When it comes to changing the world, having a positive role model can help spurn action, confidence, and imagination. These female scientists have invented, researched, and collected their way to a place in scientific history. From discovering new elements to inventing Wi-Fi, the following 13 women will wow you and your kids. And, if you want to learn more about inspiring women, check out our favorite movies for Women’s History Month.
1. Hedy Lamarr
More widely known for her Hollywood starlet status during the 1930s and ’40s, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, aka Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000), was much more than a pretty face. Native to Austria, she was incensed over the Nazi takeover of her beloved home country. Highly intelligent and fearless, Lamarr worked with scientist and inventor George Antheil to develop a secret communication system. They manipulated radio frequencies at irregular intervals to form an unbreakable code which she envisioned helping submarines deploy missiles and allow them to not be detected by enemy ships. This is known as spread spectrum technology and it is what modern-day digital communications are based on. Without her work (for which she obtained a patent) wireless technology as we know it today would not exist. She received very little recognition for her work during her lifetime, although today she is acknowledged as being the mother of wi-fi.
Communicate like Heddy: Try making a tin can telephone to represent the idea of sending messages. We love the one here from Crafts by Amanda. A game of telephone will also do the trick: try to scramble the messages on purpose to see what funny results you get.
Hedy says: “All creative people want to do the unexpected.”
2. Ameenah Gurib Fakim
Bibi Ameenah Firdaus Gurib-Fakim was born in 1959 in Mauritius, the country for which she now serves as the first woman President. She is a biodiversity scientist who has spent countless hours researching and documenting the indigenous plants of Mauritius and their medicinal and nutritive properties. She has held many high positions in the fields of both politics and science and was awarded the 2007 UNESCO Award for Women in Science.
Be Like Ameenah
Develop their love of plants at a young age with this super cool transformation of a mere cardboard box into a natural lightbox. Gather local plants, leaves, and flowers to make yours.
Ameenah says: “My dream is to be a voice from a part of the world that is rarely listened to, speaking on behalf of a part of the planet that is often overlooked.”
3. Marie Curie
A physicist and chemist who was not only the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie (1867–1934) was also the first person and only woman to win it twice, once for Chemistry and once for Physics. Her pioneering work includes the theory of radioactivity and discovering not one but two elements (radium and polonium).
Be Like Marie
We don’t want you to have any radioactive waste in your house, but you can get in the spirit of Marie Curie’s work by creating some glow-in-the-dark science. Try making glow bubbles or splashing in a (non) toxic pool of bathwater.
Marie says: “A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.”
4. Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson (1907-1964), was a marine biologist who studied the ocean and its ecosystems, but it was her book, Silent Spring, that helped to start the modern environmental movement. Born in Pennsylvania, she began her career in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and in the 1950s, she became a full-time nature writer and conservationist. She won a National Book Award for The Sea Around Us in 1951. She then turned her attention to studying environmental problems with synthetic pesticides; it was this work that resulted in Silent Spring, which was fiercely opposed by chemical companies. Nevertheless, her work led to the nationwide ban on DDT and started the movement which would become the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Protect Like Rachel
Find a clean-up day at a beach, open space, or park in your community, and sign up with the kids. Learning to appreciate and protect nature at an early age will help to instill a desire to care for the earth and its creatures.
Rachel says: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
5. Alice Eastwood
Born in Canada, Eastwood (1859-1953) is best known for her work as a renowned (and self-taught!) botanist credited with building the extensive collection of botanical specimens at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, CA. Not only did she collect them, but in 1906 after the big earthquake, she rescued the collection from the fire and managed to save 1497 irreplaceable botanical specimens. She lost her own home and all of her possessions, choosing to save the collection over all else. There are 17 plant species (and two plant genera) named for her, including the Fritillaria eastwoodiae. She went on many expeditions, especially in and around the California Sierra Nevada mountains, hiking with the Sierra Club and documenting the plants. She also hiked Mt. Shasta by herself. She published over 300 scientific articles in her lifetime.
Try your hand at some homespun botany with an indoor garden project you can do in your kitchen, windowsill, or balcony.
After the great fire, Alice wrote: “I did not feel the loss to be mine, but it is a great loss to the scientific world and an irreparable loss to California. My own destroyed work I do not lament, for it was a joy to me while I did it, and I can still have the same joy in starting it again… .”
6. Mae C. Jemison
On June 4, 1987, Mae C. Jemison became the first African-American woman to enter the space program. On Sep. 12, 1992, she joined the crew of seven astronauts on the Endeavour, becoming the first African-American woman in space. Born in Decatur, Alabama, and raised mostly in Chicago, Il, Jemison holds multiple awards and degrees, including a B.S. in biomedical engineering and an M.D. She has worked as a medical doctor (including in the Peace Corps). As a child, Jemison spent a lot of time in her school library, reading especially books about space.
Fun fact: Mae is one of the six women of NASA LEGO figurines.
Mae says: “We look at science as something very elite, which only a few people can learn. That’s just not true. You just have to start early and give kids a foundation. Kids live up, or down, to expectations.”
7. Tu Youyou
Chinese-born Tu Youyou took the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, primarily for her work in researching and discovering artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin, two compounds used to treat malaria. Her work has saved millions of lives. More than 240,000 other compounds had been previously studied as a treatment for malaria by scientists all over the world for years, but in 1960 Tu began analyzing plants from Chinese medicine. Tu and her team selected 2000 potential plants and eventually narrowed them down to just one. The compound comes from an artemisia (wormwood) plant and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Tu’s extensive knowledge of the vast pharmacopeia of traditional and Western medicine has made her one of the most important scientists in her field. She found what no one else could. Interestingly her father named her Youyou after a sentence from the Chinese Book of Odes: “Deer bleat ‘youyou’ while they are eating wild Hao.” Hao is Artemesia!
Be Like Tu
Foster their love of experimenting with at-home chemistry like this super basic vinegar and baking soda volcano.
Tu says: “Every scientist dreams of doing something that can help the world.”
8. Raven Baxter
Also known as Dr. Raven the Science Maven and for her pop culture twist on molecular science, Dr. Baxter is on a mission to break the traditional perception of scientists. She’s a great example of a modern female scientist and has contributed greatly to educating people about COVID-19. As one of the hosts of STEMbassy, she’s advocating for underrepresented voices in STEM by leading thought-provoking conversations that explore these intersecting topics.
Be Like Raven: Help your kids get interested in molecules by making up your science rap songs together, rhyming everyday words with funny-sounding science terms like “Diurea!”
Raven Says: “We absolutely can also raise the issue of the lack of nonbinary honorifics… and just the lack of options to self identify.”
9. Emily Calandrelli
Emily Calandrelli, female scientist, MIT engineer, and host of the popular Netflix science show for kids, Emily’s Wonder Lab, is making STEAM fun for kids of all ages! The activities and demonstrations on her show always end with an at-home version so your kids can dig into science. As a space expert, she’s also worked on NASA teams designing the simulation for the Phoenix Mars Lander’s soil testing experiment and finding new ways to reduce emissions from jet planes.
Go on adventures with Emily: Follow science- and technology-loving third grader Ada on her adventures in Emily’s book series, Ada Lace Adventures!
Emily Says: “I want to make everyone believe that they can understand math and science.”
10. Margaret Gatty
(1809-1873) After being given a copy of an anthology containing illustrations of British seaweeds, Margaret was inspired to learn more about local marine botany. And after over a decade of observing and collecting specimens, she wrote her most famous work in 1862, British Sea-Weeds, sharing her knowledge alongside beautiful illustrations so that everyday people could enjoy the wonders of the marine world. This book, in particular, is considered a major contribution to civilization.
Be like Margaret: If you have access to tidepools, they’re a great place to observe the diverse shapes, textures, and colors found in marine ecosystems. Other places with still waters are good options, too! And be sure to bring a pencil and pad so your kids can be like Margaret and write down and draw their observations.
Margaret Says: “We may not always know what we’re wanted for, nor is it for us to enquire, but nobody is useless as long as he is permitted to live.”
11. Clarice Phelps
When we think of the periodic table, copper and lead may be among the oldest and first to come to mind, but have you heard of Tennessine (Ts) — added to the table just a few years ago? It’s the second heaviest known element, and female scientist, Clarice Phelps played a key role in its discovery, proving that women continue to make important contributions to science.
Discover like Clarice: Discoveries about our world are made every day! And these science kits are the perfect mix of play and discovery for your budding scientists.
Clarice Says: “Never dim your flame for those who can’t handle the heat coming from it.”
12. Ellen Ochoa
As a mission specialist onboard the shuttle Discovery in 1993, female scientist Ellen Ochoa became the first Latina woman to go up in space, conducting experiments and deploying a satellite to further the study of the solar corona. Over her career, she’s spent almost 1,000 hours in space!
Be weightless like Ellen: It may not come close to floating around a rocket in space, but encourage kids to take note of the weightless feeling as they fly up high on the swings on your next trip to the park.
Ellen Says: “Don’t be afraid to reach for the stars.”
13. Grace Hopper
Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (1906-1992) was one of the first computer programmers ever in the U.S. A Navy Rear Admiral, in 1944, she worked on the Harvard Mark I Computer and invented the first compiler for computer programming language. In other words, she figured out how to explain computer code to mere humans (and how to program a computer to do what humans want). In the 1940s, she continued working for the Navy and later for other government agencies as a high-ranking official. She even worked as a senior consultant for a private company until she died at the age of 85.
Code Like Grace:
Promote a little active screen time with your future programmer when you have her complete an hour of code for 20 minutes each day. Everything you need to know is mapped out online, and although the hour is best spent on a screen, you can opt to use screen-free alternatives to teach the same concepts to your cutie at home. The best part? A sweet certificate your tiny techie can earn when she’s learned it all. Gold stars all around!
Grace says: “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”
—with additional reporting by Candace Nagy