Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. We asked staff from across Nature Research who has inspired them.
Mariette DiChristina, Director, Editorial and Publishing, Nature Research Magazines, and Editor in Chief of Scientific American
Journalists aren’t supposed to be partial. But I have to say I’m inspired by Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco. For starters, in 2009 she shared Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for pioneering the understanding of telomeres and telomerase, which affect so many aspects of human health.
Dr. Blackburn tells wonderful stories about growing up with a love of science, and how her Nobel Prize-winning research began in studies of an organism that lives in the scum of ponds (“it’s very cute,” she says).
She’s supported women in science throughout her career. As a woman with more than a touch of imposter syndrome myself, I’ve been grateful to experience that encouragement first-hand.
Back in our Manhattan offices, one of the conference rooms is named Blackburn after her. I always smile when I enter it, happy to be reminded of one of the amazing women of science.
Francesca Cesari, Chief Biological Sciences Editor, Nature
Rita Levi Montalcini has been a great influence in my decision to become a scientist – as a student, before even deciding to study biology, I read her book “Elogio dell’imperfezione” (in English “In praise of imperfection”) over and over.
Forced out of university in 1938 by fascist race laws due to her Jewish background, she endured great hardship, but persevered in her scientific endeavours. She worked from her home ‘laboratory’ in Turin and then Florence, carrying out research on neurodevelopment.
In 1986, she was jointly-awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with fellow biochemist Stanley Cohen for their discovery of nerve growth factor. At the time of her death in 2012, aged 103, she was the oldest living Nobel Laureate. She has been a great inspiration for many women in science.
Andrea Taroni, Chief Editor, Nature Physics
Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American nuclear scientist who performed one of the most spectacular physics experiments of the past century. In 1956, she showed that the weak nuclear interaction – the force that is responsible for radioactive decay – does not obey parity symmetry. In other words, the laws of nature are not completely symmetrical.
Wu’s experiment confirmed a theoretical prediction made by Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, and caused a sensation at the time – the laws of nature had widely been assumed to be symmetric. Lee and Yang were awarded the Nobel Prize the very next year, in 1957. Even at the time, the fact that Wu did not receive a share of the prize was widely viewed as a gross injustice. Nevertheless, what I find truly inspiring about her is her insight into the inner workings of nature.
Helen Pearson, Chief Features Editor, Nature
Margaret Llewelyn Davies was an early campaigner for women’s rights and a social scientist of her time. Her deeply moving book, called Maternity Letters from Working Women, revealed the shocking conditions in which working women gave birth just over one hundred years ago.
Her work laid the groundwork for the maternity leave and benefits that women receive today. I came across it when I was researching my own book, The Life Project, published earlier this year. I’m indebted to her, and many other campaigning women, for creating a society in which I can combine children, born healthily and safely, with a job in science and writing – even if we still have a very long way to go to find full equality between men and women in our lives and careers.
David Barnstone, Press Officer, US, Nature Research
Alexandra Horowitz and Lisa Guernsey and are two outstanding women in the sciences. They are both social scientists who have progressed our understanding of the minds of two different species: dogs and children.
Horowitz studies canine cognition at Barnard College, one of the world’s oldest women’s colleges and affiliated with Columbia University. It was founded in 1889 because of Columbia’s refusal to admit women at the time.
Guernsey is deputy director of the Education Policy program and director of the Learning Technologies project at the New America Foundation, where she translates the latest research into policies to give all children the opportunity to lead happy and productive lives in an ever-changing world.
I admire both Horowitz’s and Guernsey’s ability to make research accessible and compelling to the general public, which inspired me to pursue science communication.
Smriti Mallapaty, Science Writer and Associate Editor, Partnership and Custom Media
Before Elinor Ostrom challenged the idea, shared natural resources were seen as ‘tragedies’, and would always lead to their destruction. In a persuasive essay published in Science in 1968, American ecologist Garret Hardin argued that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”. The only way to save these limited resources from destruction was through privatisation or government regulation.
Ostrom offered an alternative account, in which communities did a better job than governments, companies or private individuals in sustainably managing shared resources. She proved this over several decades of fieldwork, studying farmer-managed irrigation systems and community forestry in Nepal, as well as fishers, pastoralists and foresters throughout the world.
In 2009, she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. The award recognised her achievements, but also drew attention to the success of decentralised forest governance in Nepal. It also inspired many stories on agriculture, land tenure and community forests in Nepal, especially for science and environment journalists like myself. Ostrom died of pancreatic cancer in 2012.