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2018 has been a ground-breaking year for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with female scientists winning the Nobel Prize in both Chemistry and Physics.
Dr Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and Dr Frances H. Arnold won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, marking the first time two women have been honored with these particular prizes in the same year. Both women accepted their awards at the same ceremony in Stockholm and are now members of a very small group of women who have been honoured with Nobels for their scientific innovation and endeavors.
Dr Strickland, a professor of physics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, is now only one of three women to win the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on high intensity laser pulses. During her acceptance speech, Dr Strickland acknowledged the rarity of her award: “I joined Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer as the only women to win this prize – I am humbled to be in their company.”
Frances H. Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, is now only the fifth women to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work in the directed evolution of enzymes. Dr Arnold reflected on her innovative work during her acceptance speech: “we can select life and their chemistries to our benefit to create new sources of energy, to fix the carbon in our atmosphere, to cure disease, to make us younger, more beautiful, or we can make new weapons of terror or state control.”
With only a handful of women receiving Nobel Prizes in STEM fields, this represents momentous leap for the recognition of women in science. In particular, Dr Strickland’s acceptance is the first time in 55 years that a woman has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. While this is a great victory, it highlights concerns of sexism within the Nobel Prizes and STEM-related disciplines. Christin Wiedemann, a former physicist and past president of the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology, stated that while Dr Strickland’s win should be celebrated, it is “a stark reminder that its been 55 years, and I have a hard time imagining there haven’t been women worthy of the prize in 55 years.” While this is a major concern, both women being awarded for their scientific successes is a step in the right direction.
According to Wired, girls perform just as well as boys in the sciences, yet due to low confidence, sexism and under-representation in STEM-related disciplines, women often stray away from a science-related career. It is hoped that such recognition of female success in science will encourage young women to embrace the sciences and fight against the uneven playing field currently present in the STEM-related disciplines. It is also hoped that such recognition will encourage men to help in the fight against structural and systemic sexism within STEM-related disciplines, as both men and women need to work together to achieve an even playing field.
It is promising to see both Dr Strickland and Dr Arnold be internationally praised and recognized for their scientific successes. Continued recognition of women in STEM will hopefully aid in making the scientific world a more welcoming and open place for young women.