Since 1903, the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry or medicine has been awarded only twenty times to women. This figure is even more impressive when we consider that in this period more than 650 men have received the award in the above-mentioned disciplines. The reasons why the numbers of men and women recognized in science are so marked are due to social inequalities that we will not go into here. Today is February 11, International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It is necessary to claim and act daily in favor of equality between the different genders, but today we are going to do it by highlighting the role of women in science:

 

Augusta Ada Byron

Born in London in 1815, she is considered the world’s first female programmer. First we must put her in context: Charles Babbage created a calculator that was able to mix arithmetic operations with operations based on given calculation principles. This machine was completely analog and the calculation principles were entered by means of punched cards. Ada developed one of these cards that allowed the calculator to find Bernuilli’s numbers, making her the first person to develop a program for a computer.

 

Marie Curie

Maria Salomea Skłodowska-Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to receive it in two different categories, physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911. She began her university studies at a clandestine university in Poland, the country of her birth, as she was not allowed to enter university because of her status as a woman. Finally she was able to move to France to graduate in Physics at the University of Paris in 1893. In 1903 she obtained, in addition to her PhD, the Nobel Prize in Physics together with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, who discovered radioactivity. Later, in 1911, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the progress in her research on radioactivity and its application to treat conditions such as cancer. His findings led to such important scientific discoveries as the identification of alpha, beta and gamma waves and the development of different atomic models.  In addition, as a result of her work, radiotherapy exists and radiation is used for the diagnosis of certain diseases.

 

Barbara McClintock

She was born in the United States in 1902 and was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine alone. In the 1920s, McClintock studied the genes of maize, observing the genetic recombination that occurs during meiosis in cell reproduction and brought the scientific community closer to understanding hereditary processes. Unfortunately, her studies went unnoticed until 1983, when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

 

Rosalind Franklin

Born in the United Kingdom in 1920, she is the person who helped discover the structure of DNA. A biophysicist and crystallographer, in 1952 she managed to take the sharpest image to date of the complete structure of DNA. To do so, she adapted and improved the tools of the time until she came up with the well-known “Photograph 51”. This photo helped Watson and Crick to establish their double helix model describing the spiral structure of DNA that we all know, which earned them the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962 together with Wilkins. Sadly, Franklin died in 1957 of ovarian cancer and did not receive recognition from the scientific community during his lifetime.

 

Margarita Salas

This biochemist from Asturias was born on November 20, 1938. In 1963 she graduated in Chemistry from the Complutense University of Madrid and was a disciple of Nobel Prize winner Severo Ochoa. Among other things, she worked as a teacher, as a researcher, was a member of the Royal Academy of Exact Sciences, the Royal Academy, presided over the Severo Ochoa Foundation and was the first Spanish woman to be a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. Through the study of the Phi29 virus, she discovered that there were certain proteins located at each end of the fragments of the genetic material that activated its replication. In addition, she discovered DNA polymerase, which is released when the Phi29 virus infects a cell and is directly linked to DNA replication. Thus, from one fragment of genetic material it is possible to make different copies. This discovery led to the development of techniques such as PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) which, among other applications, is used to detect the presence of sarscov-2 in the organism.

 

Margarita del Val Latorre

If we have talked about Margarita Salas and her very important discovery that in these times of pandemic is so popular (PCR), we could not finish without talking about the immunologist and virologist Margarita del Val. During the pandemic she has played the role of communicator and has become one of the most reliable voices for the public. However, far from being a communicator, she holds a PhD in Chemical Sciences specializing in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, is a member of the Royal Spanish Academy of Pharmacy and is a scientific researcher at the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center of the CSIC.

 

As these examples show, the role of women in science is essential. They have carved out a niche for themselves in science through hard work, talent and love for their disciplines. The expression “carving out a niche” is not casual or metaphorical, it is literal. Many of these women scientists have had to work against a society that did not expect them to dedicate their lives to science and even against colleagues who undervalued them.

Fortunately, the current situation is changing. There are alarming data such as the fact that less than 30% of researchers in the world are women and that in Spain only 25% of university professors and research professors in the CSIC are women. This is worrying news, but we are gradually moving towards a world in which science belongs to everyone. We hope that the day will come when it will no longer be necessary to emphasize the role of women in science because it will mean that there is equality. The cure for cancer will not come from men or women, but from people who dedicate their lives to science.