Today’s postmodernist landscape has ushered new ways of thinking and opened doors for feminine voices that have once been shrouded by a society predominantly ‘malestream’. From exploring brain disorders to keeping people healthier longer, and to uncovering the fascinating facets of nanotechnology—these exceptional women have inspired tremendous progress in the scientific community. Here, we highlight three female stars of science.

1.   Gillian Einstein: Exploring science, sex and sexism

Do brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disproportionately affect women? Are cultural practices and health anomalies purely biological? Or are they social constructs?

A distant cousin of Albert Einstein, Gillian Einstein – in attempting to explore the correlation between cultural practices and health anomalies – raised the question: Do these practices create the differences between the sexes, or are they merely reflecting them?

An advocate for multidisciplinary research in women’s health and a neuroscientist, Dr Einstein started examining the effects of female genital cutting when she opened her lab at the University of Toronto, in 20016. Her current research efforts explore the neurobiological effects of cultural practices; such as female genital cutting and the effects of hormonal cycling on cognition and mood.

As pointed out by Dr Einstein, so much of the focus of these women has been on their genitalia and reproductive lives. “Of course, I care about whether that is important to them. But, I actually started out by telling the women that I’m not interested in your genitalia. I’m interested in your brain.”

The sensory “homunculus” – or the pictographic map of the brain – according to Dr Einstein, resembles a little like a ghoulist Spartan helmet: “a curved hemisphere of cortex with drawings of limbs, digits and organs sprouting from every inch.”

The brain region, where sensation from the genitalia is processed, sits right beside the spot for sensation from the feet and lower limbs. She questions the possibility of the gait being affected when women’s genitals are cut. Gleaning through 65-plus years of literature, Dr Einstein and her team discovered that every illustration of the sensory homunculus depicted a man.

Yet, nobody had mapped a woman’s body. The “homunculus,” as Dr Einstein later termed it, is mostly blank apart from the breasts and vagina.

Policies to address the long-established gender bias in clinical health research started since the 1990s. Dr Einstein feels that because women were consistently “under-represented in clinical trials” for decades – the efficacy and safety of therapies are less certain for them. Evidently, of the 10 prescription drugs withdrawn from the US market between 1997 and 2001 – eight were more dangerous for women. It is most pronounced in neuroscience studies, where many tend to use only male animal models.

2.   Elizabeth Blackburn: Staying healthier longer

The Nobel winner, who discovered the role of telomerase and telomeres in the ageing process, believes that when we keep telomeres in prime condition – we can stay disease-free longer.

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn in her lab before her Nobel prize award in 2009. Photo credit: C. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings
Professor Elizabeth Blackburn in her lab before her Nobel prize award in 2009. Photo credit: C. Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

In her research, Dr Blackburn provides insights into why some 60-year-old individuals look and feel like 40-year-olds. She attributes it to the biological indicator called telomerase, which protects our genetic heritage.

“We all have health spans – the number of years we remain healthy, active and disease-free – and the shortening of our telomeres contributes to ageing, as well as and our entry from health span into disease span. But we can [do things that] affect our telomerase and telomeres, that can [delay] entry from health span to disease span.

“So, we are talking more about keeping people healthier for longer and staving off some diseases of ageing. This is not about extreme life span extension – though of course staying healthier longer does have a reflection in mortality rates,” explains Dr Blackburn, the co-author of ‘The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer’.

First of its kind, the book details how we age at the cellular level, and authors Dr Blackburn and Dr Elissa Epel have found that our lifestyles can protect our telomeres – minimising the effects of ageing.

Integrating new studies from genetics, epidemiology and social science, the authors show that sleep quality, exercise, aspects of diet, and even certain chemicals can affect our telomeres. In addition, chronic stress, negative thoughts, strained relationships – and even the wrong neighbourhoods – can be detrimental to our health spans.

Ideally, neighbourhoods characterised by trust, green spaces, and safe streets have positive effects on our health. Positive relationships pave the way for longer telomeres; especially among married people or those with partners. Abused women were found to have shorter telomeres and one preliminary study suggested having children may boost telomere health.

Regarding her own telomeres, Dr Blackburn expresses that “I had my telomeres tested because I was part of a research study. It turned out I had long telomeres.” Nonetheless, the test result doesn’t stop Dr Blackburn from taking seriously the lessons she’s learnt from the research. “I do try to build these things into my life. I exercise, but I don’t spend hours at the gym. I have a good diet, but am not fanatical about food. And, I certainly try to think about the effect of stress. I practise micro-meditations which I think help,” she adds.

As president of the Salk Institute in San Diego, Dr Blackburn feels the need to be active. “I expect there is going to be a mass shortening of telomeres around the country – related to the chronic severe stress – that will be a consequence, if a number of Trump’s policies come to pass... We are in for big individual and societal costs.”

3.   Mildred Dresselhaus: 'Queen of Carbon' and nanoscience pioneer

The daughter of Eastern European immigrants, Mildred Dresselhaus lived through the Great Depression and earned a status of royalty in the scientific community. A trailblazer in science, she has paved the path – defying the odds of patriarchy, and opening doors for potential successors – particularly the female scientists she mentored.

"When I came, we only had 4% of women at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and fewer even in physics," recalled Dresselhaus of her early days in 1960, when she was hired by MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. "Today, we're getting close to the 50% mark. That's an amazing achievement in one lifetime.”

Dresselhaus' work with carbon materials, semiconductors and nanotubes made her the first woman to have clinched the National Medal of Science in Engineering in 1990, and earned the Medal of Freedom in 2014—the highest civilian honour in the US.

She certainly had bagged a string of ‘firsts’ throughout her career milestone—being the first woman to become a fully tenured professor at MIT; the first to become an institute professor; and the first solo recipient of the prestigious Kavli Prize, for her contributions to nanoscience. In addition, Dresselhaus had published more than 1,700 papers and co-written eight books.

Dubbed the "Queen of Carbon" and nanoscience trailblazer, Dresselhaus died recently. She was 86.

"Yesterday, we lost a giant—an exceptionally creative scientist and engineer who was also a delightful human being," expressed MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

‘Queen of Carbon’, Mildred Dresselhaus, was awarded the Kavli Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to nanoscience. Photo credit: NPR/Marit Hommedal/Flickr
‘Queen of Carbon’, Mildred Dresselhaus, was awarded the Kavli Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to nanoscience. Photo credit: NPR/Marit Hommedal/Flickr

Dresselhaus "laid the foundation of nanotechnology by predicting the existence of carbon nanotubes before anyone had actually seen these tiny but very strong structures for the first time,"Talk of the Nation host, Ira Flatow shared in 2007.

Dresselhaus was not one to rest on her laurels. Even in 2014, she was still actively evangelising for the sciences.

"I think that entering the field of science is really almost the best career [young women] can have… There are two reasons. One, the work is very interesting; and secondly, you're judged by what you do and not what you look like,” remarked Dresselhaus, with pride.

Just as she had described physicists as stars, she is certainly the spectacular star that illuminates the dignified capabilities of women. MIMS

Read more:
Women in science: Tackling FGM, creating designer pigs and advancing cardiology
Male and female brains may be biologically different
Hundreds of women died for the sake of research in cancer clinical trial