The University Network

Women Killin’ it in STEM Fields

Though women make up 45.8 percent of the U.S. workforce, there are still significant gender gaps within the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

But that doesn’t mean women aren’t making some of the most incredible scientific discoveries to date.

In fact, the number of women entering STEM careers is growing worldwide, and the women who are already engaged in such work contribute groundbreaking developments to the scientific community each day.

To show you just how important women are in STEM fields, in this article, we highlight 10 women around the world who are killin’ it in their careers.

Ana Vila-Concejo

Associate Professor and Co-Leader of the University of Sydney’s Geocoastal Research Group; Deputy Director of the One Tree Island research station on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Marine scientist Ana Vila-Concejo is an active member of the geocoastal research community, and has worked within this field in Spain, Portugal, and most recently, Australia. As an associate professor and co-leader of the University of Sydney’s Geocoastal Research Group, Vila-Concejo has been studying morphodynamics — or the interaction and adjustment of seafloor topography and processes — on coral reefs, embayed beaches and low-energy estuarine beaches.

In 2016, she became the first woman to chair the International Coastal Symposium. She has also chaired the Spain-Australia Water Forum in Sydney, and is the founding member of Women in Coastal Geosciences and Engineering (WICGE), an international network seeking to achieve equality and representation of women in this field.

In a recent study, Vila-Concejo collected data and surveys to highlight the barriers women often face in STEM careers, particularly in coastal geoscience and engineering.

“In 2015, I started talking informally about gender equality in Coastal Geoscience and Engineering with some of my female colleagues; it turned out that all the women I talked to felt the same way, and we decided to create this network for Women in Coastal Geoscience and Engineering,” she said.

“Our research proposes seven steps that can (should) be implemented towards achieving gender equity. Some of them can be implemented by all of us from now on; others need institutional change and will need more time.”

Katarzyna Sokół

Doctoral Student, Department of Chemistry, St. John’s College, University of Cambridge

Advertisement

Katarzyna Sokół and a team of scientists at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge, have developed a new method to convert sunlight into fuel.

The new “semi-artificial photosynthesis” method utilizes sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen in a lab setting. Their process uses both biological components — an enzyme from algae — as well as man-made technologies, differentiating it from fully artificial photosynthesis, which uses only man-made elements.

Sokół’s research is part of a growing movement exploring semi-artificial photosynthesis, which utilizes biological elements to try to overcome some of the deficiencies of methods that rely on chemical catalysts.

By extracting hydrogenase from algae, an organism — and by extension an enzyme — that can be found in abundance in nature, the team developed a process that could theoretically be much cheaper than many existing methods.

“We could say that our system ‘re-wired’ photosystem II directly to hydrogenase and thus, ‘re-engineered’ the photosynthetic pathway that is inaccessible in biology, to achieve the desired reaction of water splitting into hydrogen and oxygen with high selectivity and efficiency,” said Sokół.

“Development of this model system overcomes many difficult challenges associated with the assembly of the synthetic-biological interface through a multi-disciplinary approach, and as a result, provides the toolbox for developing future semi-artificial systems for solar energy conversion and storage.”

Lorna Harries

Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics, University of Exeter, Scotland

Lorna Harries has worked for several biomedical institutions throughout her career, and in a recent study, she teamed up with fellow University of Exeter scientists to develop new compounds that can reverse the aging of human cells.

Building on her prior year’s study that successfully rejuvenated old cells in a laboratory, Harries wondered if her team could fight off age-related diseases by precisely focusing on rejuvenating mitochondria, the power generator in human cells.

To do so, Harries and her team used three compounds — AP39, AP123 and RT01 — to specifically target two splicing factors, SRSF2 or HNRNPD, that play a key role in determining how and why our cells change with aging.

In a laboratory study of endothelial cells, which line the inside of blood vessels, the researchers injected small quantities of hydrogen sulfide directly into the mitochondria of old cells.

This helped mitochondria re-generate the “energy” needed for survival and to reduce deterioration.

Their findings suggest the possibility of future treatments for age-related diseases, but the researchers believe there are a lot more steps left until treatments become available to patients.

“We are still a way off this yet. I would envisage that eventually they would be used as anti-degenerative drugs to target the diseases of aging. This is what we are working towards,” said Harries.

Rada Mihalcea

Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Michigan

Rada Mihalcea directs the Language and Information Technologies (LIT) lab at the University of Michigan, and conducts research in natural language processing, information retrieval and applied machine learning.

In a recent project, Mihalcea and a team of UM researchers developed an algorithm that can identify fake news stories better than humans — a hot topic in today’s political climate.

The algorithm uses linguistic clues to differentiate between factual and inaccurate stories, and could be used by major news aggregators and social media sites like Google News and Facebook to spot and combat misinformation.

“There has been a significant effort lately in the research community to address this problem,” said Mihalcea. “However, most of the work, including recent challenges around fake news, have been focused on understanding stance and on claim and fact verification.”

“From what I know, this is the first system that addresses the automatic identification of fake news stories in their entirety, and as they typically appear online.”

The new algorithm takes a fairly unique approach to identifying fake news stories by using linguistic analysis. This means that it examines quantifiable characteristics in each article’s writing style and content, from its grammatical structure to its use of punctuation and the complexity of its language.

“The web — including social media — plays a huge role in today’s society, as it is a major source of information that people use to make decision,” Mihalcea said.

“Consider for instance recent political events, or the discussions around vaccination, and so forth. In this environment, where everyone can put ‘news’ out there, it is important for people to have a means to distinguish between what’s trustworthy and what’s not.”

Alison Gray

Assistant Professor of Oceanography, University of Washington

As an oceanographer, Alison Gray studies the circulation of the ocean and its impact on the physics and chemistry of the climate system. To investigate the dynamics of the ocean circulation on a variety of scales, Gray uses different resources, including profiling floats, gliders, satellites and ships.

In one of her most recent studies, Gray, alongside a team of researchers from the University of Washington, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Princeton University and several other oceanographic institutions, collected data from diving robots in the Southern Ocean, and found that Antarctic winter seas release significantly more carbon dioxide than previously thought.

“The Southern Ocean is a vast, stormy, cold, and distant place, which makes it extremely hard to make enough observations from a ship there,” said Gray.

“Previously our best estimates of the oceanic carbon uptake were based on observations collected by ships, but in the Southern Ocean in particular, we don’t have many ship-based observations for a large part of the year (fall and winter).”

Now, with autonomous instruments developed by the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) that dive and drift through the ocean, researchers can collect data from all over the Southern Ocean during all seasons.

“The SOCCOM floats, by collecting data year-round and in many different parts of the Southern Ocean, have shown that in winter, the region just north of the waters covered by sea ice emits a significant amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere,” said Gray.

“This indicates that as a whole, the Southern Ocean is not absorbing nearly as much carbon dioxide as we previously thought.”

The new information gives researchers the ability to further analyze the Southern Ocean’s activity and predict future climate trends.

Haruko Murakami Wainwright

Research Scientist, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

With an impressive background in nuclear engineering, Haruko Murakami Wainwright has used her research skills to investigate various environmental problems, including nuclear waste, groundwater pollution and Arctic ecosystems responses to environmental change.

Most recently, Wainwright led a team to develop a new, low-cost method for continuous, real-time monitoring of groundwater pollution. The development could provide a critical boost for “green” remediation efforts that reduce groundwater contamination without adversely affecting the surrounding environment.

The new method involves using sensors to track water quality variables that have been determined to be reliable indicators of contaminant levels. These water quality variables differ based on the site and the specific groundwater contaminants.

“Conventional monitoring is taking water samples every year or every quarter and analyzing them in the lab,” said Wainwright.

“If there are anomalies or an extreme event, you could miss the changes that might increase contaminant concentrations or potential health risk.”

With this new sensor-based technology, Wainwright and her team found a way to continuously monitor contaminant levels at a low cost, which is essential to protecting public health and ecology.

Valerie Stull

Doctoral Graduate,  Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison

While working in the Nelson Institute’s Environment and Resources program at UW-Madison, Valerie Stull investigated her personal affinity for eating insects and discovered that eating a diet with crickets can positively affect both the environment and the human gastrointestinal tract.

When Stull was just 12 years old, she ate her first insect — fried ants on a trip to Central America with her family. Though she wasn’t crazy about it then, after realizing that people around the world regularly consume insects as a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, she became interested in both the health and environmental benefits that the tiny creatures could offer.

“There is so much untapped potential when it comes to utilizing edible insects. They are abundant, and when farmed, can generate a high-quality protein with a substantially lower environmental impact than traditional livestock,” said Stull.

“They need less feed, land, and water to grow — and they generate fewer greenhouse gases. Additionally, insect agriculture can also potentially support livelihoods (through income generation) and human health (by increasing access to nutritious insect foods). Adding insects to the diet is a good idea for all of these reasons.”

After giving a control group of healthy men and women a breakfast consisting of 25 grams of cricket powder for two weeks, Stull found an increase in a metabolic enzyme associated with gut health, and a decrease in TNF-alpha, an inflammatory protein in the blood that has been linked to depression and cancer.

Hong Tan

Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Purdue University;  Founder and Director of Purdue’s Haptic Interface Research Laboratory

Hong Tan and a group of fellow engineers at Purdue University have developed a technique that can teach people to interpret nonverbal messages through an arm sleeve that sends haptic signals, such as a buzzing sensation, to the skin.

So, instead of receiving information via smartphone, messages could one day be sent and read through a person’s skin.

By using phonemes, or the 39 distinct units of sound within the English language, the researchers were able to successfully train test participants to interpret the buzzing signals being sent to their arm via a material arm cuff.

“With the phoneme approach, one learns 39 symbols corresponding to the 39 phonemes of English, and can then receive any English word made up of a string of phonemes,” said Tan.

The researchers predict that this method of communicating via the skin will benefit everyone — from the hearing-impaired and visually-impaired to people on the go.

“Ultimately, anyone with or without sensory deficits can wear such a sleeve to receive information on the go, especially when reading a message is not safe or convenient due to activities like driving or running,” said Tan.

The yearlong research was funded by Facebook as a means to develop new communication platforms.

Qilin Li

Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Materials Science and NanoEngineering, Rice University

Qilin Li is leading a team of researchers to develop a technology that will remove only necessary contaminants from water.

In other words, they are building a treatment system that can be tuned to selectively pull toxins from drinking water and wastewater from factories, sewage systems and oil and gas wells, and cut back on cost and energy.

“Traditional methods to remove everything, such as reverse osmosis, are expensive and energy intensive,” Li said in a statement.

“If we figure out a way to just fish out these minor components, we can save a lot of energy.”

The system they’re working with is comprised of composite electrodes that enable capacitive deionization. The charged, porous electrodes selectively pull target ions from fluids passing through the maze-like system, and when the pores get filled with toxins, the electrodes can be cleaned, restored to their original capacity and reused.

“This is part of a broad scope of research to figure out ways to selectively remove ionic contaminants,” Li said in a statement.

“There are a lot of ions in water. Not everything is toxic. For example, sodium chloride (salt) is perfectly benign. We don’t have to remove it unless the concentration gets too high.”

Li explained that, for many applications, non-hazardous ions can be left behind. So, instead of targeting all ions, the researchers are working to pull just the necessary, harmful contaminants.

“For many applications, we can leave non-hazardous ions behind, but there are certain ions that we need to remove,” she said in a statement.

“For example, in some drinking water wells, there’s arsenic. In our drinking water pipes, there could be lead or copper. And in industrial applications, there are calcium and sulfate ions that form scale, a buildup of mineral deposits that foul and clog pipes.”

In lab tests, the team’s proof-of concept system removed sulfate ions, which can give water a bitter taste and act as a laxative.

Margherita T. Cantorna

Distinguished Professor of Molecular Immunology, Pennsylvania State University

According to Margherita T. Cantorna and a team of scientists at Penn State University, eating white button mushrooms can create subtle shifts in the microbial community in the gut, which could ultimately improve the regulation of glucose in the liver.

In a study with mice, Cantorna and her team found that consuming white button mushrooms changed the composition of gut microbes — microbiota — to produce short-chain fatty acids, specifically propionate from succinate.

Cantorna explained that succinate and propionate can alter the expression of genes needed to manage glucose production.

“Managing glucose better has implications for diabetes, as well as other metabolic diseases,” Cantorna said in a statement.

For the study, the researchers used two types of mice: one group that had microbiota, and one that was germ-free and did not have microbiota.

“You can compare the mice with the microbiota with the germ-free mice to get an idea of the contributions of the microbiota,” Cantorna said in a statement.

“There were big differences in the kinds of metabolites we found in the gastrointestinal tract, as well as in the liver and serum, of the animals fed mushrooms that had microbiota than the ones that didn’t.”

Going forward, the researchers would like to study how this would work in obese mice, and ultimately, humans, she added.

Conclusion

While it is important to recognize gender inequalities in STEM, it is equally important to esteem the many women who are working in these fields today. Each of these women has contributed significant research that has made our world a better and more informed place.

Natalie Colarossi is a journalism major and global studies minor working toward her bachelor’s degree at Ohio University. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has covered a number of topics including art, culture, politics, music, and travel. Her greatest passion and priority is to travel, and she hopes to experience as many places and cultures as possible.