Tag Archives: nobel prize

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.










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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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