Women in science are living life by the numbers

These scientists study physics, computer science, math and more
Oct 21, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
Ioanna Kalvari

Ioanna Kalvari gets ready to swim in what she calls her “superhero suit.” When she’s not writing computer programs, she’s swimming.

Theodoros Feggaras

Think women aren’t cut out for math? Think again. Science News for Students sent out a call for women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to send us photos and videos of their lives in science. At the time, we only expected a few responses. But we got more than 150 submissions from around the world.

Mani A sent us a selfie.
Mani A sent us a selfie.
M. A

Fields like math, physics and technology have a reputation for being just for the guys. These women, though, show those areas are definitely a girl thing. Meet these 12 inspiring scientists.

Mani A

How do we know what is true? Some people might consider that a question for philosophy. But Mani considers it a question of math. She studies areas such as algebra and logic at the University of Calcutta in Kolkata, India. Mani develops mathematical formulas to understand how we know what we know, and what areas remain vague. She is also interested in feminism and rights for LGBTQ people. (That acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.) That’s because, she says, “I am an out and proud lesbian.”

J. Barber-Rotenberg
This “selfie” was actually a button press by Julie Barber-Rotenberg’s infant son, Ryan.
J. Barber-Rotenberg

Julie Barber-Rotenberg

Molecules called proteins do most of the heavy work in the cells that make up your body. Barber-Rotenberg studies these molecules. She is a biophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. By figuring out exactly how proteins are put together and function, she hopes to find treatments for skin and breast cancers.

Outside of the lab, Barber-Rotenberg does a lot of chemistry. She cooks! “On the nights and weekends, I trade in my pipettes for measuring cups and baking pans, and run a food blog, Bunsen Burner Bakery,” she says. “The experimental results are a lot more fun (and a lot more delicious!)” than her lab work.

Lisa Glaser

Glaser is in to small stuff. Very, very small stuff. She studies quantum gravity. This is an area of science that describes how tiny particles such as atoms and protons might react to the forces of gravity. Glaser is a physicist at Radboud University in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Before she became a scientist, Glaser spent her teenage years teaching kids karate.

Glaser explains her work in the video below.

What’s quantum gravity? Let Lisa Glaser explain.
University of Nottingham
M. A. Gräwert
As a mother of three, Melissa Ann Gräwert encourages her kids to get into science, too.
M. A. Gräwert

Melissa Ann Gräwert

Gräwert works at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Hamburg, Germany. There, she works with a machine called a synchrotron. “A synchrotron is a cyclic particle accelerator that can be used to create X-rays,” she explains. That means that the machine makes particles move very fast to create those X-rays. “At a doctor's office, X-rays are used to image the inside of us,” she says. “At the synchrotron, we use the X-rays to indirectly obtain ‘pictures’ of smaller objects such as proteins and DNA. These are small objects that are only a few nanometers big.” (A nanometer is equal to one-billionth of a meter.)

Ioanna Kalvari (photo at top)

Kalvari is a computer scientist at the European Bioinformatics Institute at EMBL. And being a computer programmer, she sent us the information about her in code! You can see the code yourself here at Github. (This is a site where people can share their code.) The code and its output are displayed below. In it, she describes all the things that she loves to do. She also talks about her aspiration to become the best that she can be.

I. Kalvari
This is the output of Ioanna Kalvari’s code.
I. Kalvari
Jennifer Klein
Jennifer Klein shows off her hobby.
Claire Klein

Jennifer Klein

“The most important trait to possess as a scientist is the ability to throw yourself into a new field or technique and trust that you've been trained to learn anything,” says Klein. She is a biophysicist at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. She studies the molecules that make us grow older. “I think of myself as a biophysicist, but really, I've had to pick up cell biology, molecular biology, biochemistry and physiology,” she says. Outside of the lab, Klein has two daughters and loves to do aerial arts. “I try to model for my girls and students a fully lived life,” she says.

G Nash
Gemma Nash with one of her dogs.
Brett Nash

Gemma Nash

When you see a fancy website, with data you can search through and images you can interact with, have you ever wondered about who made it? If you’ve been to the website for the British Geological Survey (based in Nottingham, England), the answer to that question is Nash. “I am the internet manager responsible for the BGS website,” she says. “After studying web development at [university], I started at BGS in 2006 building simple, basic web pages. And now I build complex dynamic database applications to share wondrous Earth science research, data and information.”

Nash says she is a “sci-fi geek,” but she doesn’t spend her whole life staring at screens. She also loves animals and lives with dogs, chickens and even a gecko.

S. Okolo
Sophie Okolo took her talents from the lab to the computer screen.
S. Okolo

Sophie Okolo

Okolo got her degrees by studying aging and bioinformatics — using computers to make tools to analyze large amounts of biological data. “I previously analyzed and interpreted biological data, such as DNA base-pair sequences, to produce 3-dimensional protein structures,” she explains. Now, she works for Big Data Africa, based in Washigton, D.C. This venture uses large amounts of data to inform decision-making in governments and businesses.

Outside of the lab, Okolo loves fantasy. “I love everything about The Lord of the Rings movies,” she says. “I own the extended versions, a historical documentary by National Geographic and keep up with blogs dedicated to Tolkien and Middle Earth.”

Meenakshi Prahbue
Meenakshi Prabhune loves to read on her porch. Here she is with one of her favorite books.
Hrishikesh Pendurkar

Meenakshi Prabhune

Many scientists prefer to spend their time getting data. Prabhune, though, wanted to make sure the world knew about their accomplishments. She started out studying biophysics — learning how physics applies to the way living creatures move and function — at the University of Göttingen in Germany. Now, she doesn’t do the science; she writes about it. “I am researcher-turned-science-writer and love reading and writing about everything biology-related,” she says.

Susanne Pumpluen

Do you like math? Pumpluen sure does. She studies math at the University of Nottingham in England. Many people might think modern math needs complicated computers. But Pumpluen says no, it does not. “I don’t even need the internet,” she says. “I need a piece of paper, [and] I need a pen.”

Check out Pumpluen and her research in the video below.

Susanne Pumpluen is a mathematician at the University of Nottingham in England. In this video, she speaks about what she likes most about having a career in math.
Andrew Burden/University of Nottingham
D. Swaminathan
Divya Swaminathan takes a break from presenting her work at a conference in Rome, Italy, to play tourist.
D. Swaminathan

Divya Swaminathan

“About 10 years ago, I came from India to the United States for graduate studies in physics,” says Swaminathan. Now, she’s a biophysicist at the University of California, Irvine. “In my research, I use concepts from physics and mathematics to study how calcium behaves within cells.” Calcium is an important element for signaling in cells. “In order to do this, I have to write a lot of code, and it's fun,” she says.

Swaminathan also loves to dance. She’s been studying a classical form of Indian dance called Bharatanatyam since she was young.

S.Y. Yong
Siew-Yit Yong at work.
S.Y. Yong

Siew-Yit Yong

Yong started out her career interested in biotechnology, but soon she discovered she loved computer programs, too. “I was especially interested in protein structures, so I did a project on simulating the protein and sugar interactions using a software for my master's degree,” she says. “That kind of kick-started my career in bioinformatics, so I started learning about programming and databases.” Now she helps run InterPro at the EMBL campus in Hinxton, England. InterPro is a computer program that classifies proteins.

In her daily life, Yong likes to meditate and do yoga. She even meditates while playing tennis! She says in tennis, it’s all about maintaining your composure. 

If you enjoyed this post, make sure to check out the others in our series on women in STEM. We’ve got women in astronomy, biology, chemistry, medicine, ecology, geology and neuroscience. And keep an eye out for new additions. There are still many more scientists to come!

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

accelerator     (in physics) Also known as a particle accelerator, this massive machine revs up the motion of subatomic particles to great speed, and then beams them at targets. Sometimes the beams are used to deliver radiation at a tissue for cancer treatment. Other times, scientists crash the particles into solid targets in hopes of breaking the particles into their building blocks.

aerial     Of or taking place in the air.

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers .

atom     The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.

biochemistry     A field that marries biology and chemistry to investigate the reactions that underpin how cells and organs function. People who work in this field are known as biochemists.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

biophysics     The study of physical forces as they relate to living things. People who work in this field are known as biophysicists.

bisexual     A term relating to people who are sexually attracted to both men and women.

blog     Short for web log, these Internet posts can take the form of news reports, topical discussions, opinionated rants, diaries or photo galleries.

calcium     A chemical element which is common in minerals of the Earth’s crust and in sea salt. It is also found in bone mineral and teeth, and can play a role in the movement of certain substances into and out of cells.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the naked eye, it consists of watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells, depending on their size. Some organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact with one another. Chemists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) The term is used to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties.

code     (in computing) To use special language to write or revise a program that makes a computer do something.

computer program     A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that give them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

database     An organized collection of information.

degree     (in geometry) A unit of measurement for angles. Each degree equals one three-hundred-and-sixtieth of the circumference of a circle.

documentary     A type of movie or television program that takes its name from the fact that it attempts to document actual real-life events.

dynamic     An adjective that signifies something is active, changing or moving. (noun) The change or range of variability seen or measured within something.

ecology     A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory. (in physics) A region in space where certain physical effects operate, such as magnetism (created by a magnetic field), gravity (by a gravitational field) or mass (by a Higgs field).

force     Some outside influence that can change the motion of a body, hold bodies close to one another, or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.

function     A relationship between two or more variables in which one variable (the dependent one) is exactly determined by the value of the other variables.

gay     (in biology) A term relating to homosexuals — people who are sexually attracted to members of their own sex.

gecko     A small to medium sized reptile found in warm to equatorial regions of the world. Some 2,000 different species of this lizard exist, in a wide range of colors. These reptiles eat insects, worms and even the occasional small bird. But they are best known for being to climb slick surfaces, owing to special structures on the bottom surfaces of their feet.

geological     Adjective to describe things related to Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists.

geology     The study of Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists. Planetary geology is the science of studying the same things about other planets.

gravity     The force that attracts anything with mass, or bulk, toward any other thing with mass. The more mass that something has, the greater its gravity.

information     (as opposed to data) Facts provided or trends learned about something or someone, often as a result of studying data.

lesbian     A woman who is sexually attracted to other women.

meditate     To think deeply or focus one's mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting. Sometimes it’s done for religious or spiritual purposes. It also can become a method of relaxation.

model     A simulation of a real-world event (usually using a computer) that has been developed to predict one or more likely outcomes.

molecular biology     The branch of biology that deals with the structure and function of molecules essential to life. Scientists who work in this field are called molecular biologists .

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

neuroscience     The field of science that deals with the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Researchers in this field are known as neuroscientists.

particle     A minute amount of something.

physicist     A scientist who studies the nature and properties of matter and energy.

physics     The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Classical physics is an explanation of the nature and properties of matter and energy that relies on descriptions such as Newton’s laws of motion. Quantum physics, a field of study which emerged later, is a more accurate way of explaining the motions and behavior of matter. A scientist who works in that field is known as a physicist .

physiology     The branch of biology that deals with the everyday functions of living organisms and how their parts function. Scientists who work in this field are known as physiologists.

proteins     Compounds made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. The hemoglobin in blood and the antibodies that attempt to fight infections are among the better-known, stand-alone proteins. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.

proton     A subatomic particle that is one of the basic building blocks of the atoms that make up matter. Protons belong to the family of particles known as hadrons.

quantum     (pl. quanta) A term that refers to the smallest amount of anything, especially of energy or subatomic mass.

software     The mathematical instructions that direct a computer’s hardware, including its processor, to perform certain operations.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

synchrotron     A circular particle accelerator that speeds up charged particles to nearly the speed of light, by applying magnetic and electric fields that ramp up their strength in synchrony. It also relies on a combination of different types of magnets to keep the beam of particles circulating and focused.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

Web     (in computing) An abbreviation of World Wide Web, it is a slang term for the Internet.

X-ray     A type of radiation analogous to gamma rays, but of somewhat lower energy.