(Photo provided by Dr. Padman)
Spotlight on Dr. Rachael Padman
I thought I would change up the format of this blog a little bit to take the time to highlight a woman who is currently in the STEM field. Dr. Rachael Padman is an astrophysicist who teaches at Newnham College (a woman’s only college associated with Cambridge). Dr. Padman was born in 1954, in Melbourne, Australia. She received her PhD in astronomy from St. John’s College at Cambridge. Dr. Padman has done research on stellar formation and radio astronomy. She is also transgender, something she has spoken openly about. I was lucky enough to have the chance to email with Dr. Padman, who kindly answered my questions for me.
What, if anything, drew you to astrophysics? Was there anyone or anything that encouraged you to go into science as a child?
My father was a scientist and enjoyed showing us neat things. I read a huge amount about space (mostly the solar system) while still young- most books by Patrick Moore I think.
Of all the work you have done, was there anything you were most proud of?
Probably my role in building and commissioning the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. I led the teams building two of the first four instruments and wrote much of the data acquisition software, and all the spectral line analysis software (note: for those who don’t know, spectral line analysis looks at electromagnetic radiation given off by matter). While commissioning the telescope, a colleague, a graduate student and I found evidence that outflows (note: gas given off during the formation of a star) from young stars had to be ten to a hundred times older than generally believed, and that cleared up quite a lot of puzzles.
What kind of puzzles did it clear up?
If you can measure the velocity of the outflowing material and the distance it’s traveled (which we can), then you can deduce how long it has been going for, which we call the lifetime. This can appear to be quite short. We also have information from observations in the optical region, where velocities tend to be much higher, and distances even lower, so there the lifetimes seem very short.
Another way to get lifetimes is to look at a bunch of objects whose age you know, and see how many of them have outflows. We did that, and found that the lifetime must be much longer than you get by the first method. Going back to the physics, you can say, oh yes, a) we can’t actually see the material once it gets too far from the start (so the distances of stars must be bigger), and b) in effect the outflow material is blowing a bubble in the interstellar medium, and the bubble expands much more slowly than the material in the outflow.
What advice could you give to a young woman scientist looking to go into physics or astrophysics?
Astrophysics is a very welcoming field for a woman, at least while she is young. But it’s also a field dominated by hype (I think because of it’s wide public interest, so it generates a lot of publicity) and it’s hard to retain your integrity while playing the game well enough to advance. Choose your collaborators wisely.
Do you have any woman scientists you look up to or have looked up to?

Hmmm, hard! Not that I ever knew them, but I think Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin were stars, and exhibited all the right personal traits. It’s harder to find anyone that has personally inspired me, although I am pleased to count a number of women as admired colleagues.

(Photo provided by Dr. Padman)

Spotlight on Dr. Rachael Padman

I thought I would change up the format of this blog a little bit to take the time to highlight a woman who is currently in the STEM field. Dr. Rachael Padman is an astrophysicist who teaches at Newnham College (a woman’s only college associated with Cambridge). Dr. Padman was born in 1954, in Melbourne, Australia. She received her PhD in astronomy from St. John’s College at Cambridge. Dr. Padman has done research on stellar formation and radio astronomy. She is also transgender, something she has spoken openly about. I was lucky enough to have the chance to email with Dr. Padman, who kindly answered my questions for me.

What, if anything, drew you to astrophysics? Was there anyone or anything that encouraged you to go into science as a child?

My father was a scientist and enjoyed showing us neat things. I read a huge amount about space (mostly the solar system) while still young- most books by Patrick Moore I think.

Of all the work you have done, was there anything you were most proud of?

Probably my role in building and commissioning the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. I led the teams building two of the first four instruments and wrote much of the data acquisition software, and all the spectral line analysis software (note: for those who don’t know, spectral line analysis looks at electromagnetic radiation given off by matter). While commissioning the telescope, a colleague, a graduate student and I found evidence that outflows (note: gas given off during the formation of a star) from young stars had to be ten to a hundred times older than generally believed, and that cleared up quite a lot of puzzles.

What kind of puzzles did it clear up?

If you can measure the velocity of the outflowing material and the distance it’s traveled (which we can), then you can deduce how long it has been going for, which we call the lifetime. This can appear to be quite short. We also have information from observations in the optical region, where velocities tend to be much higher, and distances even lower, so there the lifetimes seem very short.

Another way to get lifetimes is to look at a bunch of objects whose age you know, and see how many of them have outflows. We did that, and found that the lifetime must be much longer than you get by the first method. Going back to the physics, you can say, oh yes, a) we can’t actually see the material once it gets too far from the start (so the distances of stars must be bigger), and b) in effect the outflow material is blowing a bubble in the interstellar medium, and the bubble expands much more slowly than the material in the outflow.

What advice could you give to a young woman scientist looking to go into physics or astrophysics?

Astrophysics is a very welcoming field for a woman, at least while she is young. But it’s also a field dominated by hype (I think because of it’s wide public interest, so it generates a lot of publicity) and it’s hard to retain your integrity while playing the game well enough to advance. Choose your collaborators wisely.

Do you have any woman scientists you look up to or have looked up to?

Hmmm, hard! Not that I ever knew them, but I think Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin were stars, and exhibited all the right personal traits. It’s harder to find anyone that has personally inspired me, although I am pleased to count a number of women as admired colleagues.

lastrealindians:

Teen scientist harnesses sun power to help Navajo community
New Mexico teen Raquel Redshirt uses everyday materials and the sun to build solar ovens, fulfilling a Navajo community need and winning an award at the Intel ISEF competition.
Growing up on New Mexico’s Navajo Nation, Raquel Redshirt was well aware of the needs of her community. Many of her impoverished neighbors lacked basics such as electricity, as well as stoves and ovens to cook food.
Though resources in the high desert are limited, Raquel realized one was inexhaustible: the sun. “That’s where I got the idea of building a solar oven,” the teen says.
She researched solar ovens and found that most incorporate mirrors or other expensive materials. Raquel wanted to create a design that anyone could easily afford and replicate, using readily available materials.
READ MORE HERE: http://lrinspire.com/2014/06/19/teen-scientist-harnesses-sun-power-to-help-navajo-community/

lastrealindians:

Teen scientist harnesses sun power to help Navajo community

New Mexico teen Raquel Redshirt uses everyday materials and the sun to build solar ovens, fulfilling a Navajo community need and winning an award at the Intel ISEF competition.

Growing up on New Mexico’s Navajo Nation, Raquel Redshirt was well aware of the needs of her community. Many of her impoverished neighbors lacked basics such as electricity, as well as stoves and ovens to cook food.

Though resources in the high desert are limited, Raquel realized one was inexhaustible: the sun. “That’s where I got the idea of building a solar oven,” the teen says.

She researched solar ovens and found that most incorporate mirrors or other expensive materials. Raquel wanted to create a design that anyone could easily afford and replicate, using readily available materials.

READ MORE HERE: http://lrinspire.com/2014/06/19/teen-scientist-harnesses-sun-power-to-help-navajo-community/

Spotlight on Dr. Kutlu Aslihan Yener

Dr. Kutlu Aslihan Yener is a Turkish American archaeologist who specializes in archeometallurgy and its connections to ancient trade and industry. Her discoveries and work on ancient tin mines in Anatolia (a peninsula in Turkey) proved that Anatolia as an important producer of tin (an important alloy in copper) during the Bronze Age, and indeed that trade during the Bronze Age was much more complicated and complex then previously thought. She also developed a new method of determining the chemical composition of artifacts.

Dr. Yener was born on July 21, 1946, in Istanbul Turkey, but moved with her parents to the United States when she was six months old. She was interested in science as a young child, stating she “almost lived at the Natural History Museum” (Yount, 2008). Yener originally attended Adelphi University, majoring in chemistry, but transferred to Robert College in Istanbul in 1966, where she changed her major to archaeology. She graduated in 1969, and completed her PhD at Columbia University in 1980.

Dr. Yener turned her attention to studying tin mines during her tenure as an associate professor at Bosporus University. Tin is an important metal used to make bronze, a metal that was primarily used during the Bronze Age (3000 to 1100 B.C). In 1987, Yener discovered an ancient tin mine in the mountains of Anatolia which had been used during the Bronze Age. This contradicted archeological thinking about trade in Anatolia, as silver and lead mines had been discovered, but never tin. As well, old writings suggested that the tin was imported from further east, not that it was produced in the region. In 1989, Yener also discovered the remains of a site named Goltepe near the mine. Excavations of Goltepe showed that tin smelting had occurred in it, proving that Anatolia was an important producer of tin during the Bronze Age. Yener moved to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago in 1994, where she pioneered a new technique for chemically analyzing ancient objects. Working collaboratively with Argonne Laboratory, Yener passed high energy X-rays (also known as HEX-rays, they penetrate deeper into objects and don’t cause radiation damage to them) through objects. This allows for differentiation between the different object parts and their constituent materials, as well as allowing insights into how the object was mended and made.

Dr. Yener currently works at Koç University in Istanbul and the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization department at the University of Chicago.

 Sources: A-Z of Women in Science (Yount), UChicago

Spotlight on Dr. Katsuko Saruhashi

Dr. Katsuko Saruhashi was a Japanese geochemist who studied both the effects of carbon dioxide on seawater and the dangers of radioactive debris from nuclear testing. Her measurements of carbon dioxide levels in seawater were some of the first ever made. She was also one of the first researchers to show that the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear bomb testing will spread far outside of the orginal test site. She was committed to supporting and promoting women in science.

Dr. Katsuko Saruhashi was born on March 22, 1920 in Tokyo, Japan. She attended Toho University (then known as the Imperial Women’s College of Science) and graduated from there in 1943.  She began working at the Meteorological Research Institute (part of the Japan Meteorological Agency) following the end of WWII. Her friend and mentor, Yasuo Miyake, who had gotten her the job at the Institute, suggested she look into measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide gas in seawater. At the time, no one was looking into carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas (partially due to the very low investment in 1950 in the idea of global warming). Saruhashi had to make much of her own equipment. She took painstaking measurements of how carbon dioxide varied by location and depth. For her work, she became the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Tokyo in 1957. One year later, she established the Society of Japanese Women Scientists to promote women in science. It’s clear that even early in her career, she was a pioneer and supporter of furthering and helping other women in science.

In 1954, the United States conducted nuclear bomb tests at Bikini Atoll (an atoll in the Marshall Islands, which are located in the Pacific Ocean between Asia and the America’s). A crew of Japanese fishermen downwind of the test site fell ill, and one of them died, prompting Saruhashi and others at the Institute to set up monitoring stations to measure the amount of radioactivity in seawater and rainwater by Japan. She and her team were the first group in the world to look into the effects of bombs tested by the United States and the Soviet Union on the world’s atmosphere. Saruhshi discovered that radioactivity from the test reached the coast of Japan a year and a half after the test. She continued her research on radiation and showed that by 1969, radiation from the tests had spread to the whole of the pacific, making her research some of the first on the issues of nuclear testing. Her evidence was used by protesters in the United States and Soviet Union to stop those governments from performing above ground nuclear tests.

Later in her career, she showed that the Pacific Ocean releases about twice as much carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere as it absorbs, meaning it couldn’t help combat the effects of global warming.

She received numerous awards and honors throughout her career. She became the first woman to be elected to Science Council of Japan in 1980, became executive director the Geochemistry Research Association in 1990, and became the first woman to win the Miyake prize (established by her mentor and friend Yasou Miyake) for geochemistry in 1985. She also received many awards for her work promoting and mentoring Japanese women in science. As I mentioned earlier, she founded the Society of Japanese Women Scientists. She won the Avon Special Prize for Women in 1981 for her work on peaceful uses of nuclear power as well as her advocacy for women scientists. She established her own prize in 1981 as well, called the Saruhashi prize, which is an annual prize given to female scientists who act as mentors and role models for younger female scientists. Saruhashi was truly a great advocate for women scientists, stating about her work “I wanted to highlight the capabilities of women scientists. Until now, those capabilities have been secret, under the surface” (Science, 424).

Despite her pioneering work, Saruhashi is almost never cited in western debates on climate change or the dangers of radiation testing, a fact that I believe is due to racism.  Saruhashi died on September 29, 2007, at the age of 87. No English biography is published about Saruhashi, but if you wish to learn more about her and how she crusaded for women scientists, check out the Science link below for a great article.

Sources: ScienceA-Z Encyclopedia of Women Scientists

Spotlight on Dr. Ida Noddack

This is the corrected version of a post published originally on 5/29/14

Dr. Ida Noddack was a German Chemist and Physicist who was the first to speculate on the idea of nuclear fission, and with her husband, discovered element 75, Rhenium. Her paper on nuclear fission was largely ignored and dismissed, but was later confirmed by Lise Meitner (also featured on this blog). Although Noddack was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry three times, she was never awarded it.

Ida was born on February 25, 1896 in Wesel-Lackhausen, Germany. In 1919, while studying to get her doctorate at the Technical University of Berlin, she was awarded First Prize from the Department of Chemistry and Metallurgy. She received her doctorate in 1921 (from the same university) for her work on aliphatic (meaning a compound composed of carbon and hydrogen that lacks a ring structure) fatty acids. After graduating, she left to work in the field, becoming one of the first women in Germany to work professionally in chemistry.

In the field, she met Walter Noddack (who she would marry in 1926) and Otto Berg. At the time, there were still holes in the periodic table, notably for elements 43 and 75 (today known as technetium and rhenium respectably). In 1925, the Noddack’s and Berg published a paper claiming to have found elements 43 and 75. They named element 43 masurium (after Walter’s hometown) and element 75 rhenium (after the Rhine). However, scientists were unable to confirm or reproduce their results for masurium, so only rhenium was added to the periodic table. For this discovery, Ida was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize, but never won. She was also awarded the Liebig Medal of the German Chemical Society in 1931, and to date is the only woman to have every won it.

Noddack’s biggest accomplishment came in 1934 when she published a paper criticizing Enrico Fermi’s claim to have produced trans-uranic elements and postulating that his results were actually isotopes of lighter, known elements. Fermi had conducted an experiment where he bombarded uranium with neutrons, and proposed that he had produced element 93, the first trans-uranic element (all elements after uranium do not occur naturally and are man-made). Noddack took issue with this claim however, and published a response paper that it may instead be isotopes of known elements that the uranium had broken down into t, and suggested that chemical analysis be done on the products. This was the first mention or postulation on nuclear fission, and sadly it was not well accepted. Noddack’s paper was however proven to be correct in 1938, when Lise Meitner provided theft first proof of nuclear fission.

Sadly, despite being proven wrong, Fermi received the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his “discovery of trans-uranic elements.” Despite being proven correctly, Noddack was never nominated for the Nobel Prize or any other award for her mention of nuclear fission. However, this was in part due to the Noddack’s were Nazi sympathizers (as they were able to get postitions at universites during the time) during the Nazi regime in Germany. There is no justification for this and I personally don’t support or endorse the Noddack’s (I am Jewish and have ancestors who died in the holocaust), but it is still important to recognize how Ida’s theorizations on nuclear fission have been largely underwriten in history. Lise Meitner never received the Nobel Prize for her proof of fission, although her male lab partners did.

Noddack became a pioneer for the field of nuclear physics and chemistry when she became the first person to theorize on nuclear fission. Noddack continued to work with her husband until her retirement, publishing numerous scientific papers with him. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Hamburg in 1966, as well as the High Service Cross of the German Federal Republic in 1966. She died on September 24, 1978 at the age of 82. I couldn’t find a long form biography of Ida, but you can read more about the discovery of rhenium in A Tale of Seven Elements by Eric Scerri.

Sources: UCLA, Royal Society of Chemistry

jtotheizzoe:

From explore-blog:

How wonderful that a Google Doodle is celebrating the 215th birthday of Mary Anning, the self-trained, citizen-scientist fossil hunter who discovered the very first dinosaur skeleton.

I’ll be an iguanodon’s uncle. I have to admit, before today, I never knew much about the story and legacy of Mary Anning. I had heard her name before, but not much else. So I pulled out my rock hammer of curiosity dug a little deeper (pun most definitely intended). 
Turns out Anning didn’t actually uncover the first dinosaur skeleton, as is stated in the reblog above. That honor most certainly goes to ancient cultures like the Greeks and Chinese, although they attributed the finds to mythology (thar be dragons!). Richard Brookes described the first dinosaur bone in 1763 (there’s a funny story behind that one, which I’ll tell another time), which was formally described as Megalosaurus in 1824.
But Mary did make some of the most important finds in the history of paleontology. In 1811, she was walking on the beach with her brother when they stumbled across the skull of an ichthyosaur. Luckily for them, British beaches are rocky, desolate places. Over the next few months, Mary dug up the complete skeleton. She was just 12 years old!
But ichthyosaurs aren’t dinosaurs! They are a separate group of prehistoric marine reptiles. So Mary discovered one of the first prehistoric reptile fossils, but not the first dinosaur.
Today’s Google’s doodle tells the story of another of Mary’s famous finds, her 1823 unearthing of the first plesiosaur (also not a dinosaur). She won the Triple Crown of science awesomeness in 1828 when she discovered the first pterosaur, which (you guessed it) is also not a dinosaur. Here’s her original letter (a rather beautiful one if I may say so) describing the 1823 plesiosaur find (via Wikipedia):

Despite these discoveries, Anning was excluded by her gender from scientific societies, and the gentleman-scholars who purchased her fossils often took credit for her work without so much as a mention of her name. She wasn’t completely ignored, as many scholars called upon her expertise to obtain and help classify fossils (including Charles Darwin’s geology teacher), but she suffered financial difficulties for most of her life, and cultural obscurity long after.
It would be hard to think of anyone who made a bigger impact than Mary Anning on the science of digging old bits of animals out of the ground. I’m glad Google is celebrating her today, so that perhaps she can be celebrated a bit more every day. According to Alexa, Google.com gets 720 million unique visitors every day. Imagine how many of them might be inspired, as I was, to learn a little more about the story behind the doodle. 
What a win for science :)
If you want to learn more about what a dinosaur is, watch this SciShow episode. If you want to learn more about what a dinosaur ISN’T, visit Emily Graslie’s isnotadinosaur.tumblr.com

jtotheizzoe:

From explore-blog:

How wonderful that a Google Doodle is celebrating the 215th birthday of Mary Anning, the self-trained, citizen-scientist fossil hunter who discovered the very first dinosaur skeleton.

I’ll be an iguanodon’s uncle. I have to admit, before today, I never knew much about the story and legacy of Mary Anning. I had heard her name before, but not much else. So I pulled out my rock hammer of curiosity dug a little deeper (pun most definitely intended). 

Turns out Anning didn’t actually uncover the first dinosaur skeleton, as is stated in the reblog above. That honor most certainly goes to ancient cultures like the Greeks and Chinese, although they attributed the finds to mythology (thar be dragons!). Richard Brookes described the first dinosaur bone in 1763 (there’s a funny story behind that one, which I’ll tell another time), which was formally described as Megalosaurus in 1824.

But Mary did make some of the most important finds in the history of paleontology. In 1811, she was walking on the beach with her brother when they stumbled across the skull of an ichthyosaur. Luckily for them, British beaches are rocky, desolate places. Over the next few months, Mary dug up the complete skeleton. She was just 12 years old!

But ichthyosaurs aren’t dinosaurs! They are a separate group of prehistoric marine reptiles. So Mary discovered one of the first prehistoric reptile fossils, but not the first dinosaur.

Today’s Google’s doodle tells the story of another of Mary’s famous finds, her 1823 unearthing of the first plesiosaur (also not a dinosaur). She won the Triple Crown of science awesomeness in 1828 when she discovered the first pterosaur, which (you guessed it) is also not a dinosaur. Here’s her original letter (a rather beautiful one if I may say so) describing the 1823 plesiosaur find (via Wikipedia):

Despite these discoveries, Anning was excluded by her gender from scientific societies, and the gentleman-scholars who purchased her fossils often took credit for her work without so much as a mention of her name. She wasn’t completely ignored, as many scholars called upon her expertise to obtain and help classify fossils (including Charles Darwin’s geology teacher), but she suffered financial difficulties for most of her life, and cultural obscurity long after.

It would be hard to think of anyone who made a bigger impact than Mary Anning on the science of digging old bits of animals out of the ground. I’m glad Google is celebrating her today, so that perhaps she can be celebrated a bit more every day. According to Alexa, Google.com gets 720 million unique visitors every day. Imagine how many of them might be inspired, as I was, to learn a little more about the story behind the doodle. 

What a win for science :)

If you want to learn more about what a dinosaur is, watch this SciShow episode. If you want to learn more about what a dinosaur ISN’T, visit Emily Graslie’s isnotadinosaur.tumblr.com

Spotlight on Dr. Vera Rubin

Dr. Vera Rubin is a Jewish American Astronomer who studied galactic rotation curves and proved the existence of dark matter. She was the second woman astronomer to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and persevered through criticism and ridicule to get her ideas about dark matter accepted. She continues to advocate for greater numbers of women in science, and has received numerous awards throughout her life such as the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (the first woman to be honored since Caroline Herschel in 1828, and honorary doctorates from universities such as Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.

Rubin was born on July 23, 1928 in Philadelphia. She loved astronomy from an early age, something that her parents encouraged, and assembled her first homemade telescope at the age of 14. When she was accepted to study at Vassar for her bachelors, her high school physics teacher told her “That’s great. As long as you stay away from science, it should be okay” (Vassar). Luckily she ignored him, and graduated as the only astronomy major in her class in 1948. She attempted to go to Princeton for graduate school, but was rejected because Princeton did not accept women in their astronomy program at the time. She instead went to Cornell, where she got her Masters in 1951. Her Master’s thesis was on deviations from Hubble flow (which describes movement of galaxies outwards as the universe expands) having to do with galaxies moving sideways as well as backwards (because they were rotating). It wasn’t well received and was rejected from the Astronomical Journal and the Astrophysical Journal. However, her data was later used by Gerald de Vaucouleur to help prove the existence of the Virgo Super cluster (or the cluster of galaxies that includes the Milky Way).

Rubin received her PhD from Georgetown in 1954 on how galaxies clumped (she concluded it wasn’t random clumping). Like her master’s, her thesis was largely ridiculed by the scientific community and wasn’t accepted until it was independently proved 15 years later. She continued her research at Georgetown from 1955-65, when she left to work at the Carnegie Institution. She became the first woman to legally use the Mount Palomar Observatory.

Working with Kent Ford, another astronomer at the university, Rubin found that stars at the edges of galaxies orbited at exactly the same speed as stars at the center of galaxies. Because most visible stars are concentrated at the centers of galaxies, most visible mass is concentrated at the centers of galaxies. However, if the stars at the edges of galaxies were moving as fast as those at the centers, they wouldn’t be able to stay in orbit since there wouldn’t be enough mass at the edges, where few stars were, to hold them in orbit. Rubin remembered a paper she had read by Fritz Zwicky, who had encountered the same problem with galaxy clusters. Zwicky proposed that the clusters must be held together by “dark” matter (mass not visible to us), which he hypothesized would be about ten times more abundant then visible matter. Rubin realized this would account for her problem, and indeed provide more evidence for dark matter.

Rubin analyzed data from over 200 galaxies, and found almost all must contain a large amount of dark matter. Rubin and Ford’s conclusion was not welcomed by the scientific community (much like all her earlier discoveries). However, they refused to back down, and over time more and more scientists have accepted their conclusion and the existence of dark matter.

Rubin continued to work at the Carnegie Institute studying galaxies. One galaxy she discovered (NGC 4550) is odd in that half the stars orbit in one direction and the other half orbit in the opposite direction. She has received many awards, including the highest science award given in the United States, the National Medal of Science. She was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and has received honorary doctorates from universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. She also continues to mentor and advocate for women astronomers, saying she is dissatisfied with the number of women who are elected to the National Academy of Sciences each year. She continues to mentor women astronomers, even at the age of 85, stating, “It is well known that I am available twenty-four hours a day to women astronomers.” Despite all her discoveries, she has never even been nominated for the Nobel Prize. You can read more about Rubin’s work in her book Bright Galaxies, Dark Matter (a book she wrote so that the general public can understand and learn about astronomy despite their background).

Sources: Discovery, Yale, Vassar, AMNH

Spotlight on Dr. May Edward Chinn

Dr. May Edward Chinn was a pioneering African-American and Native American doctor who vigorously promoted better cancer screening methods and later advocated for African-American women to enter medical school. Facing life long discrimination, Chinn became the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Bellevue Hospital Medical College, the first woman to ride with the Harlem Hospital ambulance crew, and the African-American woman to get an internship at Harlem Hospital.

Dr. May Chinn was born on April 15, 1896 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. May’s father was a former slave who escaped from slavery at the age of 11, and her mother was an indigenous woman from the Chickahominy tribe. Her mother worked as a housekeeper for a wealthy family on Long Island, saving enough money up to send May to boarding school. Sadly, May contracted osteomylelitis in her jaw (an inflammation of the bone), and returned home. She spent time with her mother at the house her mom worked at, and was able to receive education and music lessons along with the families children. She became interested in music, and entered the Columbia University Teacher’s College in 1917.

As a freshman, May wrote a paper on sewage disposal for a science class, which impressed her professor who encouraged her to go into science. At the same time, she was mocked for her race by her music professor, who told her she could never play classical music. She decided to study medicine instead. She started working as a lab technician in a clinical pathology laboratory in her senior year, and graduated in 1921.

She went on to attend medical school at Bellevue Hospital Medical College, becoming the first African-American woman to graduate from it in 1926. Sadly, May could not get practicing privledges anywhere because she was black. The Rockefeller institute almost offered her an internship until they learned she was black. She finally secured an internship at Harlem Hospital, becoming the first woman to ride with the Harlem hospital ambulance crew on emergency calls. However, Harlem Hospital would still not giver her admitting privledges due to her race, an after her internship ended in 1928, she left to start her own practice. She would visit patients in their own homes, sometimes even performing surgery there. Many of her patients where people of color, and lived in dangerous neighborhoods that other doctors wouldn’t visit. It was during this time that May first became interested in cancer.

Many of May’s elderly patients had cancer. She tried to get a hold of research about the diseases from NYC hospitals, but they denied her since she was black. To get around this, May would accompany her patients on their appointments at the hospital by saying she was their family physician and so must be allowed to accompany them. This way she was able to learn about biopsy procedures and screening techniques. It was during this time that she met George Papanicolaou, who pioneered the Pap smear, and studied his techniques. May became vocal about early cancer detection, and advocated for more widespread screening.

In 1944, May was finally given admitting privledges at the Strang Cancer Clinic after being invited by Dr. Elise Strang L’Esperance (who I will cover in another, later biography). May worked at the clinic for the next twenty years, advocating for widespread and accessible early screening. May also did further research into developing methods for early cancer detection like looking at medical histories and advocating tests for non-symptomatic patients. In 1954, she was inducted into the New York Academy of Sciences, and received a citation (honor) from the American Cancer Society in 1957. After her retirement in 1974, May started a society to help African-American women get into medical school. May died on December 1, 1980 at the age of 84.

Throughout her life, May was a social advocator and organizer. She fought for African-American women’s inclusion in medicine, organized for poor communities of color in NYC to get better access to healthcare, and promoted more rigorous and throughout cancer screenings. She even found time to participate in the suffrage cause in 1919. She does not receive the credit or attention she deserves today, but you can read more about her in Kuwana Haulsey’s biography of her Angel of Harlem.

Sources: SDSC, NIH

Spotlight on Sophie Germain

Sophie Germain was a French mathematician, philosopher, and physicist best known for her work on Fermat’s last theorem, number theory, and elasticity. Despite her important work on curvature of elastic materials, which was fundamental for the Eiffel Tower’s construction, her name was left of the list of “72 great French scientists” that was inscribed on the Tower. Recently, historians reading her papers discovered that some of the proofs and theories attributed to Joseph Lagrange were actually hers.

Sophie Germain was born on April 1, 1776 in Paris to a wealthy family. At the age of 13, she was confined to her home when the French Revolution began. After reading an biography of Archimedes (particularly how it was rumored he was so engrossed in his work that he didn’t notice a Roman invader who would then kill him), she became fascinated with mathematics and began studying it. Her parent’s did not approve of her studying, and so she started studying at night. Her biographer Libri writes that her parent’s responded by “taking away her candles and clothing” (SDSC). Sophie responded by sneaking in her own candles and studying under her blankets. Confined to her home during the reign of terror (1793-1794), she taught herself differential calculus with only the books her family provided her (her parents finally gave up and let her study mathematics). As someone who’s taken calculus, let me tell you even basic calculus is hard to learn without a teacher. She also taught herself Greek and Latin so that she could read classical mathematic proofs and work.

At 18, Sophie attempted to enroll at lEcole Polytechnique in Paris. However, as a woman she was barred entry. Desperate to learn anyways, Sophie obtained lecture notes from students and studied those instead (what a badass let me tell you). Fascinated in particular with Joseph Lagrange’s work, she submitted a paper to him under a male pseudonym. He was so impressed with it that he asked for a meeting with the student, only to find out that Sophie was in fact a woman. He became her mentor and introduced her to many prominent scientists and mathematicians of the era. Although born into a wealthy family, Sophie was not of aristocratic status and so would not have been able to meet them without Lagrange’s introduction.

Sophie began her work on number theory (and did make contributions to it later in her life), but switched over to studying applied mathematics after in 1809, the French Academy of Sciences offered a prize for the best mathematical proof/explanation of the behavior of vibrating elastic surfaces. Sophie was the only one to submit a proof, but the academy refused her the prize since her proof contained errors in it (due to her lack of a formal education). The Academy extended the contest for another two years, and Sophie again entered it 1813, but still did not receive the prize due to errors. Finally, in 1816, she submitted her proof again and the Academy finally awarded her the prize (although her proof still had errors they would not be corrected until the late 1800’s. Although not completely correct, her work is seen as fundamental to the study of elasticity.

With her proof, she became the first woman to win a prize from the French Academy of Sciences. She hoped they would extend to her tickets for the Academy’s sessions (lectures and meetings), since the only women allowed at them at the time were the wives of mathematicians and scientists. Sadly, they did not extend her that invitation until her friend Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier extended her an invitation.

Germain also provided one of the most fundamental work on Fermat’s Last Theorem, proving it for all prime numbers under 197. This proof was used by many other later mathematicians working on Fermat’s Last Theorem. She also showed any proofs attempting to disprove Fermat’s Last Theorem for prime numbers greater then 5 must be very large (over 40 digits). As well, she showed that if x, y, and z are integers, and if x5+y5=z5, then either x, y, or z must be divisible by 5. These last two proofs were never published on their own, and instead included in the footnotes of a correspondent of hers, Adrien-Marie Legendre’s proof of Fermat’s last theorem for n=5. She never got the credit she deserved for this brilliant and fundamental work. As well, historians going over her unpublished papers now think that some of the proofs and ideas attributed to her mentor Lagrange were actually hers. I’m not saying he stole her work but he basically stole her work.

Sadly, Germain died in 1831 at the age of 55 from breast cancer. On her death certificate she was listed not as a mathematician but as a property holder. She never received a formal degree, dying just before the University of Gottingen in Germany was to award her an honorary one. Several theories and proofs are named after her today, and a prestigious prize from the French Academy of Sciences is named after her. Although she is starting to receive more recognition today, many still write her off due to her lack of formal training. You can read more about Germain and other woman mathematicians here.

Sources: SmithsonianSDSCAgness Scott