Two female scientists smash barriers with historic Nobel Prize wins


Though the STEM fields often come under fire for failing to recognize the achievements of women, awarding the Nobel Prize in fields of science to those women who’ve earned it this year seems to indicate a step in the right direction.

This year, a number of women were recognized for their efforts in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Frances Arnold was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry “for the directed evolution of enzymes,” thereby becoming only the fifth woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry since the inception of the prize in 1901 and the first American woman ever to do so.

Just a day before that came the announcement of the Nobel Prize for physics, awarded to Canadian physicist Donna Strickland alongside Gérard Mourou “for their method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optic pulses.” In doing so, Strickland became both the third woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in physics and the first woman to win it in 55 years. She followed the path laid before her by Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.

In fact, Strickland cited Goeppert-Mayer in her prize-winning doctoral thesis and said in an interview with Nobel Prize that the 1963 winner “didn’t get to have a paid job for the longest time.

he didn’t really get to be recognized as a scientist even though she was doing incredible work,” and as such, became an inspiration of sorts for her.

For her part, Arnold started conducting the first directed evolution of enzymes in 1993. “Since then, she has refined the methods that are now routinely used to develop new catalysts. The uses of Arnold’s enzymes include more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels for a greener transport sector,” the academy cited as the reason for her earning the prize.

Meanwhile Strickland, along with her doctoral adviser, Mourou, was awarded the Nobel Prize for her revolutionary doctoral thesis in 1985 that paved the way for the creation of the shortest and most intense laser pulses ever.

Their method, called chirped pulse amplification or CPA, included “stretch[ing] the laser pulses in time to reduce their peak power, then amplif[ying] them and finally compress[ing] them,” packing more light in the same space, thereby increasing their density and subsequently their power.

There seems to be a persistent issue with the acceptance of women in STEM fields. Studies have shown that women in STEM fields who choose to persist face implicit and explicit barriers for their advancement.

Part of the issue comes with the slow nature of science’s recognition process. The Nobel Prizes for this year are now recognizing work from two to three decades ago. Though the nature of the recognition process can’t be changed, the acceptance of women in STEM can.

The common stereotype is that women show no interest in science and “don’t like math.” However, this isn’t because of cognitive inability, but because a lack of early exposure and experience with STEM, educational policy, cultural context, stereotypes and a lack of role models.

The revelation that Strickland didn’t even have a Wikipedia article before she received the prize points to one of the major issues: the lack of access to knowledge of role models.

The way to fix this then seems to be to increase the number of women who can be role models, which means that women in science need to be paid attention to in the first place, such as with the Nobel Prize.  Just as Goeppert-Mayer served as something of an inspiration for Strickland, Strickland herself and Arnold could serve as inspirations for the next generation of women that could take control of science and push toward a brighter, more equal tomorrow.

The two scientists will receive their Nobel Prizes alongside the other winners at the celebration in Stockholm in December.