Mar 12, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

We recently observed International Women’s Day, but we’re far from done celebrating. In fact, the US is currently celebrating Women’s History Month, aimed at recognizing the many contributions women have made to the country. We can think of no better time to highlight the achievements of seven inspirational women from all over the world who overcame the obstacles to survive -- and thrive -- in the male-dominated domain of science and research.

1. Dang Thi Oanh

Winner of an Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World,  Dr. Oanh grew up in northern Vietnam as one of 12 children -- only seven of whom survived into adulthood. After receiving her PhD in 2012, she became a professor at a leading technology university in Thailand while also heading up the school’s Division of Science-Technology and International Cooperation. According to Elsevier, she received the award for “improvements the accuracy and efficiency of some computer-based methods to solving some difficult problems in calculus… with potential applications in fields such as artificial intelligence and computer graphics.”

A mother of two, Oanh emphasizes the importance of mentorship and advising to PhD students. “It’s very important to me because (mentoring) encouraged me to continue to do research and develop the method I’m working on,” she told Elsevier.

2. Marie Roth

After graduating from an elite women's college with a major in chemistry and minors in mathematics, physics, and physiology, Marie Roth stayed on as a teaching assistant and graduate school. Reflecting on her experiences now, she writes, “With such a powerful female influence, I didn’t realize at the time that women in chemistry were all that unusual.” After meeting some resistance after moving on to a co-ed environment to complete her PhD, she persevered, and went on to build a successful career even as a “full-time mom.” Roth also serviced as female chairman of the American Chemical Society.

Today, Roth offers invaluable advice to women aspiring to follow in her footsteps. “My legacy, however, has been to teach my daughters and my women students and now my granddaughters, that, if you have professional training, in whatever field, you should find a way to keep active in the field and not become outdated,” she says.

3. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia

A PhD is an accomplishment for anyone, but for Piscopia it was particularly noteworthy. After all, how many PhD ceremonies can you think of that include a gold ring, ermine cape, a triumphal carriage process, and palace feast? But the pomp and circumstance was well deserved: In, 1678, Piscopia was the first woman in history to earn a PhD, thereby paving the path for millions of others to follow -- even if it took half a century for another woman scholar to earn this distinction.

4. Marie Maynard Daly

The first African American woman in the US to earn a PhD in chemistry, Science Alert included Daly in its assessment of “10 Inspiring Scientists You Should Have Heard About, But Probably Haven’t.

In addition to her contributions to science, Daly also contributed to the push for equality. Says the American Chemical Society, “Later in her career, Daly developed programs to increase the number of minorities in medical schools and graduate science programs.” She also established a scholarship fund for African Americans at her alma mater.

5. Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Dr. Nathalie Pettorelli recently included space scientist, science communicator, and mechanical engineering PhD Aderin-Pocock on her “fantasy dinner list” of inspirational female scientists.

Of her interesting career trajectory, Aderin-Pocock said in an interview, “To me, space was the ultimate goal, and I think it was sort of a subconscious for a long time but I could see I had that sort of goal in mind, so when I took on jobs, it was also, well you know can they lead me to space or will it go a different way? And you know it didn't matter that I did lots of different things along the way, ‘cause I think often that helps. But that was I think, my goal….Because I've had a sort of quite hybrid career there are benefits in working in academia and pitfalls and the same in industry.”

Aderin-Pocock also took on the myth of the cash-starved PhD. “Someone once told me that you don't actually, that for the time, extra time you spend in university doing a PhD you don't actually get the money back until you are 40, but I think you can actually get it back sooner than that,” she proposed.

6. Krasimira Tsaneva-Atanasova

Also earning a place at Pettorelli’s table? Tsaneva-Atanasova, who “left Bulgaria aged 30, boarding a plane for the first time with her seven-year-old daughter, to study for a PhD in applied mathematics in New Zealand before becoming one of UK’s only female maths professors.”

Says Tsaneva-Atanasova of why she does what she does, “The most fascinating aspect of my research is the art of mathematical modelling. I develop and analyse mathematical models in order to help the understanding of living system. Every living system is incredibly complex and fascinating. Mathematical insights into the workings of these systems ultimately would give the possibility to predict and control their behavior. Such a level of understanding defines our ability to tackle some of the big challenges faced by our society today, such as health and aging.
I am passionate about applications of mathematics. Making sense of maths outside of the abstract world of theorems and proofs, and using it in a tangible way is challenging but extremely rewarding. Therefore I use every opportunity to explain and demonstrate to people that one could find maths useful everywhere, even in fields such as psychology and psychiatry.''

7. Gloria Lim

While growing up in Singapore, Lim attended a girls’ school which didn’t even teach the sciences -- which makes the fact that she went on to make a name for herself in the field of mycology (with a Public Service Star under her belt, among other accolades) particularly impressive. She recently told Asian Scientist of her initial exposure to science in college, “Lo and behold, in my first year I was like a sponge, absorbing all the scientific things around me.”

And did we happen to mention that 2018 has been widely heralded as the “Year of the Woman”? Which begs the question: Is 2018 going to be YOUR year? We can think of no finer inspiration to spur you forward in pursuit of your own goals and dreams than these seven female PhDs.







Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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