Mobile Menu

Women in genetics

Can you name a female scientist?

For many people reading this, this may seem like a very easy question to answer. However, for a lot of the general public, this can be very difficult to answer.

Despite significant progress, the war on gender-equity continues to rage on. It has been estimated that only around 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Women working in STEM fields publish less and often receive less pay. A recent paper, published in BMJ Global Health, reported that women made up only one-third of all authors on COVID-19 papers published since January 2020. This emphasises the consistent under-representation of women in science.

Here at Front Line Genomics we advocate for more women in STEM. At the Festival of Genomics (the UK’s largest Genomics event) in January 2020, 50% of our speaker faculty were women. We are committed to a 50:50 gender split at the next Festival of Genomics in January 2021 too. Below we would love to share with you some influential female scientists and how they have influenced genetics.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Rosalind was a British scientist, best known for her contributions to the discovery of the double helix structure. Her image of DNA – known as photo 51 – helped Watson, Crick and Wilkins deduce the correct structure for DNA. Unfortunately, Rosalind died four years before Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Nettie Stevens (1861-1912)

Nettie was an American geneticist credited with the discovery of sex chromosomes. Studying the mealworm, Nettie found that males made reproductive cells with both X and Y chromosomes, whereas females made only those with X. Although she sadly died of breast cancer in 1912, Nettie contributed more to her field than many scientists have with much longer careers.

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992)

Barbara was an American scientist and cytogeneticist. From studying maize, Barbara identified and characterised transposable elements also known as ‘jumping’ genes. This revolutionised the field as it revealed that an organism’s genome is not static. Barbara subsequently received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for her work. She was the first woman to win the prize unshared.

Janaki Ammal (1897-1984)

Janaki was an Indian botanist who worked on plant breeding and cytogenetics. Her work on chromosome numbers and ploidy shed light on the evolution of species and varieties. Furthermore, she was the first woman to attain a PhD in botany in the United States.

Charlotte Auerbach (1899-1994)

Charlotte was a German Jewish geneticist, most known for founding the study of mutagenesis. Her work on Drosophila demonstrated that mustard gas could induce mutations. Additionally, Charlotte wrote 91 scientific papers and received the Darwin Medal in 1976.

Martha Chase (1927-2003)

Martha was an American geneticist, who helped confirm that DNA is the genetic material of life. Through a series of experiments, using the famous Hershey-Chase experiment, Martha and Alfred Hershey confirmed that DNA, rather than protein, carried and transmitted genetic information. Sadly, Martha’s work did not earn her much recognition and only Alfred received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery.

Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003)

Marie was an American biochemist. She made several contributions to important research areas, mostly notably the chemistry of histones and protein synthesis. Marie was the first Black American woman to earn a PhD in chemistry in the United States.

Margaret Oakley Dayhoof (1925-1983)

Margaret was an American physical chemist. She is known as the founder of bioinformatics. Margaret pioneered the application of mathematics and computational techniques to the sequencing of proteins and nucleic acids. She also established the first publicly available database for research in this area.

Mary Frances Lyon (1925-2014)

Mary was a British geneticist, most known for her discovery of X-chromosome inactivation. Undeniably, her discovery of this phenomenon has had profound implications for clinical genetics and developmental biology.

Esther Lederberg (1922-2006)

Esther was an American microbiologist and major pioneer of bacterial genetics. Most notably, Esher discovered the lambda phage, which is a widely used tool for studying gene regulation and genetic recombination. She also discovered the bacterial F-plasmid and developed the microbial technique of replica plating. 

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (1942-)

Christiane is a German developmental biologist. Her work on Drosophila, looking at genes involved in the fly’s body plan and segmentation, has contributed to our understanding of human embryo development. Christiane subsequently received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on Drosophila.

Elizabeth Blackburn (1948-)

Elizabeth is an Australian-American biological researcher, most known for her work on telomeres and the co-discovery of telomerase. She was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery.

These are just a few of the amazing women who have helped advance the field of genetics. However, women working in STEM often don’t earn the recognition they deserve. It is important that we continue to recognise these achievements so we inspire the next generation of female scientists. It is important that young women see a reflection of themselves within the scientific community. Therefore, considering gender quotas is important to rectify issues of under-representation in prominent positions. With a fair representation of women in STEM, the general public should be able to answer instinctively when asked the question “Can you name a female scientist?”

Image credit: Colorful vector created by pikisuperstar –

More on these topics

covid-19 / Genetics / Women in STEM