Women Have Been Leaders in Science Throughout History

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I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Faith Lapidus with Explorations in VOA Special English.  Today we tell about female scientists around the world and some of the problems they face.

Women scientists have developed drugs to treat diseases like cancer, diabetes, and malaria. Women have made important discoveries about the human body and improved their country's effectiveness in fighting wars.  A few women have won the Nobel Prize, one of the highest honors in the world. Some female scientists never married.  Others raised large families and some worked with their husbands.  But it has been difficult for women to be successful scientists.

In nineteen-oh-six, a little girl named Maria Goeppert was born in Germany. She learned to love science from her father. She studied physics and earned a doctorate degree in nineteen thirty. She married an American scientist. Joseph Mayer and Maria Goeppert moved to the United States in nineteen thirty. Mr. Mayer became a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. But Maria Goeppert-Mayer worked without pay as a volunteer. Later she became a professor of physics at the University of Chicago in Illinois. In nineteen sixty-three, Maria Goeppert Mayer won the Nobel Prize in physics along with two other scientists.

Women have been making scientific discoveries since ancient times. Historians believe Merit Ptah was the first named medical doctor more than four thousand six hundred years ago. She is the first woman known by name in the history of science. Her picture has been found in an ancient Egyptian burial place.

Around the same time in China, Si Ling-Chi is believed to have been the first Empress of China. She discovered the secret of making a very fine cloth called silk by watching tiny insects called silkworms. Si Ling Chi established farms to raise silkworms. She harvested the thin pieces of silk made by the silkworms and used it to weave the new cloth.

In the early eighteen hundreds in England, Mary Anning became one of the first women recognized for her discoveries about the ancient history of the Earth. Mary and her father collected fossils in their village on the southern coast of Great Britain. Fossils are plants or parts of animals that have been saved in rocks for millions of years.  When she was only twelve years old, Mary became the first person to find the almost complete skeletons of several animals that no longer existed on Earth. She never became famous for her discoveries because she often sold her fossils to get money to support her family.

In eighteen-ninety one, a young Polish woman named Marie Sklodowska traveled to Paris, France to study physics. She did so because she could not get a college education in Poland.  She began working in the laboratory of a man named Pierre Curie.  Marie and Pierre Curie married and made many discoveries together. They received the Nobel Prize in physics in nineteen-oh-three along with another scientist.  Marie Curie became the first person to be awarded a second Nobel Prize in nineteen eleven, this time in chemistry. Marie Curie is one of the few women who became famous as a scientist.

However, women have made many scientific discoveries. During times of war, when men left their homes to fight, women had to do men's work at home.  During the American Civil War in the eighteen sixties, women learned to use and improve farm machines. Women also made inventions that helped their countries. For example, a woman in New York invented a way to cover the outside of ships so they would not become covered with tiny sea animals.

During World War Two, many American women worked in factories. Their inventions improved fighter planes, containers for fuel and cameras. But after the war, women were expected to stay at home and have babies while their husbands went back to work in factories and laboratories.  Women who continued to be scientists were often told it was not natural for women to work outside the home.

Even today, many experts say women scientists are often not treated fairly. The Washington Post newspaper reported a study about the number of research articles published in medical magazines in which a woman was the main writer.

Women were the main writers only twenty-nine percent of the time. Nancy Andreasen is a scientist at the University of Iowa. Scientists like Ms. Andreasen often send stories about their research to special professional publications. Ms. Andreasen says her research is published more often when she signs them as N.C. Andreasen rather than Nancy Andreasen. In that way, the editors of the publications do not know if the writer is a man or a woman.

Women also receive fewer patents for their inventions. A patent forbids others from copying an invention and makes the invention valuable in the world of business. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, anything a woman invented belonged to her husband under the law. But a current study in the United States says there are still more patents awarded to men. The researchers said that this is partly because it is easier for male scientists to receive financial support for their work.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio includes only six women on its list of two hundred thirty-five inventors.  Stephanie Kwolek worked for the chemical company DuPont when she invented a cloth called Kevlar. It is five times stronger than steel. It is used to make clothing that stops bullets from a gun. It is also used in space. Ms. Kwolek also works to improve science education for all children.

In two thousand five, the issue of female scientists caused much debate.  The president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, was pressured to resign after he made some statements about female scientists.  He was discussing why there are so few female college professors in subjects like engineering and mathematics.  He said this might be because of differences in ability between men and women.

A report this week from the National Academy of Sciences disputes this.  It says that women in science and engineering do not lack ability.  Instead, they face unfair treatment by university administrators.  The report says female science professors are often paid less than males, receive fewer honors and hold fewer leadership positions.  The report recommends changing the way professors are chosen and providing more support for working parents. It says government, universities and research organizations should act to solve the problem.

One person in the United States has a very unusual personal experience about women in science.  Ben Barres is a professor of biology at Stanford University in California. Ten years ago, at the age of forty-two, he chose to have a medical process to change his sex. Before that Ben Barres was a woman named Barbara.

He wrote about his experience as both a female and male scientist in a recent issue of the publication Nature.  He found that he was treated with more respect as a male. He said this is evidence of the unequal treatment that harms female scientists.

Several organizations in the United States are trying to help women in science.  For example, the L'Oreal USA company has a Fellowships for Women in Science program.  Each year it recognizes, rewards and supports five women in the United States.  These women have earned doctoral degrees in science, mathematics or engineering. Other organizations support efforts to help young girls increase their interest in math, science and technology. The Girl Scouts of America has a Web site, www.girlsgotech.org.

Christiane Nusslein-Volhard of Germany shared the Nobel Price for medicine in nineteen ninety-five. She was the tenth woman to win this prize in one of the sciences.  She directs the Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology in Tubingen, Germany. Doctor Nusslein-Volhard says women in Germany often stop working as scientists when have children.

So she has started an organization that gives money to young women scientists who need help paying for someone to care for their children and homes. Doctor Nusslein-Volhard says she hopes life will become easier for women scientists in Germany while Angela Merkel is the chancellor. The leader of Germany has a doctorate degree in physics.

This program was written by Karen Leggett and produced by Mario Ritter.  I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Faith Lapidus. You can read and listen to this program on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com.  Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

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