whitefly genetic information — with the hope of eliminating whitefly and bringing food security to East Africa.

“Being a woman in science can be lonely,” says Boykin. “When I see this picture, I realize I will never be alone again. I also think about all the young females in science who can stand on our shoulders, as we will be delivering a ladder for them — not pulling it up as so many before us have done.”

8. Patricia Medici, Conservation Biologist

Brazilian environmentalist Patricia Medici has dedicated her life to preserving the life and habitat of the South American lowland tapir, the biggest terrestrial mammal of South America. However not well known, tapirs are important to their ecosystems as an umbrella species: protecting tapirs also protects iconic species like peccaries, jaguars and pumas. Tapirs also help distribute the seeds of the foods they eat, shaping and upholding the structure of forests. Sadly, tapirs are endangered by deforestation, hunting and roads, and are particularly exposed due to their long gestation periods.

“I began my tapir work in 1996 when it was a pioneer research and conservation program and we had almost zero information about tapirs,” says Medici. “They are really hard to study, mostly because they are nocturnal, solitary, very elusive animals. That’s precisely what fascinated me. The rest is history. It’s not always easy to be a woman in the conservation world as it needs a significant level of commitment to spending long periods of time in the field, away from home and family. It also needs physical strength and the proper frame of mind to deal with the adversities of working in the wilderness — not to mention the mosquitoes, ticks and botflies!”

9. Lucianne Walkowicz, Astronomer

Stellar astrophysicist Lucianne Walkowicz works with data from NASA’s Kepler mission, reviewing stars that host planets beyond our solar system, and how stellar radiation efects whether life could flourish on those worlds. Lucianne also mines astronomical datasets in search of signals from intelligent life in the cosmos, and is a forerunner in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a new project that will scan the sky every night for 10 years to produce a huge cosmic movie of our Universe.

“Searching for inhabitable worlds and life in the universe actually makes me value our home, Planet Earth!” says Walkowicz. Both our challenges and our chances are so great, we require the brightest minds to create the future we want to see — and that means making science open and accessible for all.”

10. Julie Freeman, Artist/Computer Researcher

British artist and computer researcher Julie Freeman makes kinetic sculptures, compositions and animations from nature-generated data, such as the motion of fish swimming, or the quiver of moths’ wings. “I use digital technology as a communication bridge among the natural world and ourselves,” she says. “I make artwork that lets me to be curious about nature in different ways, and to share that curiosity. What is it about natural systems that are so convincing? How can we comprehend phenomena that exist outside our sensory perception? Technology lets us insight into hidden elements of biological systems, and can permit us to experience things in new ways.” Freeman’s online, data-driven artwork “We Need Us” explores the nature of metadata, and the humanity in the life of data.

“One of the things I’m progressively aware of is the multiplicity of roles we all play,” says Freeman. “I am an artist AND a researcher. A swimmer and a speaker. A consultant and an entrepreneur. I am shy and I am outspoken. I do not believe any of us represent a single role or gender. We care about being given respect and equal opportunity to do whatever we are good at — without the fight, without the justifications that we find ourselves involuntarily pronouncing.”

11. Michele Koppes, glaciologist

Glaciologist Michele Koppes journeys to the coolest places on Earth to study glaciers: how they move, carve out valleys and mountains, and respond to the warming atmosphere, oceans, and rocks — as well as how these changes influence the landscape, water resources and biodiversity. Her one-of-a-kind research in the Himalayas fills in gaps of unrecorded glacial change, and may help exposed populations adapt to shifting weather patterns.

“As a woman, I continually require to prove I am not only scientifically capable, but strong enough to thrive in the field, in the harsh environments of my research,” says Koppes. “Doing science properly is rife with failed efforts — on top of this, women must stand up for their legitimate seat at the table. The time has come for both women and men to abandon the cultural stereotypes of what a ‘proper scientist’ should be — we can all be curious, creative, brainy, rational, driven, successful, and loving partners and parents, playful and engaged teammates and citizens.”

12. Sheila Ochugboju Kaka, Genetic Virologist

As a child growing up in rural Nigeria, Sheila Ochugboju Kaka was counseled to stay indoors to stay safe from a wild environment — an upbringing that piqued her curiosity about unseen things that can so easily kill a child: bacteria, viruses, scorpions in the sand. This curiosity led her to study baculoviruses as a postdoctoral research fellow at Oxford University, examining genetic engineering as a way to yield commercially viable biopesticides. Today, Ochugboju Kaka is a science communicator and international development expert, promoting the connection of art and science — such as the Wellcome Trust’s Danscience project, an investigation of the science of epigenetics through dance — to promote innovation and social change.

“It’s incredible to be among such a varied mix of women researchers which in itself demonstrates the power that different perspectives, skills, experience and heritage brings to any discipline,” says Ochugboju Kaka. I’m also stimulated that almost 20 years after I got my PhD in biochemistry, the image of women in science is at last shifting. What a beautiful change that makes.”