February 2016: Our Favorite “Headstrong” Women


by Christina Mirachi ’16, Mary Szurgot ’17, Isabella Goodenough ’16, Rachel Troxell ’16 and Anjni Patel ’17
McNulty Fellows, 2015-16

As we begin a new semester and a new calendar year, we’re seeking inspiration to help make this our best year yet.  We had the opportunity to read and discuss Rachel Swaby’s non-fiction work Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World during our McNulty Program Book club last summer, so we decided to revisit some of the women whose stories stood out and inspired us to prepare ourselves for the challenging semester ahead.

Isabella Goodenough ’16

GoodenoughblogSally Ride was constantly treated as inferior to her male colleagues, and faced relentless discrimination from fellow Americans.  Her skill was never at the forefront; rather her gender was.  While she flew through space training with ease, she was constantly challenged with sexist and stereotypical comments about her competence as an astronaut. “Would or wouldn’t she wear a bra in space?” “Did she cry over her mistakes?”  As irreverent and insulting as these comments would be, she never let them affect her.  When her gender was brought up as a measure of competence, she would extend the reminder: “weightlessness is a great equalizer.” *

While many of us know Sally Ride as the first female astronaut, what many of us fail to recognize is how she got there.  She never went into astrophysics or even the astronaut corps to become a role model. Rather her career was driven by her insuppressible motivation to unveil the unknown.  She was skillful and driven, and while her gender proved to be a major hurdle as she advanced in her field, she never allowed inequality to weigh her down.

* Full quote: “Our training (at NASA) is asexual.  Women and men go through exactly the same jobs on orbit.  Weightlessness is a great equalizer, you don’t have to be strong up there.”  — Sally Ride, July 2012

Mary Szurgot ’17

SzurgotblogGertrude Belle “Trudy” Elion refused to take no for an answer.  As a woman seeking to enter graduate school during the Great Depression, she found that what little funding was available in universities was reserved for men.  In the workforce, she was told that she would only be a distraction in an all-male lab.  In the face of this adversity, however, she remembered the loss of her grandfather to stomach cancer and she remembered her calling to devote her life to the alleviation of such pain and loss.  She remained patient and took jobs working in reception and quality control until she was eventually hired by the Burroughs Wellcome Company to work on drug development.

Working alongside George Hitchings, Elion took a different approach to the field by examining the biochemical differences between healthy and diseased cells and developing treatments, which would chemically target specific problems.  She developed effective treatments for diseases such as leukemia, gout, and shingles and alleviated pain and loss in the lives of many.  Trudy Elion may have faced discrimination and rejection regularly and she may never earned her PhD as a result, but she never gave up.  She has a Nobel Prize to show for it.

Christina Mirarchi ’16

MirarchiblogEllen Swallow Richards advocated for women to learn science and worked towards better health for people.  Richards was the first woman admitted to MIT, where she earned a PhD in chemistry and later became the first female professional chemist.  However, MIT did not want this accomplishment to lead to other women’s admittance to the University.  To increase support for women at MIT, Richards began a Women’s Laboratory as part of a science program for women, which eventually paved the way for MIT accepting women into the standard program.

Richards educated women both inside and outside the lab on science, but also on nutrition and how to take care of oneself.  She opened a kitchen that instructed healthy food preparation and provided meals to school children.  Richards was also very involved with water sanitation and worked to test water from different sources to ensure that it was safe to drink.  This initiative set standards for water testing and quality control across the United States and eventually globally.

Rachel Troxell ’16

TroxellblogLeprosy plagued the residents of Hawaii, with many afflicted by this living death. Individuals who were diagnosed with this horrible disease were ripped from their homes, arrested and relocated to Kalaupapa. Leprosy attacks the skin, mucous membranes, and peripheral nerves. The only treatment that alleviated the suffering caused by this disease was the oil from the seeds of a chaulmoogra tree. However, delivery methods for this remedy were highly problematic.

Alice Ball began working with Harry T. Hollmann to develop an injectable therapy for leprosy from chaulmoogra oil. She earned a degree in chemistry in 1912 and a degree in pharmacy in 1914, both from the University of Washington. She had published her work in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and was the first woman and first African American to receive a master’s degree in chemistry from the College of Hawaii in 1915. After much hard work and dedication, Ball was able to transform the chaulmoogra oil into an injectable treatment that the body would absorb. She was the first person to successfully prepare the oil in such a form, and made this scientific breakthrough when she was just 23 years old. Her preparation of the chaulmoogra oil was able to alleviate the suffering of many individuals diagnosed with leprosy, and eventually to provide a cure.

Anjni Patel ’17

PatelblogWhen entering the science field, one of the main commitments one makes is to dedicate herself and give herself fully to the profession. Many people take this commitment lightly. However, a woman by the name of Gerty Radnitz Cori took this commitment and ran with it, full force. Gerty Cori typically worked with her husband in the lab, with an interest in discovering facts about the way the body functions. Together, they revealed many secrets about basic biological processes such as how the body uses the food we eat to make energy. They were able to make the first bioengineered glycogen, a form of sugar that is stored in your body and used for energy later on. During this time however, Gerty Cori was diagnosed with a rare form of anemia which required her to have blood transfusions every week and made it difficult for her to get around. Even though her body was deteriorating, she never gave up. She placed a cot in the room next to her lab and, with the help of her husband, served the world of science until she passed away in 1957.

When Gerty Cori entered the science field, she vowed to dedicate herself completely to her work. And, that is exactly what she did.