Parker Molloy
October 08, 2014 11:22 am

Earlier this week, a trio of scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the brain’s “inner GPS.” The prize, awarded to John O’Keefe and married couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser, has been more than 40 years in the making.

In 1971, O’Keefe discovered that specific nerve cells were always activated when one of his lab rats were in specific points in the room. More than three decades later, the Mosers came to a similar discovery, identifying another type of cell within the brain that serves as the basis of what many refer to as their “sense of direction.”

This award marks just the 11th time in the past 113 years that a woman took home the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and the first since 2009, when Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider were part of the team that was awarded for their 1984 discovery of telomerase, an enzyme related to aging and cancer. The year prior, French virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was awarded the prize for her work establishing that HIV is the cause of AIDS.

The specific challenges of being a woman in science are well-documented. A 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report found that just one in seven engineers nationwide is female, and that employment within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields — often referred to as simply STEM — has remained stagnant since the beginning of the 21st century.

Despite all the statistics that suggest a sexist bias in the field of science, women still continue to make amazing strides. So in honor of Nobel Prize winner May-Britt Moser, we decided to celebrate her and some of her female STEM colleagues—those women (and girls!) behind ground-breaking research and trailblazing innovations, who are paving the way for the future of women in science.

May-Britt Moser

Before winning the NOBEL PRIZE (you know, no bigs), Moser earned her degree in psychology and a PHD in neuropsychology from the University of Oslo. She went on to be the founding director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience. Her work with her husband on spatial relations in the brain led to ground-breaking, prize-worthy advances in science. Basically, she helped discover the brain’s “GPS-function,” or how we map things in our mind—from how we remember where we parked our car to those shortcuts we devise to avoid a hellish traffic jam. Ultimately her research on rats could mean major breakthroughs for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and also provide a better understanding of how we humans, you know, think.

Claudia J. Alexander

Specializing in geophysics and planetary science, Claudia Alexander is best known for her work as the project manager for NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter. Currently, Alexander works as a member of the technical staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and as project manager for NASA’s Rosetta mission. Previously, she studied plate tectonics at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Linda B. Buck

2004 Nobel Prize winner Linda B. Buck is a biologist whose work studying the body’s olfactory system — the group of processes that enable one’s sense of smell — and specifically, how pheromones are processed by the brain. Currently, Buck holds a number of positions, teaching physiology and biophysics at the University of Washington, and serves as an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell is best known as the woman who discovered the pulsar and as the first female president of the Institute of Physics. In 1974, two of the researchers who worked alongside her were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in discovering the pulsar, while Bell was left out. This controversy raised renewed awareness of sexism within science.

Athene Donald

Physicist Athene Donald spends much of her time applying unique principles to revolutionize work in the field of medicine. Much of Donald’s best known work has been in the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s. Through her blogging, Donald is one of the more active participants in the discussion about the challenges facing women in STEM fields, frequently addressing issues of tokenism, parental leave, sexism, and just generally how women can improve working conditions.

Elizabeth Holmes

Just 30 years old, Elizabeth Holmes already has a net worth of $4.5 billion. After dropping out of Stanford University, Holmes founded Theranos, a health technology and medical laboratory services company. To date, Holmes’ biggest innovation has been in the field of blood lab-testing. Using microfluidics technology, Theranos developed a platform in which a full blood-work lab can be completed with only a few drops of blood instead of the multiple vials often required by traditional labs. This breakthrough, along with the work Holmes has done in other areas—like SARS detection—sent Holmes on a path to massive success. Reminder: she’s 30.

Jessie MacAlpine

18-year-old University of Toronto student Jessie MacAlpine is making a name for herself through the study and development of new, innovative ways to fight malaria. In 9th grade, MacAlpine published her first research paper, studying “the effects of CO2 and chronic cold exposure on fecundity of female Drosophila melanogaster.” (I have absolutely no idea what any of that means, but it certainly sounds impressive.) Her most recent work on malaria is aimed at providing cheap, efficient treatment of the fatal illness developed from mustard oil.

Molly Stevens

Molly Stevens is the Professor of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine and Research Director for Biomedical Materials Sciences in the Institute of Engineering at London’s Imperial College. With her focus in polymer science and stem cell research, Stevens has explored new ways to regrow bone and tissue.

Sophie Healy-Thow, Emer Hickey, Ciara Judge

This trio of Irish teens took home top honor at last month’s Google Science Fair with a project that proposes new ways to address world hunger. Their work studying a bacteria called rhizobia and its effect on barley seeds found that exposure to this bacteria actually helped these seeds germinate, resulting in a 74 percent increase in food production. Welcome to the future of science. It’s a woman’s world.

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