Category Archives: Role Models

Book Review – The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Apologies for the long silence here recently.  Work travel schedule has been a little crazy – in fact, there was only one day this week where I was not on an airplane.

But all this travel afforded me some good audiobook listening time in the various car and airplane rides, so I finally got around to one that has been on my list for ages.  I have wanted to learn more about the Mercury 13 for quite a while, so I used one of my stacked-up Audible credits to pick up The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann.

Written with a beautiful forward by journalist (and NASA journalist in space finalist, before that program was canceled) Lynn Sherr, the book tells the story of some incredible pioneering women in the early days of manned spaceflight.  Their stories are interwoven with political and social context of the times, giving excellent perspective on what was happening – and why- with astronaut selections.

It’s amazing to me just how close we came to having a female astronaut in the early days of the Mercury program.  The Lovelace Foundation privately put thirteen women through the same testing as the male Mercury astronauts, and they excelled.  In many cases, the blew the men out of the water with their performance on those tests.  Mary “Wally” Funk, for example, stayed in the sensory deprivation chamber for a record-setting 10 hours, 35 minutes.  There was also a strong argument for using astronauts who were smaller and lighter in a time when the U.S. space program was having difficulty getting larger payloads to orbit.

The frustrations, challenges, and – in many cases – outright sexism and unfairness did not deter these women.  They continued their personal careers pioneering as champion air racers, military reservists, FAA examiners, flight instructions, and commercial pilots, while also hoping and fighting for the chance to go to space.  NASA’s blanket policy of only using military test pilots unilaterally barred women.  Since women were not allowed to be military test pilots, none would ever pass that wicket  – NASA didn’t need to specifically say “no women allowed,” they just had to include a prerequisite that already said it for them.  The all-white-protestant-male face of NASA would not change for many more years, but it’s important that we don’t forget that there were women who were more than qualified and fighting to go.

The program was kept pretty quiet at the time, and so has almost been lost in history.  I think it’s important to remember these stories.  This book is a well-told story of some amazing women.  I strongly recommend reading this book as a fascinating piece of our history with examples of amazing female role models, and a good story of fighting for equality for all.

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Makers Season 2

A while back I wrote about the first three episodes of Makers: Women Who Make America.  Thankfully, the show is back for a second season on PBS.  You can watch it for free on the PBS website (check  your local station’s website).  So far this season they have run episodes titled Women in Comedy, Women in Hollywood and — my favorite — this week they ran Women in Space.

My preschooler found the Women in Space episode just as riveting as I did, so these are mostly good for family viewing and all ages.  There are a few fairly rough moments in the Season 1 episodes detailing the history of the women’s movement, and the comedy episode doesn’t bleep out everything completely, so parents should be the judge of what very young ones see.

I just can’t get enough of the women in this country who blazed the trail into space and will probably watch the latest episode at least a couple more times.  Up next is Women in War, which is another topic that is very close to home.  Can’t wait to see it.

If you haven’t watched any of the episodes yet, they can each be watched alone, but I recommend watching Season 1 in chronological order, and season 2 in any order that strikes your fancy.  Enjoy, and let me know what you thought of them in the comments!

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Reasons Why I Love Geena Davis

In between my much-more-serious-than-usual series of posts about combating sexual assault, I’d like to intersperse some more positive posts.  Today I just want to point out that I adore Geena Davis.  She is not exactly a STEM female role model, but she is a terrific role model overall for young people, and actively working to improve the world by using her voice to call out the rampant sexism in the U.S. media.

If you’ve never heard of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, you should check it out here.  The institute points out the disparity in on-screen representation between men and women, as well as how the women are represented.  Following their tagline “If she can see it, she can be it,” the institute pushes for more positive role models and realistic representations of women in all forms of media.

But other than her really great works with the institute, Geena Davis has a lot going for her in the awesome role model department.  Here are just a few of the reasons why I love her (yes, I know I’m resorting to a ‘top 10’ list… sorry, it’s been a busy month):

10. She takes action rather than just talking (see: the institute she formed).

9.  She is seriously talented.  From A League of Their Own to Thelma & Louise to Beetlejuice, she plays diverse characters really, really well.  I’d even argue she made the best out of her script in the incredibly campy cult classic Earth Girls are Easy.  And of course there’s that Oscar and that Golden Globe and… well, yeah, a lot of awards.

8. Did I mention A League of Their Own?

7. She goes for the great roles, even if they are controversial.  She goes for the fun and interesting roles, even if they are not ‘good career moves.’

6. She is a member of Mensa.

5. In addition to fighting inequality in the media, she fights inequality in women’s sports.  She works with the Women’s Sports Foundation to support title IX.

4. She is an activist with more than her own institute and core interests.  She’s worked with USAID, Dads and Daughters, and more.

3. She doesn’t just support sports for men, she’s also a competitor.  She’s a highly-ranked competitive archer and has been in the sport since way before it was cool in the wake of Legolas, Katniss, Merida, Hawkeye, and the Na’vi taking to the big screen with their bows in the last decade.  I mean she’s seriously competitive – she took up archery in 1997 and made it all the way to the semifinals in the trials for the U.S. team for the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics.

2. She was a believable, tough, highly effective President in Commander in Chief.  The role fully embodied “If she can see it, she can be it.”  Every person who saw that show saw that it was not only possible, but a really good thing for a woman to be president.  And she won a Golden Globe for the role, plus a bunch of nominations for other awards.  That show was canceled way too early.

1.  She somehow manages to do all of the above while also being a mom of three, avoiding most of the major pitfalls of fame, surviving more than three decades as a successful actress in Hollywood, and… being really, really funny.  Seriously, check this out:

Ok, ten is more than enough.  That’s plenty of fangirl-ing for today.  Now I recommend you go watch Geena Davis as the President of the United States… I’ll apologize in advance for the fact that you will get completely hooked and then wonder why there are suddenly no more episodes.

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Flossie Wong-Staal

Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month!  If you’re not sure what that is, the official site is here.  May is almost over, but I’m squeezing this post in just in time!

Today’s STEM role model is a woman who has made tremendous strides in the fight against AIDS.  She was the first to clone the HIV virus and map its genes, and she helped to make the initial connection between HIV and AIDS.

Yee-ching Wong was born in China in 1947, but her family fled to Hong Kong in 1952 to escape Communism.   Following a basic science-track education taught by British nuns in Hong Kong, where she chose her English name Flossie, she began her higher education at UCLA in 1965.  She chose to follow on with graduate work in molecular biology.

In 1971 she married Steven Staal, and in 1972 she earned her PhD and was named the Woman Graduate of the Year at UCLA.  In 1973 her husband, a medical doctor, began working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD, so Flossie joined him there and got a job at Robert Gallo’s lab in the National Cancer Institute at NIH.

The research Robert Gallo was conducting in that lab focused on viruses that caused cancer in animals, and how those viruses affected cells.  Their work on oncogenes in animals led Flossie to be the first to find oncogenes in humans.  Flossie quickly rose to a leadership position in the lab and flourished, enjoying the research that frequently led to new and exciting discoveries.

In 1983, the NCI lab and the Pasteur Institute in Paris separately isolated and identified the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  In 1984, Flossie Wong-Staal became the first to clone and map the genes of HIV.  This was key in allowing for development of HIV blood tests.  In 1985, she was divorced but kept her hyphenated name.

In 1990, she accepted a position at UC San Diego to head their new center for AIDS research.  There she pursued multiple avenues to try to combat HIV and AIDS, attempting to find treatments, vaccines, and cures by various methods.  The most promising of these so far is a ribozyme treatment that keeps the virus from reproducing.

A widely respected researcher, Wong-Staal’s publications were once found to be the most-cited by a female researcher in the 1980s.  She was named the top woman researcher of the 1980s by the Institute for Scientific Information, and in 2002 she was named one of the top 50 female scientists by Discover Magazine.

In 2002 she left UCSD to become vice president and Chief Science Officer (CSO) for genomics at Immusol, now renamed to iTherX.  She continues to work to defeat deadly viruses,  and is particularly focused on pursuing treatments for Hepatitis C.

If you’d like to know more about this talented and dedicated researched, check out the links in the resources section below.

Resources:

http://www.usasciencefestival.org/schoolprograms/2014-role-models-in-science-engineering/371-flossie.html

http://alumni.ucla.edu/share/alumni-stories/stories/flossie-wong-staal.aspx

http://www.bookrags.com/biography/flossie-wong-staal-wmi/

http://www.biography-center.com/biographies/10406-Wong_Staal_Flossie.html

http://www.library.ca.gov/calhist/calendar10-5.html

http://www2.edc.org/womensequity/women/wong.htm

http://www.scientistafoundation.com/34/post/2013/08/meet-flossie-wong-staal-pioneer-in-hiv-research.html

http://www.fofweb.com/History/MainPrintPage.asp?iPin=AHBio0017&DataType=AmericanHistory&WinType=Free

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

First off, please don’t ask me to attempt to pronounce this one.  But don’t let my complete lack of French ability keep you from reading about this Nobel Prize-winning virologist!

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, a native of Paris, earned her PhD at the University of Paris in 1974.  Beginning in her early childhood days, she always displayed a passion for science.  It was both her favorite and best subject in school.  This, combined with her love of research discovered as an undergraduate, drove her to a scientific research career that has been primarily with the Pasteur Institute (yes, that Pasteur, the guy who gave us long-lasting dairy foods) but also included the National Institute of Health and National Cancer Institute in the U.S.

In the late 1970s she joined Luc Montagnier’s group at the Pasteur Institute to work on retroviruses.  In 1982, a virologist at a hospital in Paris asked their group to look into the possibility of a retrovirus being the problem causing an epidemic disease that was on the rise and beginning to make headlines: the disease that would eventually be named AIDS.

1983 was the first year she worked full time on AIDS research.  That was the year her group was able to isolate, describe, and even photograph the HIV virus.  She was first author on the paper that reported the discovery of the virus behind the AIDS epidemic.  In 1992 she moved up to head of the Biology of Retroviruses unit at the Pasteur Institute.

A great lover of nature, she ventured from the laboratory whenever possible.  She frequently traveled to the places where AIDS was widespread or having the most devastating effects, including the Central African Republic and Vietnam.  She visited patients dying of the disease in hospitals from Paris to San Francisco.  She did not let the disease remain just a thing to be studied in a laboratory, but saw its very real and devastating impacts in person.  It is very unusual for disease researchers to actually interact with patients.

In 2008 she and Luc Montagnier were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for that initial discovery of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  The discovery and isolation of the virus was a tremendous first step in the ongoing fight against AIDS, and she is currently still working to achieve both things that could defeat AIDS: a vaccine, and a functional cure.  She wouldn’t be satisfied with that, though – she also insists on continuing searching for a total cure once those first two are achieved.

She was often discouraged on her path to her chosen career by men who thought such scientific research was not the place for a woman.  Thirty years later, the world is incredibly fortunate that such a driven person followed her passion and is still, in her late 60s, working to combat one of the most frightening and devastating diseases of our lifetimes.

Resources:

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2008/barre-sinoussi-slides.pdf

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2008/barre-sinoussi-bio.html

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/15/francoise-barre-sinoussi-cure-aids-hiv

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/3467c5ca-bcf6-11e2-b344-00144feab7de.html#axzz2z6p5L824

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1473980/Francoise-Barre-Sinoussi

http://www.nndb.com/people/529/000176998/

http://www.amfar.org/pushing-for-better-coordination-on-cure-research/

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Edith Clarke

Edith Clarke was born on a farm in rural Maryland in 1883.  After earning her undergraduate degrees in math and astronomy from Vassar (Phi Beta Kappa), she went on to teach math and physics at a girls’ school for a few years.

She also worked as a computor – literally a human who performed mathematical calculations before our modern-day computers and calculators were invented.  During WWI, she managed a group of women computors who performed calculations for the Transmission and Protection Engineering Department.

In 1918 she became the first woman to graduate from MIT with a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering, and went on the next year to work for General Electric (GE) until 1945.  During this time she patented a ‘graphical calculator’ and several other devices.  She became the first woman to present a paper before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE, now the IEEE), as well as first to become a voting member and fellow of that group.

Working primarily as a computor at GE because they would not employ a woman engineer, she also pursued other interests.  She wrote or co-authored 19 technical papers over several decades, and won a tennis championship.

She took a leave of absence from GE to travel around Europe and teach at a women’s university in Turkey for a year.  Upon her return, she was finally assigned to work as an engineer for GE at their Central Station Engineering Department, which made her the first U.S. woman to be professionally employed as an electrical engineer.

Two years after retiring from GE, she took a teaching position at the University of Texas, Austin, and was their first female professor of engineering.  She was one of those rare, talented people who could break down complicated mathematics into simpler forms and teach it as well as work with it.

In 1954 she earned the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Achievement Award, and retired in 1956.  She died a few years later, at the age of 76.  Her other awards include a spot in the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.

Edith Clarke paved the way for many female engineers to follow in her footsteps, and showed great tenacity in her pursuit of full-time engineering work instead of the ‘usual’ jobs allowed women of her time.

Sources:

http://www.engineergirl.org/Engineers/HistoricalEngineers/4399.aspx

http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshall/html/clarke.html

http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/014000/014065/html/14065bio.html

https://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/clarke.htm

http://edisontechcenter.org/Clarke.html

http://www.computerhope.com/people/edith_clarke.htm

http://www.thocp.net/biographies/clark_edith.html

http://www.ieeeghn.org/wiki/index.php/Edith_Clarke

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Young Inventors FTW! Helping Shed Light in Disaster Zones.

Special thanks to my sister for pointing out these creative ladies and their amazing invention for today’s blog post (my 50th post already!).  They were featured on one of my favorite websites, A Might Girl, and made national news and several ‘recommended gear’ lists with their extraordinary device.  LuminAID was developed to assist rescuers and victims in the wake of disasters and has since found even more good uses.

Sometimes the simplest solution is the most elegant and useful.  That’s particularly true of the LuminAID.  One of the biggest challenges in a disaster zone is being able to see in the dark – rescuers need light to find those who need help, and people without electricity despair in the dark.  Batteries are expensive, and hand-crank lights are cumbersome.  The LuminAID is one of those wonderful inventions that make us go, “Now why didn’t I think of that?!” when some brilliant soul solves a difficult problem with a solution that is realistic, effective and – rarest of all – affordable.

Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta were assigned a class project while in grad school to develop something that would help in a disaster zone, shortly after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.  They carefully listened to what aid workers said were some of the most pressing and overlooked needs, and decided to develop a reliable, portable, lightweight light source to fulfill a critical need.  The result was the LuminAID:

Just a couple smart, driven people really can make a huge difference in the world.  Through their Give Light, Get Light initiative, thousands of these lights have been sent to areas and individuals in need all over the planet.  Imagine what else a young person in your life could accomplish in the future with a little STEM education under her belt…

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Rhea Seddon – Astronaut, Doctor, Mom

Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon was one of six women in the first class of NASA astronauts to include females.  She graduated from medical school in 1973, completed a surgical residency, and worked as an emergency room physician before she was accepted as an astronaut candidate in 1979.  She is an avid pilot and passionate advocate for young women in STEM fields and patient safety training initiatives.

Her first flight into space was on Discovery in 1985, and her second and third flights were on Columbia in 1991 and 1993.  She flew as a mission specialist and as a payload commander for Spacelab, and tallied over 722 hours in space.

After leaving NASA in 1997, she went back into the medical field, working for the Vanderbilt Medical Group in Nashville for eleven years before moving to her current position with LifeWing Partners, LLC.  She is not afraid to stand up for others in her patient safety advocacy work, but she is also not afraid to stand up for herself.  In 2008 she filed a gender-discrimination suit against former employer Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Married to a fellow astronaut, she blazed trials at NASA by becoming not only one of the first women astronauts, but also the first active astronaut to have a baby – in fact, she had three while at NASA.  And she did it all while keeping her medical skills sharp working on the side at the ER and balancing family life with two astronauts in the family.

Rhea Seddon is an impressive STEM female role model, and a good example of how you can work in several fields – medicine, science, safety, advocacy – and tie them all together into a successful career that positively impacts society.

 

Sources:

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/seddon.html

http://astronautrheaseddon.com/

http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20080152,00.html

http://www.murfreesboropost.com/astronaut-advocate-calls-murfreesboro-home-cms-29698

http://www.saferpatients.com/leadership/rhea-seddon.htm

http://korywells.com/2013/04/interview-with-astronaut-rhea-seddon/

http://www.windows2universe.org/people/astronauts/seddon.html

https://nashvillepost.com/news/2008/8/15/ex_astronaut_sues_vumc_for_gender_discrimination

http://www.tntech.edu/pressreleases/astronaut-rhea-seddon-to-launch-address-at-ttu/

http://womenshistory.about.com/od/aviationspace/ig/Women-Astronauts/Margaret-Rhea-Seddon.htm

http://www.murfreesboropost.com/ex-astronaut-files-suit-against-vanderbilt-medical-center-cms-12539

http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1624.html#.UyJ47eewKXc

http://secondandchurch.typepad.com/2nd-church/q3-issue.html

http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/SeddonMR/SeddonMR_5-21-10.htm

 

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Mary Walton, Inventor

I love the title “inventor.”  Who wouldn’t want to create new things for a living?  It always sounds so exciting.  Of course, then I remember that it’s sort of what engineers do, too (when we’re not doing things like paperwork and spreadsheets and attending meetings).  You may not be able to major in inventing in college, but most STEM fields are fairly equivalent – computer scientists invent new software, games, even languages.  Engineers invent new technology and apply new research to make things work.  Pharmaceutical researches invent new medicines, and so on.  STEM fields are all creative fields that contribute new knowledge, ideas, and technology to society.

Today’s STEM role model, Mary Walton, was a creative inventor in the 19th century.  Nearly a century and a half later she is also still very relevant.  She was an early pioneer of technology designed to help solve the problem of pollution – and pollution is something we are keenly aware of in this year of record-breaking smog and unusual weather.

In 1879, Mary Walton was awarded a patent for a device to mitigate pollution from smokestacks by sending the smoke into a tank of water, which was then flushed through the sewer system.  Later, she applied the same technology for use on trains, reducing the coal smoke from locomotive engines.

In the 1800s, she shifted focus from air pollution to noise pollution and developed a way to reduce noise from the elevated trains that were becoming so prevalent in most major U.S. cities’ public transportation systems.  The trains rattled and clanged badly on the elevated tracks.  Working in her basement on a model first, Mary Walton found a creative solution to dampen the sound involving a wood box for the tracks to rest in that was lined with cotton, then tar, and finally sand.

Both of her innovative pollution solutions were awarded patents, and she eventually sold the train one to the Metropolitan Railroad of New York City.

Very little is known about the life of Mary Walton, but she seems to me to have been a very practical person.  She was a city dweller in New York who was understandably sick of the air pollution and the noise pollution.  And she did something about it.  I wish we knew more about her, but I chose her as today’s role model because what we do know is that she was a creative, talented, and smart inventor, and the kind of person who saw a problem in her city, tackled it, and solved it.  Who knows how much worse the smog of the industrial revolution would have been without her?  And she must have overcome quite a few challenges to be taken seriously as a woman inventor in 19th century Manhattan.

Have you ever thought of inventing something?  What problem would you like to solve?

Resources:

http://inventors.about.com/od/wstartinventors/a/Mary_Walton.htm

http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/walton.html

http://www.engineergirl.org/Engineers/HistoricalEngineers/4430.aspx

http://library.thinkquest.org/05aug/00160/a_marywalton.html

http://www.howstuffworks.com/engineering/structural/10-women-in-engineering8.htm

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Why the STEM Female Role Model Spotlights?

The STEM Female Role Model Spotlight posts really serve several purposes.  First, they are to show that there are, in fact, lots of really good female role models in STEM fields.  I try to keep a good mix of those you have likely heard of and those you probably haven’t, across a spread of fields to include everything from computers to chemistry to carbon-dating, and time periods ranging from the earliest scientists to current day computer wizards.  This is important because studies have shown that one of the biggest things that keeps girls from entering STEM fields is a lack of visible female role models in the field – if they don’t see women, especially successful ones in leadership roles in that field, they tend to think it’s ‘not for women’ and the cycle keeps on repeating itself.  Nothing ever changes.

Second, they give me something to write about on days when I don’t have any other topic in mind.  I have a growing list of women who I think would be good for these posts.   I can pick one from the list who, on any given day, I would like to do a little digging on, learn more about, and write about.  These posts save me from ever having to deal with a bad case of writer’s block!  Since I try to write every day, this is crucial.

Third, I just find making these posts fun and interesting.  I enjoy the research part, and think of it as creating a sort of database I can refer to if my daughter is ever looking for a good role model in a particular field.

I hope you find these women’s stories interesting as well.  I welcome any additions to that list, so please feel free to nominate someone you know of who hasn’t been featured yet!

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