Tag Archives: female role models

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.



















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Smart and Beautiful Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Cover of Danica McKellar’s first of several math books, from http://www.mathdoesntsuck.com/images/mds.png

One of the more obnoxious trends I’ve seen lately is these taobloid-website lists of ‘famous women who have both beauty and brains!’  or ’50 hottest smart girls’ or some title to that effect.  They make it sound like it’s this totally shocking thing that almost never happens.

I couldn’t put my finger at first on all of the many reasons I was so completely horrified and offended by these.  So I’ll break it down into smaller pieces.

First, for a woman to become and stay famous, she already usually has some sort of talent (not always, I’ll grant you, but usually).  Is it that big a stretch that her talents for politics, singing, acting, photography, dance, or whatever made her actually famous might be only one of the things she’s good at?  Should it really be a surprise that in addition to drive and charm she’s got a good head on her shoulders?  Brains and beauty are certainly not mutually exclusive.

Second, some of these lists say ‘girls’ rather than women.  Every single person I saw on the lists was in her twenties or beyond.  You would never see a list like this with ‘boys’ in the title if any of them were over 18.  Stop infantalizing women, mass media.  They are women.  Ladies.  Grown Females.  Pick a word that addresses them correctly – these are not little girls.

Third, the stereotype of smart women being ugly is obnoxious and incorrect.  I think the majority, not a minority, of smart, successful women are beautiful.  And that being smart and well-educated just makes them even more beautiful and interesting people.  I know and work with a lot of very smart, very lovely women.

Fourth, I disagree with our country’s ridiculous standard of what is ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’ anyway.  I think that will probably be a post of its own one of these days, but for now let’s just say I don’t think that super skinny with caked-on makeup and a skimpy, ‘fashionable’ outfit is the end-all, be-all of attractiveness.

I love that Danica McKellar has a degree in math and writes books for young girls encouraging them to like and be good at math.  I think it’s fantastic that Kate Beckinsale speaks four languages fluently, and that Natalie Portman went to Harvard.  What drives me nuts is that because they also are public figures who meet a certain current Hollywood standard of beauty, people assume they are stupid.  That they are freakish outliers.  I assure you they, for the most part, are not.  So let’s give all women the benefit of the doubt and assume brains until proven otherwise, and not judge on looks, stereotypes, clothing, or any other silly external factor.

Speaking of Danica McKellar, when I went to search for an image for this post, I thought it would be fun to find one of her books to show in this post.  When I started typing her name in to google, it auto-filled for me to ‘Danica McKellar hot.’  That alone says a lot.  It says that’s what way more people care about – finding steamy pictures of her, not her great work in STEM outreach and making math more accessible for girls and young women.

Do you think that smart women really fit the stereotype?  Who are the smart and beautiful women in your life?  How do you bust the stereotype when someone starts making false assumptions?

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space

Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space. Photo from http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/Images/StarChild/scientists/tereshkova_l2.jpg

A pet peeve of mine is when someone calls Alan Shepard the first man in space, or Sally Ride the first woman in space.  While they were the first American man and woman in space, respectively, and we are very, very proud of them, those are firsts we didn’t actually have the distinction of winning in the space race.  We had many amazing firsts, but not those two.  And when it came to putting a woman in space, we weren’t first by a long shot.  While Yuri Gagarin’s historic first flight was only a little bit ahead of Alan Shepard’s, Sally Ride didn’t fly in space until a full 20 years after the first Soviet woman did.  So much for our superior equality and women’s rights here, right?

Last summer was the 50th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova’s spaceflight.  She became the first woman in space on June 13, 1963.  Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on June 18, 1983.  Thats two entire decades plus a few days apart.  We like to think we are the most equal and progressive country in the world, but a lot of times we fall short of that distinction – women in space, women in the top government position, paid maternity leave… these are all areas where we are nowhere near being the world leaders, but with just a little concerted effort we definitely could be.

The Soviets (now Russians) have been far from perfect in the track record of cosmonaut equality, though.  After Valentina Tereshkova’s flight, they didn’t launch another female cosmonaut until Svetslana Savitskaya in 1982.  And they have had only a total of three women in space to our forty-odd.  But at least they gave one woman a chance early on, unlike in the U.S. space program (the women who very nearly made it to space in the U.S. in the early days, the Mercury 13, will be another post).

To date, just slightly over 10% of all astronauts and cosmonauts in the world have been women, but the numbers are creeping up.  The U.S. is doing particularly well in this arena lately – we went from having zero women in the first astronaut candidate class, to 50% of the most recent astronaut candidate class (4 of 8 selected).

But back to today’s role model.  The daughter of a textile worker mother and tractor driver father, Valentina Tereshkova had limited formal education, attending school only from the age of eight until leaving school to join the work force and take correspondence courses at age seventeen.  Her father went missing in the Sino-Russian war, so she and her two siblings were raised by a single mother.  Valentina was working at a textile mill when she was picked up for the cosmonaut program – not for her prowess in academics or her field, but because of her hobby as an amateur parachutist.  She learned to parachute with a local aviation club that was an auxiliary of the Soviet Air Force.

One of four women selected for Nikita Khrushchev’s “Women in Space” program, she was the only one chosen to actually launch.  Unfortunately, the program mainly existed for the purpose of putting a woman in space before the Americans – little did they know that, sadly, the Americans weren’t even trying to put a woman in space at that point, as the early women’s astronaut program in the U.S. was  actually quietly being canceled.

Since the Vostok’s systems were largely automated and it was chiefly a political stunt, the key criteria for female cosmonauts were parachute experience, ‘likeability’, and having nothing embarrassing or offensive in their records.  Since Valentina was already a leader in her communist youth organization and free of any scandals, she beat out candidates with more education and broader, more applicable experience, such as engineering or test pilot backgrounds.

Valentina Tereshkova’s flight on Voshtok 6 was just shy of 71 hours in duration, long enough to orbit the Earth 48 times.  Accounts of what happened on the flight vary – the public, propaganda version is that the flight was a resounding success and Valentina Tereshkova was a true Soviet hero.  Several prominent party officials later wrote in various memoirs and accounts that she had an emotional breakdown or otherwise failed to complete her mission.  Valentina did not get to give her own side of the story until 2007.  Her account said that the automatic systems were set up incorrectly and she had to override them, the orientation system being 90 degrees off.  That would have sent her off into death in space rather than inserting into the proper re-entry orbit.  Instead, she managed to bring herself and her spacecraft safely back with nothing more than a bruised nose from a hard landing.

Whatever actually happened – and I’m much more inclined to go with her own account than those of propagandists and Soviet-era party leaders – she was able to successfully launch, spend three days in space, and return to Earth in one piece, so I call that a tremendous success.

After her return, there were several party members who tried to start rumors and discredit her.  There were grumblings that any woman who flew was taking a place away from a man.  The female cosmonaut program quietly went away.  Valentina married a fellow cosmonaut – was pressured to marry the one bachelor cosmonaut, in fact – and they had a daughter.  The three were frequently paraded around as the “space family” but it fell apart after a few years and she eventually married Yuliy Shaposhnikov, her partner until his death in 1999.

She went on to complete a graduate degree in engineering and became a pilot and instructor, but never flew in space again, despite her best efforts.  She tried to get back into space when the female cosmonaut program was revived to once again rival the Americans, when word got out that women were beginning training as NASA astronauts in the late 1970s.

Valentina’s career after her flight was spent mainly as a prominent communist party politician and as an activist, making public appearances and working for various organizations to support women’s rights, science, spaceflight, and orphanages, and she even served on the World Peace Council.  She is still active in the Russian government, and has expressed an interest in joining the Mars One program and returning to space as a one-way Mars colonist.  Most recently, she was a flag-bearer in the Sochi Olympics.  Her awards are too many to list here.  Please see the sources below for more information.

Today’s STEM female role model is unique in that she didn’t start out as someone in a STEM field at all.  The fact that a young textile worker with little schooling and a passion for parachuting could become the first woman in space, a pilot, a prominent global politician, activist for women’s rights, pilot, wife, mother, grandmother, and engineer is inspiring.  But the most impressive thing, in my mind, is that even at age 76 she is still dreaming of going to space, and still busy following her many passions.










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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Irene Curie-Joliot

photo from nuclearfiles.org bio

Just about everyone has heard of Marie Curie and her contributions to science.  But not so many have heard of her daughter.  Irene Curie-Joliot was a tremendously successful scientist in her own right.

Born in Paris in 1897, Irene Curie was the daughter of already-famous Marie and Pierre Curie.  Irene served as a nurse radiographer alongside her mother in WWI before finishing her doctorate in 1925 and marrying chemical engineer Frederic Joliot in 1926.  The two of them collaborated in life and science until her death in 1956, sometimes working on separate projects, sometimes working together.

In 1935 Irene Curie-Joliot and Frederic Joliot won the nobel prize in chemistry for their work on synthesizing new radioactive elements.  This was monumental in that they had managed to turn an element into something else, a feat out of the old myths of alchemy.  They achieved it by bombarding naturally occurring elements with alpha particles, making it possible to achieve radioactive isotopes from lighter elements.  This discovery was especially critical to nuclear medicine research.

Irene worked in research, as a lecturer, in politics, and as a mother.  She started lecturing in 1932 and became a full Professor in the Faculty of Science in Paris in 1937.  She and frederic had a daughter, Helene, and a son, Pierre, both highly regarded scientists in their own rights –  Helene in nuclear physics, and Pierre in biochemistry.

Irene Curie-Joliot also worked to advance nuclear power in France, serving as a Commissioner for Atomic energy.  Her efforts in this area led to the development of France’s first atomic pile and the many efficient plants that would follow.  Fearing the weaponization of their work on nuclear fission and development of nuclear reactors, she and Frederic sealed their notes on that subject in the vaults of the French Academy of Sciences until 1949.

In addition to all those efforts, she was the Director of the Radium Institute, which was started by her parents, and she worked on improving education infrastructure in her field and served as France’s Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research starting in 1936.  She was also a champion for women, both socially and academically.  She served on the World Peace Council and Comité National de l’Union des Femmes Françaises.  The Jolie-Curies involvement with socialism and communism in the French resistance during WWII did cause them later troubles during the cold war.  This could partially explain why they are so much less well-known than Irene’s parents.

While the Nobel Prize is arguably her biggest achievement, she received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and prestigious memberships to foreign academies and scientific societies, even serving as an Officer of the Legion of Honor.

After contracting tuberculosis during WWII and frequently convalescing in Switzerland, Irene succumbed to leukemia in 1956.  If you would like to know more and can manage to find it anywhere (let me know if you do –  none of the links I found worked!), PBS put out a film in their Women of Science series called Out from the Shadows: The Story of Irene Joliot-Curie and Frederic Joliot-Curie












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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Caroline Herschel

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was an extraordinary woman in many ways.  The fact that she accomplished so much in the 18th and 19th centuries makes all of it even more impressive.  It makes me wonder what she might have accomplished in an age more receptive to scientific advancement and successful women.  What she did accomplish is nothing short of astonishing.

Born in Hannover, Germany in 1750, she overcame much to become a professional astronomer.  She was the 5th of 6th children, and born a girl in an age where she would always be a second-class citizen at best.  She survived smallpox and typhus, and was disfigured by the former and had her growth badly stunted by the latter.  Her father, a military musician, gave her a basic education in math and music, but her mother did not approve.  Her mother planned for her to become a household maid, assuming no one would want to marry her.  Little did she know her daughter would end up a famous, incredibly successful astronomer instead, widely accepted in scientific and high-class social circles alike.

The Seven Years’ War drove her older brother William to England, and many years later she joined him there as his housekeeper.  William was an organist and choir master, and Caroline became a well known professional singer.

William’s hobby of astronomy and telescope making soon became his career as he gained more success there than he had in music.  Caroline became his apprentice in telescope making, and, despite no formal training, learned complicated mathematics to help him develop new approaches to astronomy.

In 1781, William Herschel discovered Uranus, and a year later became royal astronomer to King George VII and was granted knighthood.  Caroline went with William to continue as his assistant, but also began to branch out on her own.  She is credited with discovering three nebulae in 1783 and a comet in 1786.  In recognition of her own accomplishments, King George started paying her a salary as well, in the official capacity of William’s assistant – this was the first recorded time a woman was paid for a scientific position.

After William married in 1788, Caroline was able to do even more independent work, finding seven more comets and revamping a star catalog.  After her brother died in 1822, Caroline went back to Hannover and finished his job of cataloguing 2500 nebulae.

In 1828, Caroline was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, something that would not be awarded to another woman until 1996.   And she was accepted as an honorary member into the British Royal Society in 1835, along with Mary Somerville.  Sadly, they could not be regular members as women.  In 1838 she was invited into the Irish Royal Society, and the King of Prussia gave her the Gold Medal for Science in 1846.

If you’ve been following all these dates, she worked in astronomy from her twenties up until her death at age 98 in 1848.  This small, disfigured woman with no formal education made a tremendous impact on the science of astronomy.  She blazed trails for women and science, and lived longer than just about anyone in that period.  Her brother, Sir William Herschel, may be much more well-known, but I have to wonder what more she could have done with more schooling, earlier access to scientific peers to work and discuss with, and the access to so many things granted to men in that era.

This is, once again, one of the reasons for this blog – if we can inspire and educate people at a young age, give them opportunities to succeed and clear away the kind of barriers that Caroline Herschel faced, just imagine what the children of this country could do.










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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: RDML Grace Hopper

After yesterday’s post about role models, I realized I should try to highlight some of my favorite female role models in STEM fields.  First up is Rear Admiral “Amazing” Grace Hopper.  She was not only a pioneer in the field of computer science, she was also one of the very first female Admirals, and had an impressive breadth of academic and professional skills.

She’s not nearly as widely known as she should be, because she achieved some truly great things.  For what would have been her 107th birthday last year, she was honored with a Google Doodle for the day, which helped bring attention to some of her accomplishments.  She earned a PhD in mathematics from Yale in the 1930s, when such a thing was extremely rare.  During WWII she felt called to serve and left her teaching job to join the Navy Reserves.

While in the Navy she worked on the Navy’s first computer, the Mark I, at Harvard, as well as several of its follow-on variants.  She is credited for coining the term “bug in the system” when an actual moth in one of the massive early computers was fouling things up – so she was the first de-bugger.  She also created the COBOL programming language and invented the compiler.  Her creative mind was unparalleled, and she was always pushing for change – my favorite quote of hers is that “The most damaging phrase in the language is `We’ve always done it this way.'”

She served so long that at one point she was the oldest woman serving in the Navy.  There is a Navy destroyer named after her, the USS Hopper, which is currently deployed.  She was gifted and driven and she had a passion for developing the next generation, saying, “Our young people are the future. We must provide for them. We must give them the positive leadership they’re looking for…You manage things; you lead people.”

If you’d like to know more about this pioneer in computer science, I recommend her page on the Navy history website, which has her official biography and some good anecdotes about her life and worth.

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