Inspirational women in STEM

12 STEM practitioners highlight the experts and pioneers who have influenced them

Woman engineer working on a computer

Whether it's colleagues, mentors, relatives, or even historical figures, many of us can name role models and inspiring individuals who have influenced us in our lives and careers.

These people are particularly important in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Here, female role models can play a key role in recruiting and retaining women in the sector.

Untold stories

There are countless inspiring women working in STEM today. And there have been many more throughout history, whose stories often went untold.

We asked 12 authors, researchers, and practitioners from the STEM field to nominate women who have inspired them.

Read on to find out more about these exceptional women, and how they've inspired others:

Woman scientist wearing face mask compares samples in a test tube

Hedy Lamarr – scientist and actor

Nominated by: Dr. Ramona Trestian

"Hedy Lamarr invented the frequency hopping technology that forms the basis for some of the most important radio communications technologies in today's world.

"Hedy had an incredible mind that unfortunately was not rightly acknowledged in a field where the default human is considered to be male.

"Thus, Hedy was more popular for her looks and acting career instead of her inventor career and intelligence that made her look at the world with open eyes.

"For this reason, I have dedicated my first authored book to all the 'invisible' women in STEM."

Dr. Ramona Trestian is a Senior Lecturer in Computing at Middlesex University. She's the author of Mobile and Wireless Communications with Practical Use-Case Scenarios and has five edited books. She publishes in prestigious international journals and conferences and is an Associate Editor of the IEEE Communications Surveys & Tutorials journal.

Headshot of Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr

Headshot of Ramona Trestian

Dr. Ramona Trestian

Dr. Ramona Trestian

Tia Hopkins – cybersecurity expert

Nominated by: Dr. Nikki Robinson

"Tia Hopkins is one of the women who inspired me early in my career. She's an incredibly technical and innovative leader in the IT and cybersecurity space.

"During an interview, she said one of the most impactful quotes I've heard in my career. She said that, at a certain point, we have a responsibility to give back to our community. This encouraged me that, no matter where I was in my cybersecurity journey, I could offer guidance and mentorship to anyone interested in joining the field.

"Those words have stuck with me and shaped my journey in cybersecurity."

Dr. Nikki Robinson is a security architect, Professor of Practice, and author of Mind the Tech Gap: Addressing the Conflicts between IT and Security Teams. She's a member of the board of directors for InfraGard Maryland Chapter and supports InfraGard at the national level on the Journal Review Committee. She teaches graduate-level courses in quantitative methods, incident response, and healthcare mobile device security.

Headshot of Tia Hopkins

Tia Hopkins

Tia Hopkins

Headshot of Dr. Nikki Robinson

Dr. Nikki Robinson

Dr. Nikki Robinson

Professor Wynne Harlen – teacher, researcher, and science education author

Nominated by: Dr. Anne Forbes

"I was introduced to Wynne’s work by my Ph.D. supervisor (Keith Skamp) and have found her 'big ideas' to be an ideal way to make sense of how and what to focus on in primary science education.

"Each of the 10 big ideas of science and the four ideas about science provides a learning progression framework that is clearly articulated and unmatched by any other resource I have encountered.

"Wynne's work shows how children’s science ideas about the world arise and develop over time and how children's and teachers' questions can be used to understand their thinking and to initiate hands-on investigations to clarify understandings.

"I have found Wynne’s work to be inspirational and have used her ideas extensively in my teaching and writing. Her research promotes inquiry-based learning in science education, a premise that underpins my own approach to primary science education, while her lifelong dedication as a teacher, researcher, and author models what I hope to achieve in some small way."

Dr. Anne Forbes is a Senior Lecturer in STEM Education at Macquarie School of Education and co-author of STEM Education in the Primary School: A Teacher's Toolkit. She has written for journals including Early Education and Development, the European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, and Educational Media International.

Cover of Teaching of Science in Primary Schools book by Wynne Harlen

Wynne Harlen is author of The Teaching of Science in Primary Schools

Wynne Harlen is author of The Teaching of Science in Primary Schools

Headshot of Dr. Anne Forbes

Dr. Anne Forbes

Dr. Anne Forbes

Dr. Frances Hoggan – medical practitioner, researcher, and social reformer

Nominated by: Professor Emma Smith

"Dr. Frances Hoggan was born in Brecon in 1843 and, as women were not permitted to study medicine in the U.K., completed her studies in Zurich.

"In 1870, she became the first British woman to receive a doctorate in medicine from any European University. She returned to the U.K. where, through her research and practice, she specialized in women’s and children’s diseases.

"In addition to her medical career, Frances Hoggan was a passionate advocate for secondary education for girls in Wales, particularly in the sciences. As a social reformer, her work also took her to South Africa, India, and the U.S., where she campaigned for civil rights.

"Today, the Learned Society of Wales awards the Hoggan Medal to celebrate the contribution to STEM of outstanding women with a connection to Wales."

Professor Emma Smith is Head of the Department of Education Studies at the University of Warwick. She researches social justice issues in education, and regularly publishes her research in journals including the Oxford Review of Education, the British Journal of Educational Studies, and Educational Review.

Black and white headshot of Dr. Frances Hoggan

Dr. Frances Hoggan

Dr. Frances Hoggan

Headshot of Professor Emma Smith

Professor Emma Smith

Professor Emma Smith

Dr. Laura Bix – medical packaging design and policy expert

Nominated by: Jennifer Benolken

"Laura Bix has been omnipresent in the medical device packaging industry through numerous advances in science that she and her students have made.

"Laura has taught many of today's leaders and new entrants to the industry through coursework at Michigan State University (MSU), instilling in them a love of packaging, but more specifically, a love of medical device packaging.

"Laura's research and curiosity compels her to talk about, in her words, 'big, wicked packaging problems,' and in talking about them, she challenges industry (and herself) to find the answers and solutions to them.

"Laura and her work are inspiring and trendsetting."

Jennifer Benolken is a medical device manufacturing and regulatory specialist at Dupont, and the editor of the upcoming 3rd edition of the Medical Device Packaging Handbook. She's sub-committee chairperson for ASTM F02.50 on Package Design and Development, co-chair of AAMI's ST/WG 7 Packaging Working Group, chair of the Institute of Packaging Professionals (IoPP) Medical Device Packaging Technical Committee (MDPTC), and board member of IoPP.

Headshot of Dr. Laura Bix

Dr. Laura Bix

Dr. Laura Bix

Headshot Jennifer Benolken

Jennifer Benolken

Jennifer Benolken

Professor Deirdre Butler – digital learning expert

Nominated by: Professor Hamsa Venkat

"Professor Deirdre Butler's work over more than two decades has focused on digital learning.

"She was an early adopter of the constructionist approach of Seymour Papert, and has initiated a number of projects that have made coding and computational thinking activities accessible to teachers and students.

"In Ireland, this work includes the setting up of a Lego education suite and Minecraft studio for pre-service teacher education students; a STEM teacher internships program; and work via the Irish Girl Guides network on setting up and running Lego league competitions, in which over 700 regional teams have now participated. The coding and computational thinking work with Lego kits has been influential in increasing girls' participation in STEM

"Deirdre has also led several EU projects focused on conceptualizations of STEM and approaches for practical incorporation of STEM in education, and offered expert input into several countries' digital education and STEM curriculum offerings. And she is widely published!"

Professor Hamsa Venkat is the Naughton Family Chair in Early Years/Primary STEM Education in the School for STEM Education, Innovation, and Global Studies at Dublin City University. Her research focuses on primary mathematics teaching, learning, curriculum, and policy. Books she has co-edited include Early Grade Mathematics in South Africa and several journal articles. She is an Associate Editor for the Educational Studies in Mathematics journal.

Shot of Professor Deirdre Butler delivering a lecture

Professor Deirdre Butler (photo by Kyran O'Brien/DCU)

Professor Deirdre Butler (photo by Kyran O'Brien/DCU)

Professor Hamsa Venkat delivering a lecture

Professor Hamsa Venkat (photo by Kyran O'Brien/DCU)

Professor Hamsa Venkat (photo by Kyran O'Brien/DCU)

Professor Jill Adler – mathematics educator

Nominated by: Professor Zanele Ngcobo

"I consider Professor Jill Adler to be a leading scholar in mathematics education research, as well as a great mentor and leader. I am saying this because of the kind of research she does that impacts practice.

"One example of that is the Wits Maths Connect project. In many mathematics education conferences I have attended, I have come across upcoming researchers who are a product of this project.

"The other highlight of this project is that it interacts directly with people on the ground – the teachers – and it's one project that not only impacts teaching and learning, but also impacts policy.

"Learning about this project prompted me to initiate a project called Error Analysis, which was a collaboration of three institutions in the province of KwaZulu Natal. It ignited in me the need to focus on teacher development.

"The work of Professor Adler also ignited in me the love of working with teachers and pre-service teachers to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics. That is why I consider her my role model.

"When I met her in 2014, I was taken by her humbleness. Her willingness to work with me as a postdoc, although I was still a junior lecturer and a researcher, showed her selflessness and desire to mentor the new generation of academics.

"Although I ended up not taking the postdoc position, and never worked with her directly, I strongly believe that Professor Adler is one of the few women in STEM who is doing research that directly improves teaching and learning.

"Not many women have been awarded both the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) Gold Medal for Science in the Service of Society and the Freudenthal Award. These awards are a testimony to her caliber of not only being a well-known scholar, but grooming the upcoming generation of scholars too.

"Being elected President of the ICMI (International Commission on Mathematical Instruction) is a testimony to her leadership qualities."

Professor Zanele Ngcobo is Academic Leader for Bachelor of Education Honours and Postgraduate Diploma in the School of Education, Mathematics Education Cluster at the University of Kwazulu-Natal. She specializes in error analysis and mathematical knowledge for teaching and teacher development. She has published her research in journals including South African Journal of Education and the International Journal of Learning in Higher Education.

Headshot of Professor Jill Adler

Professor Jill Adler

Professor Jill Adler

Headshot of Professor Zanele Ngcobo

Professor Zanele Ngcobo

Professor Zanele Ngcobo

Professor Sue Black OBE – computer scientist and technology evangelist

Nominated by: Kira Summers

"I find Professor Sue Black of Durham University an inspiration.

"She describes herself as a technology evangelist. She's a writer and public speaker, and famously campaigned to save Bletchley Park. She works for charity and founded BCSWomen, which is the U.K.’s first online network for women in tech.

"I especially like that she followed a less conventional path to Professorship, starting university as a single parent at 25.

"Now she is a champion for women in computing, and is the Deputy President of the British Computer Society."

Kira Summers is a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader in the School of Computing and Digital Technology at Birmingham City University. Her research interests include blockchain and creative technologies. She's the author of the book Understanding Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies.

Headshot of Professor Sue Black

Professor Sue Black (photo by Ali Tollervey)

Professor Sue Black (photo by Ali Tollervey)

Headshot of Kira Summers

Kira Summers

Kira Summers

Professor Emeritus Marissa Rollnick – chemistry educator

Nominated by: Dr. Shalini Dukhan

"Professor Rollnick is a renowned leader, both as a researcher and lecturer, within the field of chemistry and chemistry education.

"Among other accolades, this is evidenced internationally by the NARST Distinguished Contribution to Science Education Research Award that she received in 2018, and nationally through her NRF (National Research Foundation) rating.

"But, what stands out foremost for me is her distinctive care for the academic progress of postgraduates and early-career academics in Science Education.

"Professor Rollnick always made personal contact and knew the names of each Ph.D. student who entered into Science Education at Wits University. Whenever we came within eyeshot, we knew she would follow up on our progress while being well aware of the stage that each student was at for their study, regardless of whether or not she was the supervisor.

"In my transition from a Ph.D. graduate to an early-career academic, Professor Rollnick made accessible opportunities for me and others to attend conferences and publish alongside her. This was an invaluable experience in developing our foundations as academics as we learned the ropes in academia. 

"She never failed to introduce new postgraduates to her wide network of peers so that we could start to develop collaborations within the new territory that we needed to navigate.

"She also encouraged all developing science educators to attend Ph.D. weekends, which enabled them to find a family of support during this journey. Even today, as a mid-career academic, I find myself gravitating toward Professor Rollnick for her motherly guidance, which is stoked by her straightforward, candid mannerism.

"Professor Rollnick is just as widely cherished within our national contexts for her rendition of music and dance, as she brings people together to celebrate at the annual SAARMSTE conference. The emotional and social support that she generously provides, together with her practical advice for the development of academics, is a rare gem in academia.

"She is a great inspirational role model who illustrates that, while being a trailblazer, you can still ignite and nurture the fire within others."

Dr. Shalini Dukhan is a senior lecturer in the School of Animal, Plant, and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand. She specializes in cell biology and science education, and publishes her research in journals including the African Journal of Research in Mathematics and Educational and Developmental Psychologist.

Headshot of Professor Emeritus Marissa Rollnick

Professor Emeritus Marissa Rollnick

Professor Emeritus Marissa Rollnick

Headshot of Dr. Shalini Dukhan

Dr. Shalini Dukhan

Dr. Shalini Dukhan

Dr. Barbara McClintock – geneticist 

Nominated by: Maryann Stimmer

"Barbara McClintock received a Nobel Prize for Medicine (the only woman to have an unshared Nobel Prize). However, she is rarely given credit for providing the foundation for work in genetics that changed the world.

"Watson and Crick are given credit for discovering the Double Helix, but their work was based on hers. Her study of maize is the basis of understanding genetic recombination during meiosis, and the first genetic map for maize. Later in life, James Watson gave her credit for her 'genetic insights.'

"She was an early proponent of feminist perspectives in STEM, although she claimed to not be a feminist. 

"When she became a member of the National Academy of Science [in 1944] and was congratulated, her response was, 'It was both thoughtful and generous of you to write me as you did concerning the National Academy. I must admit I was stunned. Women ... are accustomed to discrimination and don’t expect much. I am not a feminist, but I am always gratified when illogical barriers are broken.'

"She was discriminated against because she was a woman in science, and eventually stopped publishing her work because it was considered 'suspect' because of her gender.

"It didn’t stop her research though, and her groundbreaking work has informed the field of genetics for decades."

Maryann Stimmer is Senior Technical Advisor for STEM Programs at FHI 360, a non-profit that partners with governments and organizations to bring about positive social change and provide quality education. She's co-author of the article "Investigating the importance of girls’ mathematical identity within United States STEM programmes."

Headshot of Dr. Barbara McClintock in black and white

Dr. Barbara McClintock

Dr. Barbara McClintock

Jill S. Tietjen, PE – electrical engineer

Nominated by: Dr. Pamela Norris

"Jill is a strong advocate for the participation of women and girls in the STEM fields. She dedicates significant time to nominate women for awards and halls of fame, seeking to ensure the contributions of women are visible.

"Her advocacy has taken many forms: publications, speaking, and mentoring. She advocates for women and girls to explore and pursue knowledge and careers in STEM fields, ensuring girls comprehend how this could help them realize their dreams.

"This advocacy brings awareness to cultures that may not see themselves pursuing technical careers. She has inspired many women – me included – to pursue careers and achieve at the highest level."

Dr. Pamela Norris is the Vice Provost for Research at George Washington University. She's recognized globally as a leading expert in nanoscale heat transfer, especially interfacial thermal transport with a focus on thermal management across a range of length scales. She's Editor-in-Chief of Nanoscale and Microscale Thermophysical Engineering.

Headshot of Jill S. Tietjen, PE

Jill S. Tietjen, PE

Jill S. Tietjen, PE

Headshot of Dr. Pamela Norris

Dr. Pamela Norris

Dr. Pamela Norris

Professor Béatrice Daille – computer scientist

Nominated by: Dr. Claudia Lanza

"I’m glad to give you the name of Professor Béatrice Daille from the University of Nantes in France, with whom I spent one year and a half during my Ph.D. period abroad.

"She's an excellent scientist in NLP [natural language processing] and a great person who always supports the academic advances."

Dr. Claudia Lanza is a Research Fellow at the University of Calabria in the Department of Culture, Education, and Society. She's the author of Semantic Control for the Cybersecurity Domain. Her research interests cover information science, librarianship, semantic indexing, and classification.

Headshot of Dr. Claudia Lanza

Dr. Claudia Lanza

Dr. Claudia Lanza

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