Quick! Name a female medical scientist. When pressed, most people think of Elizabeth Blackwell or Marie Curie. But a modern, working, medical scientist? That’s harder. It shouldn’t be; women are doing amazing work in fields of genomic medicine, neuromapping, cancer research, and everything else. From blood transfusions, radiation therapy, natural birth, and weight loss—health innovations are constantly being created by amazing women in medicine.
According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up half of the United States’ total college-educated workforce, but only 29% work in the fields of science, technology, and engineering. So it stands to reason that there won't be an equal amount of role models available to women considering entering these professions, but that doesn't mean they aren't making some of the most important and inspiring contributions out there. Women are a large and growing segment of the medical profession.
Medical institutions have long played a crucial role in how medicine is practiced in the United States. While historically most doctors were men, medical schools in the 20th century began relaxing their admissions policies so that women soon made up anywhere from a third to half of students and an increasing percentage of the professors. The history of women in medicine has been marked by many challenges and achievements. Although the role of women in the "art of healing" can be traced back many centuries, only males are traditionally highlighted in history.
Women in science are often written about only in articles specifically on women in science, less often included in articles about influential scientific discoveries, below is a list of 10 of the coolest women (in no particular order) who are making huge strides in the medical community.
Krista Donaldson has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering design from Stanford and is CEO of D-Rev, a global nonprofit tech company that provides medical devices to people living on less than $4 a day. Under her leadership, Design Revolution has led to the emergence of affordable treatment options to people in developing and third world countries, from helping babies with jaundice to providing custom fit high-performance prosthetic knee joints for thousands of amputees worldwide.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Dr. Donaldson has spoken at TEDWoman, Clinton Global Initiative, and was named to Fast Company’s Co.Design 50 Designers Shaping the Future. She is a Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation Entrepreneur, Rainer Arnhold Fellow, a Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow, and has recently received the Alva Award for serial entrepreneurship.
Jennifer Doudna has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard and is a Professor of Chemistry and of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Doudna has devoted her career to understanding the function of catalytic and other non-protein-coding RNAs, laying the foundation for understanding the evolution of RNAs and their relationship to the molecules that play a role in early human development.
She and Emmanuelle Charpentier have engineered a piece of technology called CRISPR-Cas9, which holds the ability to change or correct DNA sequences within cells. CRISPR-Cas9, uses the bacterial adaptive immune system as a tool for editing DNA sequences by removing and replacing genes for certain diseases. The goal of the CRISPR-Cas9 system is to one day be used to treat genetic disorders (such as Huntington’s disease or Hemophilia). This breakthrough won Doudna one of the Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences, which honors advancements towards science and technology and furthering knowledge on extension of human life.
Doudna says in her profile on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute website that she is most motivated by the “process of discovery—of having an idea about how something works and setting out to test it. I am intrigued by the many roles of RNA in biology. Understanding the chemical and biochemical basis for this, as well as the ways in which evolution has taken advantage of these properties to involve RNA at every level of gene expression and regulation in cells and viruses is a lifelong pursuit.”
Dr. Cheryl Willman is a distinguished Professor of Pathology and Internal Medicine at theUniversity Of New Mexico School Of Medicine where she holds the Maurice and Marguerite Liberman Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research. The University's Comprehensive Cancer Center is recognized as one of the top centers for cancer treatment and research in the country. Dr. Willman is an internationally recognized leukemia researcher. Her work focuses on next generation gene sequencing to identify new genomic abnormalities for improved diagnosis, risk classification, and therapy.
Elizabeth H. Blackburn is a Nobel Laureate and Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California San Francisco. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009, she is one of the world leaders in the area of telomere and telomerase research. Blackburn discovered the molecular nature of telomeres (the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes that serve as protective caps essential for preserving genetic information) and co-discovered telomerase (the ribonucleoprotein enzyme)—which is found to play a key role in cell replication, cell aging, and human cancers. Her research has revolutionized understanding of how cells function and is considered one of the most important discoveries in the field of molecular genetics.
In her interview for the Nobel Prize, Dr. Blackburn stated that she hopes her accomplishments help “women to have access to science because it's such a wonderful thing to do. Anything that makes it more feasible for women to be in science and do the science they like, that's good.”
Named one of Forbes’ 2016 30 under 30 in science, Corina Antal is a postdoctoral research associate at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. During her doctoral work at the University of California in San Diego, Antal found that mutations in DNA showed that enzymes long believed to promote cancer actually suppress it. Since falsifying a well-accepted theory on cancerous growth, Antal aims to develop ways to increase the efficacy of pancreatic cancer chemotherapy through the re-activity of these same enzymes. By identifying and targeting key genes within the tissue to reduce its supportive role, this will aid in developing therapies to increase the delivery of chemotherapeutic drugs to the tumor and allow immune cells to infiltrate and kill cancer cells.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Dr. Antal is currently investigating means of potentiating pancreatic adenocarcinoma therapies by targeting the tumor microenvironment.
Also named one of Forbes’ 2016 30 under 30 in science, Taylor Feehley is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago researching immunology with a focus on food allergies through the prism of gut bacteria. Her research is helping lay the groundwork for better treatments to prevent, or even reverse, food allergies. In 2014, Feehley worked on a study with her advisor (Dr. Cathryn Nagler) that showed that the presence of Clostridia, a common strain of bacteria living in the gastrointestinal tract, can protect the body against food allergens. Feehley and Dr. Nagler are currently working to follow up on another 2015 study that showed dramatic differences in the composition of gut bacteria in infants who overcame an allergy to cow’s milk after taking a probiotic formula.
Feehley said in her University of Chicago Science Life interview that “the reason [she] got into science was because when [she] was 16, [she] saw a St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital commercial where they were doing cell cultures, and [thought], ‘That looks really cool’.”
Named one of Forbes’ 2016 30 under 30 in healthcare, Catherine Marinac is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California in San Diego where she conducts cancer research, linking simple behaviors with chronic diseases. Marinac found that overnight fasting could lower a woman’s breast cancer risk—regardless of what she eats before the fasting starts—because it reduces glucose. Marinac found that each 3-hour increase in overnight fasting was associated with a 4% lower postprandial glucose level.
Dr. Elizabeth Nabel is a cardiologist and distinguished biomedical researcher and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Also, as president of Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Health Care (BWHC), Nabel’s work on the molecular genetics of cardiovascular diseases has developed molecular and cellular techniques that allocate the pathophysiology of atherosclerosis and clarified the processes of cell division and growth of vascular smooth muscle cells.
Her studies on Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome have characterized the vascular smooth muscle cell defect leading to premature heart attack and stroke. At the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, she established Centers of Excellence in developing countries to combat cardiovascular and lung diseases. At BWHC, she has helped create a national teaching hospital in Haiti and is helping to advance training for medical personnel in other under-resourced countries around the world.
Dr. Cori Bargmann holds a Ph.D. in cancer biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has developed the Brain Research Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative and is uncovering the causes of neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and autism. Through her studies on roundworms, Dr. Bargmann is uncovering how neurons and genes affect behavior, and is able to manipulate certain genes and observe how that affects changes in behavior.
In a 2013 interview with Vogue, Dr. Bargmann talked about her experience giving a speech to a group of girls at Stanford and being asked to comment on the statement: A woman scientist can only choose two out of the following: scientific life, personal life, family life. Her response was “you can have a scientific life and hobbies. You can have a scientific life and family, but it’s probably true that you can’t have all three and feel good about them. But that’s true for men too. The problem is being a human being.”
Dr. Niakan is a developmental biologist and the first to receive regulatory approval to use a powerful gene-editing technology on human embryos. In February, the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority approved Dr. Niakan to use CRISPR–Cas9 to permanently change the genome of human embryos. Her research will lead to a better understanding of which genes are crucial to embryo development, and could help develop new treatments for infertility, improve our understanding of disease, and even cure diseases as well.
Praised by CRISPR–Cas9 co-inventor, Dr. Jennifer Doudna (see above profile), Niakan’s experiments are “setting the stage for a future in which our DNA represents not just our destiny but opportunity as well, a chance to better the human condition.”
In an interview with her alma mater, Charles Wright Academy, Dr. Niakan said her interest in molecular biology and genetics was sparked by her undergraduate research experience when she “identified the gene responsible for an inherited blood disorder. [She] was thrilled by the possibility that by understanding what is causing a disease it may lead to new approaches for treatment.”
Geneticist Stormy Chamberlain is an Assistant Professor of Genetics and Genome Sciences at the University of Connecticut, and the Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Genetics and Developmental Biology. Her research focuses on Angelman syndrome, which she considers a puzzle. Angelman syndrome is a debilitating neurological developmental disorder with no therapy or cure, and the diagnosis is considered a tragedy by most. Dr. Chamberlain’s goal is to find a treatment therapy through her research using iPSC (induced Pluripotent Stem Cells) to model and study human imprinting disorders with chromosome 15 mutations like Angelman syndrome.
Neurobiologist Elizabeth Gould is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University. Her focus is on neurogenesis, the production of new neurons in the brain, and she is an expert in the field of neuroplasticity. Her laboratory at Princeton studies the brains of rodents and primates in order to better understand the regulation of neurogenesis, determine the impact that changes in brain structure have on cognition and anxiety regulation, and identify factors that enhance neural plasticity and cell survival.
Geneticist Nancy Wexler is a Higgins Professor of Neuropsychology at Columbia University. She is most well-known for her research on Huntington’s disease and has helped to identify the gene responsible. Dr. Wexler has also helped researchers investigate Alzheimer’s disease, kidney disease, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
This list is only a minuscule fraction of the women doing groundbreaking scientific work. There are still numerous women who need entries. Who an influential woman (or women) missing from the list? Add her to the comments below.