Women in STEM: Cleanroom Edition

March is Women’s History month: dedicated to recognizing the critical contributions of women throughout history. As those who work in the STEM community, we are thoroughly thankful for and impressed by the women who have changed the shape of the world – in the past and today. Today, we wanted to take a few moments to recognize the achievements and contributions of just a few of those women, specifically in STEM.

The women we chose to share about today are women who most likely would have found themselves in some kind of cleanroom environment during their career. If they did not directly work in a cleanroom, others in the future field now work in cleanrooms regularly or have benefited from them. 

Dr. Katalin Kariko (1955- )

Dr. Katalin Kariko, a biochemist, is primarily known for her groundbreaking research in messenger (mRNA) that led to the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. 

She was born in Hungary and grew up the daughter of a butcher. In her 20s, she moved to America to pursue her dreams of becoming a scientist. She passionately persevered when met with rejections. Well before the pandemic, she saw the merits of mRNA technology. She fought hard for funding and grants, but often lost out to more mundane but traditional research. Little did those guarantors know the importance of her research. She teamed up with an immunology professor, Drew Weissman, with whom she ultimately made the discoveries and advancements which led to those critical vaccines.

Her tenacity, brilliance, and innovation paid off and, ultimately, saved millions of lifes. Now, her research is being recognized for its brilliance and has the potential to treat other devastating illnesses, like cancer and cystic fibrosis.

Florence Seibert (1897 - 1991)

Florenca Barbara Seibert is a biochemist whose work led to the modern tuberculosis test that we use today, amongst other contributions.

When she was a child, she contracted polio, which left her with a life-long physical impairment that impacted the way she walked. She, however, did not let that hold her back from her studies. She went on to graduate from Yale University in 1923 with a doctorate in biochemistry. 

Throughout her career (starting in her graduate work), Seibert made numerous contributions to the medical field and, ultimately, the world. For example, she discovered that poor reactions to vaccines were often caused by bacterial contamination of the distilled water used in the vaccine. She determined how to fix this (now, we have entire regulatory bodies dedicated to the practice), which would revolutionize injectable medication and blood transfusions.

She would go on to develop the purified protein derivative, or PPD, which is the foundation for today’s Standard TB Test and earned her the Trudeau Medal from the National Tuberculosis Association.

Mary Engle Pennington (1872 - 1952)

Mary Engle Pennington is the woman you can thank for having ready access to safe foods in the United States. Pennington was actually denied her bachelor’s degree due to her gender, but that did not stop her from trailblazing the way for safe food – and earning her PhD.

In 1898, she founded the Philadelphia Clinical Laboratory before moving onto join the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1905. She achieved the role of Chief of the Food Research Lab three years later and, meanwhile, played a large role in helping implement the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906).

She conducted bacteriological analyses to develop milk and dairy standards. Her checklist procedures for dairy herds were adopted throughout the United States. She spent the rest of her career traveling the nation to investigate refrigerator efficiency and educating politicians on why food safety mattered – and how to make it happen. 

Lise Meitner (1878 - 1968)

Lisa Meitner was born in Austria, as the third child of a Jewish family. After receiving her doctorate in 1906, she moved to Berlin, where she worked closely with Max Planck and Otto Hahn for 30 years.

Meitner’s career is plagued by being forgotten. This started in 1923 when Meitner discovered the radiationless transition. This is now known as the Auger effect, named for Pierre Victor Auger, who “discovered” it two years later. 

In 1938, Meitner was forced to flee Germany. She landed in Sweden, where she continued her work at Manne Siegbahn’s Institute in Stockholm. Siegbahn’s prejudice against women held her back, but she met with Hahn to plan new experiments. In January 1939, Meitner conducted the experiments that led to the nuclear fission in Hahn’s laboratory in Berlin. She published the physical explanation of the observations and named it nuclear fission. Her paper led to Albert Einstein writing President Roosevelt the warning letter than ultimately resulted in the Manhattan Project.

Along the theme of being forgotten, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944 for “his” research into fission. Meitner was largely ignored, in part due to Hahn downplaying her role after she fled to Sweden for her safety. This mistake was never rectified. In 1946, though, she was given celebrity treatment by the American press as the woman who “left Germany with the bomb in my purse.”

Calutron Girls

Along the theme of the Manhattan Project, there was a team of young women who largely went unrecognized. One of the most difficult components of the Manhattan Project was isolating enriched uranium. The Tennessee Eastman Company recruited young women, mainly recent high school graduates – due to wartime labor shortages, to make this happen. The young women used calutrons that used electromagnetic separation to isolate uranium. While they did not know exactly what the project was working towards, the “Calutron Girls” were critical to the development of the project and went a long way towards optimizing uranium production. Their adept operation of the instruments yielded better production rates than their male scientist counterparts. 

Where Will We Go From Here?

While some of these scientific advancements have had debatably contentious real world applications, there is no doubt that the women behind them were brilliant and dedicated – and deserved more recognition than they were awarded. 

Now, we are proud to see more and more women entering STEM fields – and bringing new innovations with them. And here at LWS, we’re always looking for the next innovation.

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