Scientist Spotlight: Sylvia Earle

The ocean is something that has fascinated many, including Sylvia Earle. Sylvia  was born August 30, 1935 in New Jersey. At age 13 her family moved to Florida and she received scholarships to Florida State University. Sylvia learned how to scuba dive and began studying botany to better understand marine ecosystems.

Sylvia received both her M.S. and PhD. from Duke University. Many scientists were impressed with the amount of detail Sylvia used in detailing aquatic plant life for her dissertation as no one had ever been so specific before. Since this detailed feat, Sylvia has made it her lifelong goal to document every species of plant found in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sylvia has spent over 7,000 hours underwater and even lived in a structure 50 feet underwater for two weeks. This underwater stay gained her fame and even a ticker-tape parade and a reception at the White House.

She has explored the ocean in all shapes and forms from photographing shipwrecks to walking the ocean floor at “a lower depth than any human before or since.” She most recently set a record for also diving at a depth of 1,00 meters. Keep in mind this was in 2012 when Sylvia was seventy-seven years old.

Sylvia has served as the Chief Scientist of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and has over 22 honorary degrees. She founded Deep Ocean Exploration and Research, Inc., Mission Blue and SEAlliance, and served as chair of the Advisory Councils of the Harte Research Institute and the Ocean in Google Earth. Sylvia has led hundreds of ocean expeditions and was named the 2014 Glamour Woman of the Year along with many other honors such as the International Seakeepers Award and the 209 TED Prize.

Sylvia’s work in ocean and marine vegetation has been some of the most impressive in her field. Though her work may not be in the typical laboratory, Sylvia’s impact on the scientific community will be making waves for years to come.


To learn more about Sylvia and her ocean adventures:

Scientist Spotlight: Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn Bell Brunell, née Susan Jocelyn Bell, was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1943. She is regarded as a great astronomer and astrophysicist, but it didn’t always seem like she would enter a highly academic field. When Jocelyn was 11, she took a British examination required for all who wanted a higher education. Jocelyn failed. At this, her family sent her to a boarding school which was lacking some science equipment but had a promising physics teacher.

Jocelyn ended up studying physics at Glagsgow University and received a doctorate in radio astronomy from the University of Cambridge. At Cambridge, Jocelyn worked with Anthony Hewish and helped him construct a large radio telescope to study quasars. It was when she was reviewing the printouts from the telescope that she noticed a “bits of scruff” like radio signals that were too regular and too fast to have originated from quasars.

Hewish and Jocelyn worked for moths to determine where these signals were coming from and even jokingly thought of the possibility of Little Green Men trying to communicate with earthlings. After using more specialized and sensitive equipment, Hewish and Jocelyn discovered that the radio signals were come from collapsed stars, donned “pulsars” by the media.

Despite her part in their discovery, Hewish and Martin Ryle were awarded the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of pulsars, not Jocelyn. She did not really mind, however, because at the time of the discovery she was a student and did not think she would have been eligible because of her status anyway.

After her time at Cambridge, Jocelyn taught at the University of Southhampton and researched gamma ray astronomy. She also became a professor at the University College of London in addition to performing research and teaching in x-ray astronomy at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Jocelyn taught at the Open University and studied infrared astronomy at the Royal University in Edinburgh. She was appointed dean of science at the University of Bath and also became a visiting professor at Oxford.

Jocelyn was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1999 and Dame in 2007. She became a member of the Royal Society in 2003 and served as president of the Royal Astronomical Society and later on served as president of the Institute of Physics.


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Scientist Spotlight: Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Elion, daughter of a dentist, was born in New York City and raised in the Bronx. As a child she had an “insatiable thirst for knowledge” and enjoyed all of her school classes the same. This left her in a difficult position to decide on a major in college.  Seeing her grandfather suffer and die of cancer was a big factor that influenced her decision to study chemistry at Hunter College in 1933.

Because of the Great Depression, which was ongoing during her college years, Gertrude could not attend graduate school. At the time of her graduation, few jobs were available and the lab positions that were available were not open to women. After a short teaching job at the New York Hospital School of Nursing, Gertrude ended up working as a lab assistant with a chemist. She knew she would not be paid but thought the experience itself worthwhile. Gertrude did end up with a salary, however, and was able to enter graduate school at New York University. She was the only female in the graduate chemistry class but no one seemed to mind or consider it strange. After completing her courses and necessary research work, Gertrude earned her Master of Science degree in chemistry in 1941.

After some laboratory positions, Gertrude pursued her doctorate degree at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, taking classes at night. She was eventually informed she would need to give up her job in order to go to school fill-time. Gertrude decided to stay with her job under George Hitchings and to forgo her schooling. She later believed this decision to have been the right one because she received three honorary degrees from George Washington University, Brown University, and the University of Michigan.

With George, Gertrude expanded her area expertise from organic chemistry to biochemistry, pharmacology, immunology, and virology. Together the developed various new drugs effective against leukemia, gout, malaria, along with other ailments. George and Gertrude’s method was different than that of other scientists because instead of trial and error, they examined the differences in biochemistry between “normal human cells and those of cancer cells, bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens (disease-causing agents).”

Gertrude was frequently promoted and served as Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy from 1967 until her retirement in 1983. She served on boards for the National Cancer Institute in addition to many other health organizations.

In 1991, Gertrude received a National Medal of Science and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She shares the 1988 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology with George Hitchings and Sir James Black.

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Scientist Spotlight: Emmy Noether

German-born Emmy Noether faced many obstacles in her perusal of mathematics, but she did not let anything stop her. Emmy became one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century and made great contributions to her field.

Growing up, Emmy, like other upper middle class girls of the time, learned the arts and attended “finishing school.” She earned a certification to teach English and French but instead decided to attend a university to earn a degree in mathematics.

Emmy decided to try to take classes at the University of Erlangen where her father was a professor and her brother was a student. Because Emmy was a woman, she was denied the ability to take classes but was allowed to audit them, meaning she s could sit in on the class but could not receive a grade or credit. Emmy eventually took the exam which allowed her to be a doctoral student in mathematics and became a student at the University. Five years of studying later, and she was given the second degree to a woman in mathematics.

Because the University would not allow women professors, Emmy worked with her father at the Mathematical Institute of Erlangen but she did not receive pay. There she worked with Ernst Otto Fischer on theoretical algebra and later worked with other prominent mathematicians. At the University of Gottingen, David Hilbert and Felix Klein asked for her assistance with Einstein’s theories. With them, she proved two theorems that were fundamental parts for general relativity and elementary particle physics.

Emmy could not obtain a job at Gottingen because of her gender and could only lecture under Hiblert’s name, as his assistant. After Hilbert and Albert Einstein defended her, Emmy gained permission to lecture, but without pay. Eventually she earned a small salary.

Emmy gained a following and boys travelled from around Europe to study with her. Emmy also travelled around Europe giving lectures and eventually moved to the United States when the Nazis took over Germany. As a Jew, she was not allowed to teach in her home country. She became a guest professor at Bryn Mawr College and have lectures at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Emmy made great impact in her field because she not only changed the way mathematicians viewed the subject, but she also did a lot of work on abstract algebra, ring theory, group representations, and number theory. Emmy had a unique perspective that brought a lot of new and different insight to the field. She is considered one of the greatest mathematicians of her time and Einstein even wrote a letter about her to the Times after her death. Emmy also won the Ackermann-Teubner Memorial Prize in mathematics.

After her death, Einstein referred about her saying, “In the judgement of the most competent living mathematicians, Fraulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”

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Scientist Spotlight:Frances Glessner Lee

Frances Glessner Lee went by many names and titles, one of which being the “mother of forensic science.”  Born in 1878 to a household that exemplified the nineteenth-century ideals. Fanny, as her family called her, was the heiress to the International Harvester (now known as the Navistar International Corporation) fortune and a socialite. Both Fanny and her brother were home-schooled, but when it came time for higher education her brother went to Harvard and Fanny married a young attorney. Fanny desired to study law or medicine, but her parents believed “a lady didn’t go to school.” Though the marriage seemed happy at first, after three children Fanny got divorced and never remarried.

At age 44 Fanny began her interest in forensics. She was fascinated by the mysterious stories told by her brother’s friend, Harvard classmate, and later Boston medical examiner, George Burgess Magrath. He would tell her all about the crimes he would help solve. She learned about the issues regarding criminal investigations. Coroners did not need medical degrees and police were unknowledgeable on how to correctly preserve evidence, allowing many of the guilty to walk free.

After her parents’ death, Fanny endowed a department of legal medicine at Harvard, making George Magrath the chair, and established the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine. Five years later in 1936, medical examiners were graduating from Harvard but cases were still going unsolved. This prompted Fanny to start Harvard Seminars in Homicide Investigation (later renamed the Harvard Associates in Police Science seminars). She took the seminars very seriously and handpicked all the details from the menus to the flowers, ignoring the fact she would be the only women among over 30 men. The first seminar concluded with a banquet served on $8000 dinnerware at the Ritz Carlton.

As beneficial and luxurious as the seminars were, the officers still needed more practical


A crime scene from inside one of the Nutshells.

training but there were time constraints and privacy issues. At this point, Fanny returned to the miniature-making she used to do in her childhood and marriage, and began making dollhouse dioramas of crime scenes, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Fanny believed that crimes could be solved after a detail analysis of the crime scene. In her dioramas, she combined details from real-life cases and presented all different scenarios, including misleading probable causes of death. The goal was not to solve the crime, but to pay attention to the details and potential evidence, facts that could distinguish between a murder, suicide, or accidental death. Fanny donated the houses to Harvard in 1945 to be used in the seminars, but when the department of legal medicine was dissolved in 1966, they were moved to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, and are still used today for forensic seminars.

Fanny became the first female police captain for the New Hampshire State Police, and the first woman invited into the International Association for Chiefs of Police.

During Fanny’s time, it would have been unheard for a woman to discuss a morgue or crime scene. Not wanting to be confined to societal standards, the Nutshells allowed Fanny to enter the forensic field and earn recognition, while still retaining her domesticity. This balance that Fanny found ushered in a new era of crime-solving and eventually led to the crime investigation television shows that we know and love today.


To learn more about Fanny and her Nutshells:

Scientist Spotlight: Barbara McClintock

What does corn, a Nobel Prize, pants, and jumping genes all have in common? Barbara McClintock.

Barbara was born on June 16, 1902 in Harford, Connecticut. She was christened Eleanor, but her parents called her Barbara as they believed Eleanor to be too feminine for their feisty daughter.

All throughout high school, many teachers saw Barbara’s intelligence and thought her to be a good fit for a college professor. Barbara’s mother opposed the idea of a female college professor and would not allow Barbara to attend college. Finally, in September 1919, Barbara’s father convinced her mother to allow Barbara to attend Cornell University at the age of 17. She immensely enjoyed herself at Cornell and even became president of the women’s freshman class.

In the fall of 1921, Barbara attended the only genetics course available to undergraduates at Cornell University. Though genetics was not accepted as a “field” at that time, Barbara was highly interested in it and this was evident to her professor, Dr. Claude Hutchinson.  He invited her to participate in the only other genetics course at Cornell, one at the graduate level. This sealed Barbara’s fate as a geneticist.

A cytology at Cornell also piqued Barbara’s interest. She became fascinated with the power of chromosomes and decided to pursue an advanced degree in cytogenetics. It was during graduate school that Barbara began her chromosomal analysis of corn, a project that would last her a lifetime.

In 1931, Barbara and a colleague published a paper that established chromosomes the basis of genetics. Two years later Barbara was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Germany, but returned home early because of the rise of Nazism.  Upon her return to the United States, Barbara learned Cornell would not hire her as a female professor because she was a woman. Rockefeller University then decided to fund Barbara’s research at Cornell.

In 1936, Barbara ended up received a position at the University of Missouri. Her intelligence, spunk, and no-nonsense attitude intimidated her male colleagues. She was considered a troublemaker because she wore pants to work. The dean even threatened to fire her if she got married or if her male research partner left. This treatment prompted Barbara to leave the university and move to Cold Spring Harbor, New York in 1941.

While in New York, Barbara examined the variations in the colors of corn kernels and discovered that genetic information is not stationary. After spending many hours staring at corn cells under a microscope, Barbara discovered that the genes could “jump” to different parts of a chromosome and turn on and off. This was a groundbreaking discovery and explains why the world is filled with so much variation.

When Barbara shared this information in 1951, few believed her but she did not mind because, as she said, “When you know you’re right, you don’t care.”

It took the scientific community 20 years to recognize Barbara’s achievements. The determination of DNA as the genetic material allowed other scientists to verify Barbara’s work. She was swamped with awards and honors, most prominently the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983, almost 30 years after her initial discovery. Barbara was the first woman to be the sole recipient of the award. She was also the America’s first woman president of the Genetics Society and the first person to develop a complete genetic map of corn.

Much of what is known about chromosomes can be attributed to Barbara: the feisty, pants-wearing, corn-studying cytogeneticist.



To learn more about Barbara and her corn:

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, By: Rachel Ignotofsky

Scientist Spotlight: Margaret Hamilton

Happy 80th Birthday Margaret Hamilton! Born August 17, 1936, Margaret Hamilton grew up in Indiana and earned a BA in mathematics from Earlham College. While her husband finished college, she taught french and math at a high school.

Margaret moved to Boston in 1958 and got a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developing software to predict the weather. She eventually became the director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory and led a team of 100 engineers, programmers, and technical workers. Margaret’s team was tasked with developing the code for the Apollo Guidance Computer. This was essential as it was the software that helped Apollo 11 land on the Moon.

A few minutes before the landing, the Apollo computer began spitting out error messages because it was being overloaded with information. This was no issue for Margaret, however, because she anticipated the issue. Margaret realized that the computer was being inundated with other tasks when all it really needed to do was land the module on the moon. So, she prioritized the tasks the computer was doing and prevented a aborted mission.

Margaret’s work allowed Neil Armstrong to make giant leaps, but she also made giant leaps as a woman in the programming field. She even coined the term “software engineering.” Margaret has found and led many  software companies, including her own Hamilton Technologies.

In 2003, Margaret was honored with the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award.


For more information on Margaret:

Margaret Hamilton, the Woman Who Put the Man on the Moon

Margaret Hamilton, the Woman Who Put the Man on the Moon


Scientist Spotlight: Gerty Cori

I missed it by a day! Yesterday, August 15, would have been Gerty Theresa Cori’s (née Radnitz) 120th birthday! Gerty was born in Prague and attended school there. In 1920, she received the Doctorate of Medicine from the Medical School of the German University of Prague. In the same year she married Carl Ferdinand Cori. After spending two years at the Carolinen Children’s Hospital, Gerty and Carl moved to the United States.

The Coris collaborated in most of their research. They studied sugar in the animal body, effects of insulin, actions of hormones, among many other topics. Their main interest was how the body uses energy. The Coris depicted what is known as the Cori Cycle, a significant part of the body’s physical and mechanical processes.

They began their metabolic research in Buffalo but because Cori was a woman she employed on “less favorable terms” than her husband. The couple was then offered positions in Saint Louis, so they moved to Missouri. It was there where Cori became a Professor of Biochemistry.

Together, they were presented many awards and honorary degrees. Gerty also received many awards independently including the Sugar Research Prize (1950), Broden Award (1951), and an honorary Doctor of Science Degree from Yale (1951) among many others.

Arguably, their most notable award  was the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine which they won in 1947. The award was split between the Coris and Bernardo Alberto Houssay. Gerty was the third woman to win a Nobel Prize in science, and the first to win a Novel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

To learn more about Gerty Cori visit