Ten Trailblazing Women Who Changed STEM

As a tribute to the women of Hidden Figures, here are 10 other courageous women who battled sexism and racism to transform STEM fields and make history.
Ten Trailblazing Women Who Changed STEM

This article was originally published by USA Today.

By Lauren Padilla, Johns Hopkins University

“I can’t change the color of my skin, so I have no choice but to be the first, which I can’t do without you sir,” says Mary Jackson, an African American NASA engineer, as she asserts her case before a white, male Virginia judge. Though the scene is brief, it is a moment that best captures the tone of Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures — its poignancy, its hopefulness, its call for collaboration.

Clearly the film, based on the previously untold stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three female African American NASA mathematicians who helped launch astronaut John Glenn into space, has resonated with audiences. For the second weekend in a row, the movie has topped the box office, surpassing both Ben Affleck’s Live by Night and Martin Scorsese’s Silence.

As a tribute to the film’s inspirational success, and the very real trials Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson had to face, here are 10 other courageous women who battled sexism and racism to transform STEM fields and make history.

1. RACHEL CARSON (1907-1964)

After outscoring all her other peers on the U.S. Civil Service Exam, Rachel Carson joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a marine biologist in 1932. However, it was through her groundbreaking novelSilent Spring (1962), which warned against the hazards of pesticide and fertilizer usage, that Carson helped to spark a worldwide environmental movement. In 1980, Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work.

2. KALAPANA CHAWLA (1962-2003)

In 1997, Kalpana Chawla became the first Indian-born woman in space as a member of NASA’s flight STS-87 crew. Born in Karnal India, Chawla held undergraduate and master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and aerospace engineering, as well as a doctorate of philosophy in aerospace engineering. She was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, after she and the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia were killed upon re-entry.

3. GRACE HOPPER (1906-1992)

As the inventor of both the first computer compiler and one of the first standardized computer languages, Admiral Grace Hopper revolutionized computer programming. In 1943, Admiral Hopper joined the United States Navy Reserve, later receiving an assignment to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard. Her naval career lasted 43 years and she retired Rear Admiral Grace Hopper in 1989.


The first Native American woman to become a doctor in the United States, Susan LaFlesche Picotte reshaped the medical community. It was Picotte’s firsthand experience and observations of the awful living conditions of the Omaha tribe that inspired her to pursue a medical career. In 1889, she graduated first in her class from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Picotte later advocated for Native Americans’ medical access in D.C. and eventually started her own hospital.

5. VERA RUBIN (1928-2016)

An American astronomer and physicist, Vera Rubin confirmed the existence of dark matter. Rubin was the sole female astronomy major to graduate from Vassar College in 1948. Though Rubin wanted to obtain a graduate degree in astrophysics from Princeton, the school refused to consider her because she was a woman. Still, Rubin continued on and her findings have since transformed scientists’ approaches to astronomical research.


Before beginning her career at NASA, Mae Carol Jemison obtained a M.D. from Cornell University Medical College, working as a general practitioner and later as a Peace Corps medical officer. In 1985, Jemison opted for a career change and decided to apply to NASA’s astronaut training program. In September 1992, Jemison became the first female African American astronaut to travel into space.

7. HEDY LAMARR (1913-2000)

This “Golden Age” actress was not only a glamorous Hollywood icon, but a technological innovator, who, along with her co-creator George Anthiel, developed a spread-spectrum communication technique. Lamarr donated the technology to the Navy, and the U.S. Army put Lamarr’s “secret communications system” to use in 1962.

8. CHIEN-SHIUNG WU (1912-1997)

Nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu was known as “The First Lady of Physics.” The U.S. government recruited Wu to contribute to the Manhattan Project at Columbia University, after learning of her nuclear fission research. Wu became the first Chinese American elected to the U.S. National Academy of Science and the first President of the American Physical Society.

9. MARY G. ROSS (1908-2008)

The first female Native American engineer, Mary G. Ross was one of only 40 engineers selected to participate in Lockheed’s top-secret think tank, Skunk Works. Ross was also an active member of the Society of Women Engineers–mentoring rising college students around the country.

10. SALLY RIDE (1951-2012)

Sally Ride was the first American woman to travel to space. As a physics student at Stanford University, Ride came across a NASA advertisement seeking female astronauts and decided to apply. One of six women selected for the program, Ride took her initial journey into space in 1983. After retiring from NASA, Ride began an advocate for girls’ STEM education. She was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2003.

Lauren Padilla is a student at Johns Hopkins University and a USA TODAY College digital producer.

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