Solvay Sequel: Nine Women Scientists in the White House

The iconic photograph of the 1927 Solvay conference featured 29 stellar physicists and chemists, including Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Only one, Marie Curie, was a woman. When Professor Teresa Giraldez came across a historical photograph of nine leading women scientists, she was intrigued.  Dated February 14th, 1980, this photograph marks a reception hosted by the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter (represented here by his Assistant Sarah Weddington). Here, Teresa tells us about the remarkable journey of these women who received high recognition at the White House.

Reception at the White House to nine American women scientists
PHOTO: Reception at the White House (Washington DC, USA) to nine American women scientists, dated on February the 14th, 1980. Left to right: Dr. Mary Good, Dr. Chien Shiung Wu, Dr. Janet Berry, Dr. Ariel Hollingshead, Sarah Weddington (assistant to President Carter), Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus, Dr. Elizabeth Crosby, Dr. Margaret O. Dayhoff, Dr. Mary Calderone and Dr. Charlotte Friend. The picture is dedicated “To Margaret Dayhoff, With best wishes, Sarah Weddington 2-14-80”.

The scientists portrayed in this picture were all born in the first quarter of the 20th century and many of them developed their career throughout extremely hard times: during or just after the Second World War (WWII). Interestingly (or should I say ‘sadly’?), tough times for society usually turn out into professional or social opportunities for women; this seems to be the case for some of the women in the picture. In the US, during WWII, the proportion of working women increased by about 15%. The reason for this increase was that many jobs, previously occupied solely by men, were now deserted–they had left to the war front. This situation was soon extended to the field of Science and Technology. For example, the United States Civil Commission, in its search for qualified personnel, “rebranded” many disciplines such as engineering (until then, mainly dominated by men). Thus, the Commission made it clear in its 1941 report that ”Feminine aptitudes may be well adapted to engineering design, testing, and inspection, research, preparation of plans and maps, and computation” (Calling women for federal war work, United States Civil Service Commission, 1941). However, most historians agree that this apparently auspicious achievement must be taken with a grain of salt: these women scientists were mostly hired in positions “according to their femininity”, often in lower level jobs and always as subordinates in the research teams performing research projects during the War. In most cases, it was expected that, after the War was over, they would stop working to go back to their ‘home duties’ (1, 2). While many women were hired during those years, only a few were recognized.

Tough times for society opportunities for women - Teresa Giraldez

Recent studies have shown that the role of women was pivotal in many scientific milestones during the War, but completely ignored by society until now. An example of such disregard is greatly documented in the film Top Secret Rosies: the female computers of world war II (directed by Professor L. Erikson, Temple University, Philadelphia (3)), which tells the story of five women involved in the development of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). In the 1940s, a group of women mathematicians were recruited and trained at the University of Pennsylvania to systematically perform highly accurate ballistic calculations to be promptly sent to the European war front. In parallel, they contributed to the development of the first computer (ENIAC) that was able to perform very fast basic calculations, with unprecedented results at that time. None of these women was invited to the official dinner that was celebrated to present the ENIAC; to most observers, they were just “models” posing next to the original invention.

Nevertheless, all these women achieved an incredible milestone for the society: they broke the mould. The idea that women should stay home as “the only thing they could really do” was no longer sustainable. These women showed that their technical and intellectual abilities was not lower than men’s; they could indeed combine work and family to aspire to higher achievements in their professional careers. Role models now existed, and they could be followed by younger women who aspired to be medical doctors or University Professors. A new pathway was opened.

Let’s go back now to our photograph. The fact that makes it historical is that in 1980, those nine women were already leaders in their scientific research fields, Presidents of Scientific Societies or influential science policy makers at the federal government.

In the picture, the first one on the left is Dr. Mary Lowe Good (b. 1931), an inorganic chemist who in 1972 had been the first woman to be elected to the board of the American Chemical Society. In 1980, Dr. Good was head of the Engineered Materials Research division at Signal Research Center, Inc., with a staff of 400 scientists and technicians and annual sales of approximately $3 billion. Earlier that year, she was appointed to the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation by President Carter to participate in the elaboration of new plans for Scientific Research with public funding. She would later hold government positions under the administrations of Reagan, Bush and Clinton, combining stellar industrial and academic careers and receiving awards and recognition. In 1986, she was referred to as one of “Chicago’s 10 most powerful women” by the Chicago Tribune (5).

Mary Lowe Good

Next to her, Dr. Chieng-Shiung Wu (1912-1997), an experimental physicist who had been hired at Columbia University during WWII to work on the Manhattan Project. She developed a new method to extract Uranium, a chemical element that was used in the atomic bomb. After the war, she continued at Columbia as a Research Assistant, a position for which she was likely overqualified. Her experimental work had opened the door to the findings of her male colleagues Drs. Lee and Yang, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957; Dr. Wu was not included as one of the awardees. She was appointed Full Professor in Columbia in 1958. Among her long list of achievements and Awards, she was the first woman to become President of the American Society for Physics, one of the first to become a member of the National Academy of Science, and first to receive the National Medal of Science of the United States (1975). She would retire in 1981 to become a Professor Emerita.

Chieng-Shiung Wu

To her left stands Dr. E. Janet Berry, who in 1980 was the first woman President of the American Institute of Chemists. Dr. Berry was doubly uncommon: after obtaining a PhD in Science in Purdue University (1946), she went on to get a Juris Doctor degree at NYU (1952), becoming in 1953 a member of the New York bar. After working some years in different patent departments, she became a private practice patent attorney in New York City (1965). Undoubtedly, her career path was exceptional for a woman at that time.


The fourth in the picture is Dr. Ariel Hollingshead (b. 1929), a pharmacologist who is considered by many as the “mother of immunotherapy”. She discovered and developed tumor-associated antigens (TAA), and was the first to do clinical tests of TAA vaccines in lung cancer patients. Collaborating with oncologists from all over the world, she worked on developing vaccines for many types of cancer. In 1976, she had been named Medical Woman of the year by the Joint Board of American Medical Colleges, describing her as “one of the few women in our country who (…) will receive lasting distinction by applying the principles of basic research to the diseases of humanity” (6). In 1980, when this picture was taken, she received the Star of Europe Medal, chosen by the Ministers of Health for Germany, England and Italy. These were only two of the many achievements of her outstanding career.

Ariel Hollingshead

Dr. Mildred Dresselhauss (b. 1930), the next in the picture, was at that time Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for Material Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She would soon become President of the American Society of Physics (1983). Today she is considered pioneer in the birth of Nanotechnology and Nanoengineering. She is member of the National Academy of Sciences and has received the National Medal of Science (1990) and the International L’Oreal-UNESCO Award (1997), which adds up to a long list of international Awards and recognitions.

Mildred Dresselhauss

Next to her stands Dr. Elizabeth Crosby (1888-1983), National Medal of Science (1979) for her contributions to the field of Neuroanatomy. As many others in the picture, she had a long list of firsts: first woman to obtain full professorship at the University of Michigan Medical School (1936) and to receive the University’s Faculty Achievement Award (1956). In 1980 she was Professor Emeritus of Anatomy. In 1987 she would be instated in the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame (7).

Elizabeth Crosby

Next in the group is Dr. Margaret Oakley Dayhoff (1925-1983), possibly the founder of the field of bioinformatics. By 1980, when this photo was taken, Dr. Dayhoff had developed an on-line protein database system that could be accessed by telephone line, the first sequence database available for interrogation by remote computers. At that time she was President of the Biophysical Society (1980-1981). She was the second woman President after Jane K. Setlow (1977-78). Dr. Dayhoff was a true pioneer of bioinformatics – a field that by then had not been yet recognized as a distinct area of research. It is thanks to her, among many other things, that we use a single-letter code for the amino acids.

Margaret Oakley Dayhoff

To Dr Dayhoff’s left stands Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone (1904-1998), a physician best known for defying convention by advocating for sexual education, in a period when public discussion of such topic was considered extremely controversial. She had been medical director of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1953 to 1964. She then co-founded the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). Under her direction, this institution was pivotal for education about human sexuality in the schools as well as in the community. Her revolutionary contributions lead the way to many essential discussions in our society, which are still applicable today.

Mary Steichen Calderone

The ninth woman closing the group is Dr. Charlotte Friend (1921-1987). She described for the first time the murine leukemia virus (named the ‘Friend’ virus after her). She was one of many women who enlisted in the Army during the war, continuing her scientific career afterwards. Among her many achievements, she was Professor and Director of the Center for Cellular Experimental Biology of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York (1966), President of the American Society for Cancer Research (1975), elected member of the National Academy of Sciences (1976), and President of the New York Academy of Sciences (1978). One year after this picture was taken she would unfortunately be diagnosed with lymphoma. However, this fact did not disconnect her from science and the laboratory, which had been the most important things in her life.

Charlotte Friend

Apart from their outstanding scientific achievements, all these women were known for their enormous interest and effort to promote the role of women in science. Dr. Good and Dr. Dresselhaus created specific Programs aimed to promote the scientific career of women in the male dominated fields of Chemistry and Physics. Dr Hollingshead’s efforts to support women in science was widely appreciated by her peers. It was well known that when Dr. Dayhoff saw a female student on the hallway, she would enquire with interest about her situation and line of work. She would encourage female students to persevere, and not give up despite the hardships of academia and scientific research. Dr. Friend was known for her strong arguments in Scientific Committees, where she would fight to assure a fair number of female speakers at symposia. Their efforts are kept alive in the form of two Awards that are given annually in their honour. The Margaret Oakley Dayhoff Award from the Dayhoff Foundation, supported by the Biophysical Society, is awarded to the “most promising young woman in Biophysics”. Likewise, the AACR-Women in Cancer Research Charlotte Friend Memorial Lectureship recognizes the role of men or women who not only have contributed significantly to the advance of cancer research, but who have significantly helped along their way to integrate women in science.

This photograph is a reminder of the effort and hardship that many women endured during difficult times, of how they prevailed to change the view of their world and to open paths for new generations of women scientists. This snapshot immortalizes nine achievers that undoubtedly took their society one step further from gender-biased stereotypes and inequality. We must embrace their legacy and continue striving for gender equality, in and out of Science.

About the Author

Teresa GiraldezDr Teresa Giraldez is a Lecturer and Group Leader at the University of La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain and Deputy Director of the Institute of Biomedical Technologies (ITB). Her research is on ion channels biophysics and physiology, control of neuronal excitability, and calcium signaling in subcellular domains, using state-of-the-art imaging techniques and electrophysiology. She is the recipient of the 2009 Margaret Oakley Dayhoff Award from the Biophysical Society and the European Research Council Consolidator Award. She has been a member of the Biophysical Society Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women (CPOW) and was recently elected to the Biophysical Society Council.


1. Margaret W. Rossiter (1998) Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
2. Jordynn Jack (2009) Science on the home front: American Women Scientists in World War II. University of Illinois Press.
3. Top Secret Rosies: The female computers of World War II. LeAnn Erikson. Documental.
4. Rediscovering WWWII’II female ‘computers’, J. Gumbrecht, CNN Feb. 2011:
5. “Chicago`s 10 Most Powerful Women”. Chicago Tribune. November 18, 1987. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
6. Ariel Hollingshead Biographical Statement in
7. “Inductees” from Alabama Women’s Hall Of Fame.

“If You See/Hear Something, Say Something”

Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe is the founder of STEM Women and is a science communicator with a background in molecular biology and cancer research. Buddhini has authored a series of articles in Scientific American, titled “The Hallmarks of Cancer.” She provides science outreach through broadcasts on YouTube. Her science writing can be found at JargonwallConnect with Buddhini on Google+ or on Twitter @DrHalfPintBuddy

Last Monday I had the pleasure of attending a private event organised by Digital Science. It was a round-table discussion on what inclusivity looks like in STEM, led by the lovely Amarjit Myers and Laura Wheeler. I got to meet some insightful people who had great ideas for how we can move this conversation forward. We also looked at the ever-present issue of sexual harassment in academia. With Ada Lovelace Day approaching, I wanted to write down some thoughts I had on this broad topic.

Connecting with such a broad group of women, in diverse disciplines, all passionate about the same cause made me realise how easy it is in this day and age to ‘find your tribe’ online. We have so much access to communities and support, various networks and organisations (such as this one!) that help us navigate a system that has always had structural biases that disadvantage women and people of colour. It made me consider an earlier time, and how isolated and alone a woman in STEM would have felt navigating this. Many conversations with my own mother, who is now a retired professor of Chemistry, make me appreciate how much the environment seems to have changed.


Is the Gender Gap Solved in Liberal Sweden?

Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede is a professor and division head of Chemical Biology at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden. In this post, Professor Wittung-Stafshede goes beyond the progressive nation’s gender policies, to examine the everyday and institutional sexism experienced by women in science. 

Sweden is considered one of the most gender-equal countries in the world. We have the longest paid maternity leave in the world (16 months), and at least three of these months must be taken out by the dad. Sweden has free daycare, schools (including university), and afterschool programs. Swedes are very liberal in terms of household duties: men and women share a lot of responsibilities, and there are no stay-at-home moms. Based on this culture, I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken.

I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken. - Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede
I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken. – Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede


Same Auld Lang Syne: Dearth of Diversity in 2016 American Chemical Society Awards

Four days into the new year and it’s déjà vu all over again. The American Chemical Society (ACS), which has 158,000 members, just announced its 2016 National Award winners. Once again, gender inequity and lack of diversity are glaringly apparent:  95% of awardees are men, and a higher proportion present as White.

The Society only includes one award to promote women, the ACS Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences, awarded this year to Dr Carol Fierke.

The ACS data show that men are overrepresented not only in award nominations, but also in award success whereas women are underrepresented:

“In the 2015 nominee pool, 83% are male and 17% are female compared to ACS membership demographics of 71% male and 29% female.”

Why is this important? Awards and prizes are widely accepted markers of professional achievement that influence salary, promotion and tenure decisions, to shape and advance careers. The typical explanation for the dearth in gender diversity in award line-ups is that of a pipeline problem, with the prediction being that as more women join STEM fields and make their way up the academic ladder, their share of prizes will concomitantly increase. But this has not happened: contrary to the pipeline hypothesis, women’s share of prestigious awards has fallen in the past decade, compared to the decade before [1]. Closer analysis shows that women receive a disproportionate share of teaching and service awards, at the expense of prizes that recognise research contributions. This is known as The Matilda Effect. (more…)

Promoting STEM Women: How Scientific Societies Can Help

We spoke with Professors Rajini Rao and Gabriela Popescu who are outgoing and incoming chairs, respectively, of the Committee on Professional Opportunities for Women (CPOW) in the Biophysical Society

1. Gabriela, the Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women is about 40 years old.  Can you briefly tell us about the history of CPOW and its significance for the Biophysical Society at the time?

GP: When the Biophysical Society was founded around the middle of the last century, following WWII, very few of the ~500 attendees were women and none were in leadership positions. This changed in the early seventies when Margaret Oakley Dayhoff, a pioneer in bioinformatics, became Secretary for the Society. Under her leadership, the CPOW was chartered for “increasing recognition and opportunities for women biophysicists”. Shortly after, the Society elected its first woman President. The timing was not a coincidence! Since then CPOW has worked to elevate many women scientists to leadership positions and supported the career development of both men and women biophysicists. The Biophysical Society currently serves over 9000 diverse professional scientists drawn from academia, industry and government agencies world wide.

2. Rajini, you chaired this committee for nearly a decade. Tell us how you got involved, and why?

RR: While serving as an elected member on the Biophysical Society council, I couldn’t help but notice the poor representation of women scientists in society awards. When I subsequently met the chair of the Awards committee and looked at the underlying numbers, I realized that the problem was that few women applied, even when the award was for women only!  So I joined the CPOW committee where we identified and directly lobbied high quality candidates for awards. Women who self-promote their careers are perceived as being “pushy” and may be unfairly penalized. By mediating on their behalf, we removed this impediment. As a result of our efforts, the number of women receiving awards has increased, and we also have more women serving on the Awards committee.

Women who self-promote their careers are perceived as being pushy” & may be unfairly penalized. By mediating on their behalf scientific societies remove this impediment. - Prof. Rajini Rao, Physiology
Women who self-promote their careers are perceived as being pushy” & may be unfairly penalized. By mediating on their behalf scientific societies remove this impediment. – Prof. Rajini Rao, Physiology


Summer of Sexism: Blunders, Blow-ups and Backlash

It’s a bumper season for sexism in science. Earlier this year, the media was abuzz with a startling revelation: sexism in science is a myth! A study by developmental psychologists Williams and Ceci, purportedly showing a lack of hiring bias in academia, became fodder for “clickbait” inflation characteristic of media hype. Recent newsworthy events, however, show that casual sexism is alive and well, unwittingly propagated by the stalwarts who make up the old guard. They’ve left us shaking our heads wondering, what were they thinking?

The Blunders: By now much has been said about the unfortunate remarks uttered by the Nobel Prize winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt while addressing a roomful of women scientists and journalists in Korea.

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry”.

Sir Tim was speaking from personal experience: his wife Professor Mary Collins used to be his student, with whom he “fell in love in the lab” exemplifying the “relationship drama” that can be so distracting in a professional setting.

No Falling in Love. No crying. Photo: Prof Rajini Rao
No Falling in Love. No crying. Photo: Prof Rajini Rao

Similarly,  former AAAS president Professor Alice Huang, who also married her postdoctoral mentor Nobelist David Baltimore after a lab romance, suggested that young women should tolerate unwanted (and inappropriate) sexual behavior in the work place. Responding on her Ask Alice column to a woman postdoc who asked for advice in dealing with a mentor repeatedly looking down her blouse, Dr. Huang advised her to “put up with it, with good humor if you can”.


Gender Bias in STEM: A Southern Perspective

By Cathy Newman

Cathy Newman gives a postgraduate student perspective on how local culture impacts on the careers of women in STEM, and why it’s important for women students to learn about the challenges of gender bias as part of their education and career planning.

Last month, the College of Science at Louisiana State University hosted a Women in STEM event. The event consisted of a keynote address followed by a panel discussion, the latter of which I attended. All speakers were LSU alumni holding or retired from prominent STEM positions.

Panelists were the following:

  1. Dr. Karen Adler Storthz: professor emerita at the University of Texas Health Science Center,
  2. Sorcha Clary: project engineer for Marathon Petroleum.
  3. Judea Goins-Andrews: director of school engagement for Louisiana at Project Lead the Way,
  4. Rebecca Guidry: clinical medical physicist at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center,
  5. Pat Bodin: former chief information officer and VP of global information for ExxonMobil.
Louisiana State University Women in STEM
LSU Women in STEM panel (Left to right): Dr Adler Storthz; Sorcha Clary; Judea Goins-Andrews; Rebecca Guidry; Pat Bodin. Photo: Cathy Newman (copyright)

As a graduate student in biology at a major research university, I rarely have the opportunity to interact with women in STEM careers outside of academia, so I especially appreciated that the panel included women in industry and education/outreach. The panel also spanned a wide range of career stages, from a few years out of college, to retired. Despite the wide range of careers and career stages represented on the panel, the advice to early career STEM women was remarkably consistent, emphasizing self-confidence, assertiveness, and patience.

I live tweeted the panel discussion. Here are some of the highlights.


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