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Women’s History Month: 28 pioneering women in science and biotechnology to know

Good Day BIO
March 31, 2021

During Women’s History Month, Good Day BIO has been highlighting the accomplishments of women who have broken barriers in the sciences, medicine, and biotechnology—here’s a list of 28 trailblazers you should know.

1. Phyllis Arthur

Phyllis Arthur, BIO’s VP of Infectious Diseases and Diagnostics Policy, has been BIO’s leading voice in the fight against COVID-19. Her long career has included leading marketing and sales teams at Merck where she launched several exciting new vaccines including the first HPV vaccine, GARDASIL.

To learn more about Phyllis Arthur, click here.

2. Dr. Elizabeth Helen Blackburn

Molecular biologist Dr. Elizabeth Helen Blackburn’s research has focused on the telomere, the structure at the end of the chromosome that protects the chromosome and culminated in her 1984 joint discovery of the enzyme telomerase along with her student Carol Greider while working at UC-Berkeley. She received a 1/3 share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery, making her the first Australian woman Nobel laureate.

To learn more about Dr. Elizabeth Helen Blackburn, click here.

Elizabeth-Helen Blackburn

3. Mary-Dell Chilton

Mary-Dell Chilton’s pioneering work in genetic engineering led to the discovery that Agrobacterium could be used to transfer genes from other organism into plants—providing an alternative to traditional plant breeding. She led a research study that produced the first transgenic plants—a.k.a. genetically modified (GM) plants.

To learn more about Mary-Dell Chilton, click here.

Mary Dell Chilton

4. Dr. Marie Curie

Dr. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize—and the only woman in history to win two. In 1903, she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics—and any Nobel, period—for her research on radiation alongside her husband, Pierre. In 1911, she earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the elements radium and polonium and creating a means for measuring radioactivity—an award she earned all on her own.

To learn more about Dr. Marie Curie, click here.

Dr. Marie Curie

5. Dr. Marie Daly

Dr. Marie Daly was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. “Her work contributed to our basic understanding of histones and, ultimately, the organization of our DNA,” explains Harvard University. Dr. Daly established a scholarship fund for African American science students at Queens College in New York, in honor of her father who couldn’t finish his graduate degree.

To learn more about Dr. Marie Daly, click here.

Marie Daly

6. Dr. Jennifer Doudna

Dr. Jennifer Doudna is one of the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work to develop the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technique. Dr. Doudna and her collaborator, Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, published their research in a landmark 2012 paper in the journal Science, which showed they could isolate the components of CRISPR/Cas9, insert them in a test tube, and make specific edits to DNA. In 2017, she founded BIO member company Mammoth Biosciences, which has been developing a CRISPR-based COVID-19 diagnostic.

To learn more about Dr. Doudna, click here.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna

7. Dr. Cartier Esham

As BIO's Chief Science Officer and EVP for Emerging Companies, Dr. Cartier Esham manages and directs BIO’s policy development, advocacy, research, and educational initiatives for emerging companies, which comprise approximately 90% of BIO’s membership. With a Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Georgia and a Master's in Marine Biology from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, she has published several papers on water quality, marine microbial ecology, and bacterial phylogeny.

To learn more about Dr. Esham, click here.

8. Dr. Rosalind Franklin

Dr. Rosalind Franklin’s research paved the way for biotechnology innovations such as synthetic biology, biobased manufacturing, and carbon capture and utilization. Her work was crucial to the discovery of DNA’s structure—which ultimately led to Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins being awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962, a few years after Rosalind’s death from cancer at age 37. BIO’s Rosalind Franklin Award (sponsored by the Rosalind Franklin Society) is presented annually to a pioneering woman in the industrial biotechnology and agriculture sectors.

To learn more about Dr. Rosalind Franklin, click here.

Rosalind Franklin

9. Dr. Julie Gerberding

As chief patient officer and vice president at Merck, Dr. Gerberding oversees global public policy, strategic communications, patient engagement, population health, and corporate responsibility. She made history as the first woman to serve as director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She was at the helm of the agency during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax bioterrorism attacks. Dr. Gerberding is a BIO board member as well as a member of the MSD Wellcome Trust Hilleman Laboratories and the Cerner Corporation boards.

To learn more about Dr. Julie Gerberding, click here.

10. Dr. Ruby Hirose

Japanese American biologist and biochemist Dr. Ruby Hirose overcame anti-Asian racism and violence to save countless lives with her groundbreaking research, which led to the development of the polio vaccine.

To learn more about Dr. Ruby Hirose, click here.

Ruby Hirose

11. Dr. Jennifer Holmgren

Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech (and a member of BIO’s Executive Committee), has spent her career driving the development of renewable energy and more sustainable products. She’s received many awards for her work and her leadership, including the 2015 U.S. EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Award and BIO’s Rosalind Franklin Award.

To learn more about Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, click here.

Jennifer Holmgren

12. Matilda Joslyn Gage

Matilda Joslyn Gage was a suffragist, abolitionist, and Native American rights advocate who was one of the leading voices of the women’s rights movement in the mid-1800s. In 1869, Gage co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was a vocal critic of how the U.S. government treated Native Americans. Matilda Joslyn Gage gained newfound popularity when in 1993, historian Dr. Margaret Rossiter came up with the term, “the Matilda Effect” – named after her – to describe how women’s contributions to society had been erased by history, with Rossiter focusing her writing and research primarily on women scientists that were impacted by this phenomenon.

Matilda Joslyn Gage

13. Dr. Reshma Kewalramani

Dr. Reshma Kewalramani is CEO and President at Vertex, which works on new medicines for cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. The approval of Vertex’s SYMDEKO/SYMKEVI, as well as the speedy approval of TRIKAFTA, could result in potentially treating up to 90% of all CF patients. During Dr. Kewalramani’s tenure, Vertex has gotten several other programs into the clinic for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, APOL1-mediated kidney diseases, sickle cell disease, and beta-thalassemia. She has received numerous awards including the American College of Physicians Associates Council Award, the American Medical Women's Association Janet M. Glasgow Memorial Achievement Citation, and the Harvard Medical School Excellence in Teaching Award, among others.


14. Rachel King

Co-founder and CEO of GlycoMimetics, Rachel King has dedicated her career to driving innovative breakthroughs for patients. She founded the company in 2003 to develop new medicines to treat various blood diseases and has been named one of the Top 10 Women in Biotech by FierceBiotech, Executive of the Year by the Maryland Technology Council, and has devoted herself to helping small, emerging biotechs bring new cures to patients and serves on several boards (including BIO's).

To learn more about Rachel King, click here.

15. Esther Lederberg

Esther Lederberg laid the groundwork for discoveries on genetic inheritance in bacteria, gene regulation, and genetic recombination. Her work on replica plating played a part in her first husband Joshua Lederberg winning the 1958 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine along with George Beadle and Edward Tatum (even though Esther received no credit for the discovery). A microbiologist, she is perhaps best known for discovering a virus that infects bacteria—called the lambda bacteriophage.

To learn more about Esther Lederberg, click here.

Esther Lederberg

16. Mila Makovec

In 2018, Mila Makovec became the first person in the world to receive a drug tailored just to her when she received a drug customized for one patient: milasen, which was developed by Dr. Timothy Yu at Boston Children’s Hospital. Mila was born with CLN7, an extremely rare form of Batten disease, an inherited neurodegenerative disease, which tragically cut her life short at the age of 10. Her mother founded Mila’s Miracle Foundation to find and fund paths to a cure for devastating neurological conditions like Batten disease.

To learn more about Mila Malkovec, click here.

Mila Makovec

17. Dr. Barbara McClintock

Dr. Barbara McClintock won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for discovering mobile genetic elements—paving the way for breakthroughs in plant breeding and genetic engineering. When she won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, McClintock became the first woman to be the sole winner of the award.

To learn more about Dr. Barbara McClintock, click here.

Barbara McClintock

18. Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath is the first woman and Black woman to lead the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO). The common thread in her work across academia, government, and industry has been her focus on broadening access to scientific progress so patients from diverse backgrounds can benefit from cutting-edge innovation. The first African American to graduate with an M.D./Ph.D. from Duke’s Medical Scientist Training Program, Dr. McMurry-Heath has held leadership roles at Johnson & Johnson as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under President Barack Obama.

To learn more about Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, click here.

19. Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa became the first Latina in space, serving a nine-day mission aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1993. Before she became an astronaut, she was researcher and inventor for NASA, working on optical systems for automated and robotic space exploration. She was also the 11th director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

To learn more about Ellen Ochoa, click here.

Ellen Ochoa

20. Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey

Canadian American pharmacologist and general practitioner Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey joined the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1960, where her work would lead to laws strengthening FDA oversight of pharmaceuticals. As a reviewer at FDA, she was criticized for her refusal to authorize the sleeping drug thalidomide because of her concerns about dangerous side effects—which would prove to be correct when the drug was shown to cause serious birth defects. She was the second woman to receive the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, in 1962, and the first person to win the FDA’s Drug Safety Excellence Award, in 2010.

Frances Oldham Kelsey

21. Mary G. Ross

The first Native American woman engineer, Mary G. Ross paved the way for historic space missions—as well as for Native Americans in STEM. In 1942, she was hired by Lockheed Martin, where she designed fighter jets during WWII and was a founding member of the company’s secret “Skunk Works” program, where much of her groundbreaking work on interplanetary spacecraft, ballistic missiles, and satellites remains classified today.

To learn more about Mary G. Ross, click here.

Mary Ross

22. Dr. Margaret Rossiter

Dr. Margaret Rossiter is a renowned historian and the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History of Science Emerita and Graduate School Professor at Cornell University. She has dedicated her career to highlighting the accomplishments of women in the sciences who have been overlooked. She is the author of the groundbreaking Women Scientists in America book series. In 2004, the History of Science Society voted to rename The Women’s Prize to The Margaret W. Rossiter History of Women in Science Prize, in honor of Rossiter’s numerous contributions to the field.

Margaret Rossiter

23. Dr. Florence Sabin

Dr. Florence Sabin achieved a number of firsts for women medial educators. In 1896, she enrolled in The Johns Hopkins Medical School as a member of the fourth class to admit women. In 1902, she became the first woman on the Hopkins medical faculty, and in 1917, the first woman to become a full professor. In 1925, she was the first woman to be elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences, due to her pioneering work on the pathology of tuberculosis and blood vessels.

Florence Sabin

24. Christi Shaw

Christi Shaw is the CEO of Kite, Gilead’s cell therapy company, where she manages cell therapy operations worldwide—and is pursuing a cure for cancer through the company’s industry-leading pipeline and manufacturing capabilities. A BIO board member, she founded the More Moments More Memories Foundation, which provides support for cancer patients.

To learn more about Christi Shaw, click here.

Christi Shaw

25. Dr. Nettie Stevens

Dr. Nettie Stevens performed studies crucial in the discovery of sex chromosomes—the “X” and “Y” chromosomes. She was also one of the first women to be recognized for her scientific research, in which she provided critical evidence for Mendelian and chromosomal theories of inheritance.

To learn more about Dr. Nettie Stevens, click here.

Nettie Stevens

26. Sara Little Turnbull

Continue to mask up—and thank Sara Little Turnbull, whose 1972 face mask design led to the medical-grade N95 mask that's helping to get the pandemic under control. 3M hired her to explore uses for a new melded polymer fiber material, which she realized might block disease particles. Turnbull also consulted for DuPont, Pfizer, and NASA, designing things like medication delivery systems, space suits, and household cleaning products.

To learn more about Sara Little Turnbull, click here.

Sara Turnbull

27. Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University in1944, just eight years after arriving from China. She was awarded the first-ever Wolf Prize in Physics, in 1978 for dismantling the idea that there was such a thing as perfect mathematical symmetry in all “subatomic processes,” in an experiment that would be known as the “Wu Experiment.” She also became the first person to prove the theory of beta decay. She advised fellow researchers Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang through the “Wu Experiment,” for which they would win the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics.

To learn more about Dr. Wu, click here.

Chien Shiung Wu

28. Tu Youyou

The first mainland Chinese scientist and the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize, pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou discovered a treatment in the 1970s – artemisinin – for malaria, based on her study of traditional Chinese medicine. She was one of three individuals to win the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery, though she received a ½ share. Now 90 years old, she is the chief scientist at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

To learn more about Tu Youyou, click here.

Tu Youyou