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women in science

Courtesy of Caltech

When Dr. Frances Arnold received a call from the Nobel committee telling her she'd been awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for chemistry, she was "stunned."

When you hear about her life up to that moment, you won't be.

Arnold was never one to be told what she could or couldn't do. At 15, she moved out of her parents' house in Pittsburgh as an act of rebellion, and supported herself by working in pizza parlors, as a waitress in jazz clubs, and as a taxi driver. She went to high school — occasionally — and managed to graduate, despite collecting a stack of truancy letters along the way.

She never stopped learning, though, even when she skipped class. She was always teaching herself things, from foreign languages to music to math.

"My power is collecting knowledge," she said in a podcast. "Somehow I knew early on that knowledge was like money in the bank. That if you could collect experiences, if you could teach yourself calculus, if you could read a history book — all of which I loved to do — if you could teach yourself music, then somehow it would add up."

And add up it did. Despite her shaky high school attendance, Arnold was admitted to Princeton — in part, she says, because she was the only female applicant to the mechanical engineering program, and in part because her dad was a nuclear physicist Princeton alum who may have pulled a few strings. (Despite her rebellion in high school and some clashes of opinion, Arnold had a close relationship with her father. "We fought all the time," she told the New York Times. "But he understood me.")

At university, she channeled the rebellious passions of her youth into a desire to contribute to the betterment of the world. "When you're very young, you can question," she says, "but you don't know how to solve the problem. At Princeton I was given some tools that I could use to actually attack a problem, and maybe even offer a solution."

After graduating in 1979, she set out to help President Carter meet his administration's renewable energy goals, an ambition that took her around the world, from South Korea to Brazil, working on solar energy. In 1985, she earned her PhD in chemical engineering from UC Berkeley, then joined Caltech, where she has worked as a researcher and professor for most of her career.

In 1989, Arnold was awarded the prestigious Packard Fellowship, which provides funding for promising, early-career scientists and engineers. She currently serves as chair of the fellowship's advisory board and spends much of her time running her lab at Caltech.

Arnold's primary scientific achievement is having pioneered a process for engineering proteins known as directed evolution. As a self-proclaimed "engineer of the biological world," Arnold figured out how to harness the power of evolution in the lab, to push that natural design process to places it wouldn't normally go, and essentially make biology do complex chemistry for us.

"Our whole chemicals industry, our whole lifestyle, is predicated on the need to take abundant starting materials and turn them into clothing, housing, food, and medicines for seven billion people," she says. "Basically everything that supports our lives is done through chemistry. And we do a terrible job at it. Human beings do chemistry very inefficiently; we've managed to pollute the planet at the same time that we provide these products for us."

She believed that we could look to the biological world for examples of how to take cheap, abundant, renewable starting materials, such as sunlight and carbon dioxide, and turn them into the products we use in our daily lives.

"Nature does it with protein catalysts called enzymes that convert one form of matter into another, and into all of life," she says. "Hers are the most beautiful, intricate, efficient, selective, non-polluting machines that you can imagine. Why not learn from the best?"

As Arnold says, "Nature can do chemistry we never dreamed was possible." Rather than figure out all of the intricate details of how those complicated processes work and try to recreate them, the scientists in her lab simply direct those natural processes to do chemistry more efficiently.

The possibilities that Arnold's work has opened up are practically limitless, but she remains laser-focused on sustainable development. "All my projects are about sustainability, bioremediation, and making things in a cleaner fashion," she told the Times. "Students come and say, I want to help people. I say, people get plenty of help. Why don't you help the planet?"

For example, one of the innovations she is spearheading with two former students who started a company called Provivi is to make non-toxic insect mating pheromones cheaply to use for crop protection. Pheromones can be released over crops to create sexual confusion in agricultural pests so they won't mate, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for pesticides.

So here we see an ambitious woman who is not only solving global problems, but doing so in a highly male-dominated field. She has won multiple coveted awards, including a Nobel prize. She speaks several languages, plays three musical instruments, and has personally been invited to meet the Queen of England and other heads of state.

It would be easy to think Arnold was just blessed with a charmed life, but that's not so. While building a successful career, she's also had to overcome a series of tragedies that would flatten many of us.

After her first marriage ended in divorce, her ex-husband died of colon cancer and she was left raising their young son on her own. Three years later, in 2004, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It spread to her lymph nodes and she went through 18 months of surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy, treatment that she said ruined her previously photographic memory.

In 2010, she lost her second husband, cosmologist Andrew Lange, to suicide. And in 2016, the middle of her three sons, William, died in an accident, which she still can't bring herself to speak about.

Arnold's life has been marked by crisis and victory, tragedy and triumph — and she has some words for those who express awe at her resilience.

"Nobody is guaranteed an easy life," she told the Times. "Look at the people in Syria. I have friends who are Holocaust survivors. What was I supposed to do? Give up, say I can't go on? No. I had three children. I had a group of young people in the lab. Why would I give up?

"You can't avoid challenges," she says. "You can only overcome them. You don't have control. Loved ones will die. You will not get the job that you really want. You will be laid off. Someone's going to criticize you. It's going to happen. How you respond to it dictates whether you will be happy or not."

Arnold is a unique woman by any measure. And part of what makes her a unique figure in science is her diverse skill set and knowledge beyond the lab. She approaches chemistry and biology not only as an engineer, but also as an artist and musician. Perhaps that's what has enabled her to think outside of the traditional scientific box and ignore the naysayers she's encountered throughout her career.

"You look at the code of life," she says. "To me, that's like a Beethoven symphony. It's something I could not compose. It's something intricate. It's stunningly beautiful. I can't compose it, but there's this machine, this evolutionary algorithm, and you just turn the crank, make random changes and select for function, and out comes all this wonderful diversity. Out comes all the life that you see around you. That has come out of this machine of natural evolution. I want to make a machine like that for artificial evolution. That's what we've been able to do, so now I can decide what I want my symphony to do. How does it make you feel? How does it give you something that you did not have before? I can turn the crank of evolution and create my own symphony."

Ultimately, she says, "I'm a builder…I love to build things. And if it's molecules, that's called chemistry. I love to create something that never existed before and that can also serve a purpose. I'm not a composer. I love music, but I can't compose. I'm not a poet. I love poetry — I'm not good at composing words. But I can compose molecules."

Her primary goal is to compose a molecular symphony that will create a cleaner planet for us all. "I want to take biology where it would never have gone, because I want to put it in service of helping humans live on this planet without destroying everything else."

Sounds like an excellent plan, Dr. Arnold.

Astronomer Vera Rubin passed away Dec. 25, 2016, at the age of 88.

Vera Rubin. Photo by Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Rubin was a pioneer in her field — one of the few prominent women astronomers of her time, who, in an era of oppressive professional sexism, uncovered some of the best evidence of the existence of dark matter — the mysterious stuff that we can't see that binds the universe together.

In addition to contributing to one of the major scientific discoveries of the 20th century, she was also a no-nonsense badass who fought for gender equality in her field from the beginning of the career to the end of her life.

Here are just a few of the ways she showed up:

1. She was blunt about the problems women faced in science — and knew exactly where to place the blame.

Rubin (second from left) with colleagues at the Women in Astronomy and Space Science Conference. Photo by NASA.

According to her NPR obituary, Rubin was fantastically upfront about the injustice and institutionalized misogyny that kept women out of jobs in STEM fields, noting that Rubin carried three basic assumptions with her at all times:

"(1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.

(2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.

(3) We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women."

Hard to argue with that.

2. She presented her graduate thesis to a room full of the most prominent astronomers in the world — while pregnant.

While in graduate school in the 1950s, Rubin discovered something anomalous about the space just outside our cosmic neighborhood — a region that was more densely packed with galaxies than those that surrounded it.

But when her adviser suggested she present her findings to the American Astronomical Society, he offered to present it for her because Rubin was set to deliver her first child a month before the meeting and he assumed she would be too consumed with the demands of motherhood to attend.

"Oh, I can go,'" she said matter-of-factly. And go she did.

She stumped her way through the presentation, where her work was largely dismissed by the review panel of accomplished, skeptical male scientists (and never published). Years later, however, astronomers confirmed the significance of her findings: Rubin had discovered the super-galactic plane, the "belt" around the supercluster of galaxies that includes the Milky Way — without anyone, including her, realizing it.

3. She once integrated the bathrooms at an all-male observatory by force.

"No girls allowed. Nah nah Pbbbbffffbbbtt." Photo by Coneslayer/Wikimedia Commons.

Early in her career, Rubin was invited to observe at Caltech's Palomar Observatory — the first woman ever allowed to work inside the testosterone-laden facility. The observatory was such a boys club that there was no ladies room on the premises.

"She went to her room, she cut up paper into a skirt image, and she stuck it on the little person image on the door of the bathroom," Neta Bahcall, a former colleague, told Astronomy Magazine in a June 2016 interview. "She said, 'There you go; now you have a ladies’ room.'"

4. She never won the Nobel Prize, and despite the many outraged on her behalf, she didn't really care.

No woman has won the Nobel Prize in physics for over 50 years — not due, according to many professionals in the field, to lack of qualified candidates, of whom Rubin was the most prominent.

Rubin, however, was dismissive of the snub as she felt her work spoke for itself.

"Fame is fleeting," Rubin said, in a 1990 interview with Discover Magazine. "My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that's my greatest compliment."

5. She was only active on Twitter for one day — and used that time to tell girls who love science to ignore the haters.

An OECD study from 2015 found that girls equaled or outperformed boys in school performance in most countries but expressed lower confidence in their math abilities.  

On Feb. 3, 2016, Vera Rubin signed on to Twitter. She tweeted this:

She signed off the social media site for good shortly after but not before tweeting one final look at the cosmos — a simulated image of all the dark matter in the universe a short time after the Big Bang.

Because of Rubin, we can do more than admire the beauty of the universe; we can start to break down the mystery piece by piece, layer by layer. And we can do it no matter who we are, where we come from, or however many barriers stand in our way.

Rest in peace.

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See science come alive with a little help from these amazing illustrations.

Rachel Ignotofsky's book sits at the intersection of art, science, and history.

Name five women scientists you learned about in school. Go ahead, I'll wait.

GIF via "Sherlock."

I got to three very quickly but had to think for a moment to get to five. It's not because these researchers, explorers, and innovators don't exist; I simply didn't learn about their work and contributions to history in school. It just wasn't a large part of the curriculum. And, sadly, my experience isn't unique.

You can't be what you can't see,which may be why women remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) roles. Just 25% of computer and mathematical science professionals and a mere 13% of engineers today are women.

But one woman is doing her part to help change that. And she's doing it with comics.

Seriously, comics.

Rachel Ignotofsky is a Kansas City-based artist and designer whose first book is an illustrated look at 50 game-changing women across centuries of scientific discovery and inquiry.

Unless otherwise noted, all images reprinted with permission from "Women in Science," copyright 2016 by Rachel Ignotofsky, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC.

But why comics? It's the medium that changed her life.

Ignotofsky had a difficult time learning to read and grew frustrated until she found her secret weapon.

"The only thing that ... got me through it was educational comic books and cartoons," Ignotofsky said. "It gave me this push to learn information that was for the 'smart kids.'"

Ignotofsky grew up loving comics, design, and science. (If a career as an artist didn't work out, medical school was young Rachel's backup plan.) So she channeled her passions into "Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World." The book is a beautifully curated collection of personal narratives from female scientists from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines, with a dash of whimsy thrown in.

Ignotofsky hopes it will open doors to kids and adults interested in learning more about the women who shaped not only science, but history. And after her childhood struggle with reading, she knows firsthand how well comics can deliver information.

"I feel like there's a real struggle with scientific literacy, especially in this country," Ignotofsky said. "You have to win people over. And you can convince anyone to do anything with illustration."

Check out a few of the courageous women in science profiled in Ignotofsky's book.

1. Edith Clarke, who worked as a human calculator and became General Electric's first female electrical engineer.

She's also a Badger. On, Wisconsin!

2. Marie Curie, the two-time Nobel Prize winning physicist and chemist who discovered polonium and radium.

3. Paleontologist and fossil collector, Mary Anning, who at age 12 discovered an intact dinosaur skeleton. Though respected in the field, Anning was never allowed to publish her work because she was a woman.

4. Patricia Bath, a physician, professor, and inventor who brought eye care to people in need and developed the laser probe used to treat cataracts.

5. Rosalind Franklin was a pioneering chemist and x-ray crystallographer who discovered the double helix shape of DNA.

6. Sylvia Earle, a celebrated marine biologist and aquanaut, who explored the recesses of our oceans to study the plants and animals found in the depths.

7. Hypatia, one of the earliest recorded female mathematicians and teachers who was also an expert philosopher.

But even with the amazing women she highlights in her book, Ignotofsky still remembers the women she had to leave out.

Women like pioneering Indian botanist Janaki Ammal, paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey, accomplished physicist and astronaut Sally Ride, and Irene Joliet-Curie, daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie and a talented chemist in her own right. But for this collection, Ignotofsky had to make some tough calls and let variety be her guide.

"I could've had 50 women in chemistry if I wanted to, but I really wanted to have a diverse group."

Physicist Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983. Photo via NASA.

But, luckily, for Ignotofsky — and all of us who love women in science — there are plenty of women in science for another book or two ... or 20.

Women are earning just over half of the undergraduate degrees in STEM fields, and we're re-writing history and making groundbreaking discoveries every day. The future belongs to these rising stars, and they have these courageous pioneers to thank.