5 STEM women who changed the world

Amy O'Neill

In honour of National Women Inventors Month, we're profiling five ground-breaking women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) that have made invaluable contributions to the world and changed the lives of millions. Although times have progressed, and more female graduates than ever are entering into the STEM fields, it wasn't always this way.

As we move forward, it's important to remember the struggles and sacrifices made by the women that came before us, in order to pave the way for change. 


1. Barbara McClintock

Degree: Botany (PhD)

University: Cornell University

Graduated: 1927

STEM field: Medicine

Barbara McClintock was an American scientist and cytogeneticist. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, she received her PhD in botany from Cornell University in 1927. The majority of her work, both at Cornell and in the subsequent years of her career, focused on cytogenetics and chromosomal research. Using maize as her research subject, she developed a number of genetic concepts that would go on to influence a generation of future students and contribute to James Watson’s discovery of DNA.

Among her many scientific breakthroughs, she developed the notion of both genetic recombination and transposition - essentially proving that our genetic material is unfix, and that certain genes are responsible for turning physical characteristics on and off. Until McClintock's discovery, the idea of generic recombination had only been hypothesised in theoretical terms, but had never been proven scientifically. In 1893, she became the first women to be awarded the Noble Prize in Medicine for her contributions to the field of genetics. 


2. Valerie Thomas

Degree: Physics

University: Morgan State University

Graduated: 1964

STEM field: Science 

Valerie Thomas is an American scientist and inventor, who invented the illusion transmitter. Her love of science manifested itself at a young age after watching her father fix a television set. Although she was eager to learn more, she was discouraged from taking up science and math course at school - but she did manage to enrol onto a physics course. After attending a science seminar in 1976, she became fascinated by illusions and soon began conducting her own experiments using flat and concave mirrors. Eventually, she was able to project an illusionary three-dimensional image between two of the concave mirrors.

After gaining a patent for her illusion transmitter in 1980, her invention contributed to the development of 3D technology and continues to be used by NASA to this day. 


3. Hedy Lamarr

Degree: None

University: N/A

Graduated: N/A

STEM field: Science and Technology

Hedy Lamarr was an American actress and inventor, born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. Originally appearing in a number of Austrian, German, and Czech films, she would eventually go onto sign a contract with MGM, where she would be heavily promoted as "the world's most beautiful woman." However, beauty wasn't the only thing Lamarr had behind her...

During World War II, Lamarr co-developed frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology alongside composer George Antheli. The technology was initially used to defend Allied torpedos from the threat of communications interference by the enemies. Various elements of Lamarr and Antheli's invention were integrated into modern Bluetooth technology and also laid much of the groundwork for early Wi-Fi networks. In 2014, Lamarr and Antheli were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.


4. Joan Clarke

Degree: Mathematics

University: Newnham College, Cambridge

Graduated: 1939

STEM field: Technology

Joan Clarke was an English cryptanalyst and numismatist, who was appointed as a Member of the Order British Empire (MBE) for her work on the Engima Project. After graduating from Dulwich High School for Girls in south London, she won a scholarship to study mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge. She would eventually graduate with a double first but was denied her full degree, as up until 1948, Cambridge only awarded "double firsts" to male graduates. 

In June 1940, Clarke was recruited by her former academic adviser to begin working at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) based at Bletchley Park. There, she was the only women to work on Banburismus - a cryptanalytic system designed to crack encrypted German naval communications. Although she was eventually promoted to deputy head of her division, Clarke was prohibited from progressing any further due to her gender and remained on a lower pay-grade than her male colleagues. 


5. Margaret Hamilton 

Degree: Mathematics and Philosophy 

University: Earlham College

Graduated: 1958

STEM field: Engineering

Margaret Hamilton is an American computer scientist and systems engineer who served as director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. This lab was responsible for developing the on-board flight software for NASA's Apollo Moon missions.  In addition to her work with NASA, Hamilton also developed software for predicting weather and contributed to Edward Norton Lorenz's chaos theory.

She was initially brought onto the Apollo Space Mission as a programmer, but quickly moved into systems design. Her team were responsible for navigation and lunar landing guidance, as well as in-flight software such as error-detection and recovery software. Her role helped secure the safety of NASA astronauts during the Apollo flight and and served as a foundation for future space exploration.