Last year was a remarkable year for recognition of women researchers, as Nobel Prize for Chemistry was unprecedentedly granted to two female scientists, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, for their endeavor of developing CRISPR. However, there are still a lot of women who have made important contributions to the sciences but have received relatively few acknowledgments, especially from new generations.
Thus, amid the global celebration of the International Women’s Day this month, we are here introducing three of the most groundbreaking women in scientific history who have helped shape the world with their years of devotion to scientific research.
3 Incredible Women Scientists You Should Know: Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (left), Katalin Karikó (middle), Rita Levi-Montalcini (right)
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Don’t Have Any Regrets at All
Since 1982, AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) has been one of the first names that comes to mind when thinking of frightening human diseases. Today we all know that it is caused by a retrovirus, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which attacks the body’s immune system, but back then in early 1980s, very few knew the mechanism behind this new emerged disease. And Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was among the first researchers who studied it.
Barré-Sinoussi began her study on the retroviruses at the Pasteur Institute in 1975, and later joined Luc Montaigner’s team established in 1982 for AIDS research. The research team found a previously unknown retrovirus in patients with swollen lymph glands, and, as the first author, Barré-Sinoussi reported it as the AIDS agent in a 1983 paper published in Science (Science, 1983 ). As the discovery has been crucial in radically improving treatment methods for AIDS sufferers, Barré-Sinoussi and Montaigner were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2008.
Interestingly, Barré-Sinoussi was, at the very start, more interested in becoming a doctor than a researcher before attending university and her career as a scientist all started with an idea that obtaining a science degree was shorter and much more cheaper than getting a medical one, which was false as she later found out that the length of study was about the same. However, she never regretted about studying science as she realized scientific research was what she really enjoyed during her early years of working in the lab. It seems that being born in a family of modest means truly helped her made the right decision.
Katalin Karikó, Long Struggle for Paving the Way for the COVID-19 Vaccine
A Hungarian biochemist who escaped to Temple University in Philadelphia from communist Hungary, Katalin Karikó, born in 1955, persisted in her studies on mRNA even when she was diagnosed with cancer and meanwhile demoted by the university following her failure of grant applications for mRNA research.
This research area has long held huge promise as mRNA is capable of guiding the synthesis of specific proteins, such as antibodies to vaccinate human against viral infection, but has so far run into biological roadblocks. Synthetic mRNA was notoriously unstable in human body (often degraded before reaching target cells) and would likely to trigger vexing immune response. However, Karikó was, in that era, no doubt one of the most determined scientists who believed that mRNA could be harnessed to fight diseases.
Providence does not let down a woman who does her best. After a decade of research dealing with trials and errors, she, together with her old colleague Drew Weissman, eventually found a method to create a hybrid mRNA that goes around the body’s immune defenses. On December 11, 2020, the first COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, developed based on Karikó’s groundbreaking discovery, was approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA, 2021 ), marking a great victory of Karikó and her mRNA research of 40 years.
Rita Levi-Montalcini, Not Cut Out to Be a Wife
Rita Levi-Montalcini was renowned for her work in neurobiology. However, the way to be a neurobiologist was not easy for a Jewish daughter in the post-Victorian era. When she decided to attend university, her father expressed firm opposition against it with the expectation that she could be a good wife and a good mother staying at home as most women would do at that time.
However, the 20-year old adult was so resolute in living a different life that she convinced her father and began her college years at the University of Turin, where she developed her interest in nervous system and remained as a research assistant after graduation. In late 1930s, her fellowship in the university was ended with the promulgation of Italian racial laws, which stripped Jews of their civil rights and professional positions. Nevertheless, she continued her neurological research in her bedroom, studying the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos under the threat of bombs during the Second World War.
After the war, she moved to the US and spent 30 years at Washington University, where she and a colleague discovered nerve growth factor, a protein regulating the growth of cells and playing a particularly important role in the development of tumors, for which she won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Which of female scientist’s story has inspired you? As you feast on the biographies of those respectable ladies, also check out our quiz and story sharing campaign for celebrating more achievements of female scientists.