Phenomenal San Diego women in science and research – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Posted: May 17, 2020 at 6:48 pm


The San Diego Union-Tribune and the Womens Museum of California are celebrating a century of female achievement in San Diego to mark the 100th year of womens suffrage in America.

The second installment of this series pays tribute to pioneering female scientists and researchers who pushed boundaries in exploring our world and beyond and helped cultivate new generations of curious thinkers.

Spotlighted is Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space, who encouraged girls interest in science with her namesake educational program, Sally Ride Science, based at UC San Diego. Here are 11 other women in science and research you should know.

Margaret Burbidge

(U-T file)

A lot of people told Margaret Burbidge she was invading a mans world in the late 1930s when she took her first steps toward becoming an astronomer. She was undeterred even though many key telescopes were off-limits to women. Burbidge pushed through the sexism and became one of the most influential astronomers of her era, largely due to her insights about the chemical composition of stars. Her work helped scientists figure out how stars are made and earned her the nickname Lady Stardust. She also helped to develop the Hubble Space Telescope. And in 1962, she became a founding faculty member at UC San Diego, where she continued research that would later earn her the National Medal of Science. Burbidge died on April 5 at the age of 100.

Karen Nelson

(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Karen Nelson was an early bloomer. At age 7, she joined fellow students in studying how nutrients and sunlight affect the growth of plants. The experiment stoked her interest in science. She went on to become a Cornell-trained physiologist who specializes in the study of the human microbiome the genetic material found in all of the micro-organisms that live in and on our bodies. Nelson led the first group of scientists in publishing the first major paper on the human microbiome. The paper spotlighted an obscure area of research that is now regarded as indispensable to understanding and treating everything from diabetes to multiple sclerosis to depression. Nelson today serves as president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, the renowned research center in La Jolla.

The UC San Diego graduate floated out of an airlock and into history in October as a member of the first all-female team of spacewalkers. The 42 year-old astronaut achieved the fete from the International Space Station, during a six-month mission in which she also conducted research thats meant to help astronauts stay safe and healthy on trips to the moon and Mars. Meir also became a popular host of space-to-Earth broadcast interviews, including an especially poignant one with TV host Stephen Colbert. And she appeared on camera to give earthlings who were sheltering at home from the coronavirus lots of advice about how to live in isolation. Her future could be even brighter she is among the astronauts NASA will consider as crew members for missions to the moon.

Ellen Ochoa

(Cindy Lubke Romero/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Theres a word that often appears immediately after Ellen Ochoas name: first. In 1991, she became the worlds first Hispanic female astronaut. Two years later, she became the first Hispanic woman to travel in space, streaking into orbit aboard the shuttle Discovery. In 1999, she was a member of the first shuttle crew to dock with the International Space Station. In 2013 Ochoa, who grew up in La Mesa and graduated from San Diego State University, became the first Hispanic to be appointed director of NASAs Johnson Space Center. In 2017, she was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. A year later, she retired from NASA, capping a career that spanned nearly three decades.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer

(Evening Tribune)

When it was founded in 1960, UC San Diego quickly hired a handful of renowned professors to signal other faculty that La Jolla was the place to be. The first recruits included Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a German-born theoretical physicist whose discoveries about the nucleus of atoms would help revolutionize everything from weaponry to power generation. Her contribution earned her a share of the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics. She was the first woman in the U.S. to win that prize. The San Diego Union-Tribune responded with a now-infamous headline: S.D. Mother Wins Nobel Physics Prize. Fifty-five years would pass before another woman won the Nobel in physics.

Olivia Graeve

(Courtesy of UC San Diego)

When astronauts return to the moon, they may be flying in a spacecraft made safer by Olivia Graeve. The UC San Diego engineer designs new materials that are meant to withstand extreme environments. She developed and tested an extraordinarily strong type of steel, providing a possible material for everything from spacecraft to body armor. The work occurs at the Cali-Baja Center for Resilient Materials and Systems, which Graeve founded after she became UCSDs first Latina engineering professor. In the summer, the Tijuana native also brings students from Mexico and the U.S. to campus to conduct research, helping cultivate new generations of engineers.

Flossie Wong-Staal

(Koji Sasahara/AP)

Its impossible to count how many lives shes saved, but the number is enormous. Flossie Wong-Staal helped identify the cause of AIDS in 1983 while working at the National Cancer Institute. A short time later, she became the first scientist to clone HIV, then finished mapping the virus genetically. In 1990, Wong-Staal joined the UC San Diego faculty, doing landmark research that has helped fight HIV/AIDS. She also helped turn UCSDs Center for AIDS Research into a research power, and greatly advanced the field of gene therapy. The Chinese-American virologist retired from UCSD in 2002 but has remained active in science and was inducted into the National Womens Hall of Fame in 2019.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

(Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Not long ago, the wondrous Caribbean island of Barbuda did little to protect its coral reefs and manage its fish populations. Today it does a great deal through programs that Ayana Elizabeth Johnson helped to shape after she earned a doctorate at UC San Diegos Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It was a first step in her rapid rise as an influential voice in sustainable fishing and ocean conservation. Johnson went on to found and lead Ocean Collectiv, a La Jolla conservation consultancy. She also founded the Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank that helps coastal cities. And she played a key role in organizing the 2017 March for Science, which drew more than 1 million participants worldwide.

Balboa Park is so lush its hard to believe it was once a bland patch of land. Many people infused it with life. But none were more important than Kate Sessions, a botanist and horticulturalist who leased part of the park as a growing field in the late 1800s. Sessions planted a variety of trees, ranging from oak to cypress to eucalyptus. She also brought in jacaranda, and helped found the San Diego Floral Association. Her work earned Sessions the nickname Mother of Balboa Park. The honor was about more than beauty. Sessions also studied plants and chronicled how they grew and changed, bringing her worldwide attention in the scientific community. In 1939, the year before she died, the American Genetic Association honored Sessions with the Frank N. Meyer medal, one of the most coveted honors in plant genetics.

Shirley Meng

(David Baillot/UCSD)

Everyone knows that batteries die. But were you aware that they first become sick? Thats the word that Shirley Meng uses to describe what happens when batteries stop holding a charge. It is a poorly understood process. But Meng has been making important discoveries about the phenomenon at UC San Diego, where she is director of the Sustainable Power and Energy Center. Meng, a nano-engineer, specializes in creating new tools and techniques for visualizing, in real-time, whats happening as a battery fails. Her work is meant to improve everything from smartphone service to the range of self-driving cars. Meng who is known as the battery doctor also founded Super 8 Technologies, a company that is developing battery technology that could be used by the military and in space exploration.

Carol Padden

(Sandy Huffaker)

Some linguists used to pointedly question whether American Sign Language, or ASL, is a genuine language. Padden helped establish that ASL is not only legitimate, but that it is a very precise, complex and expressive way of communicating. Padden, who is deaf, has done similar work on Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. Shes made her contributions as a linguistics researcher and communications professor at UC San Diego. She also is dean of the Division of Social Sciences, UCSDs largest program. In 2010, Padden was honored for her work by being named a MacArthur Genius Fellow. She continues to operate a research lab, something rarely done by high-ranking university administrators.

Sources: UC San Diego, San Diego State University, NASA, J. Craig Venter Institute, Wikipedia, MacArthur Foundation, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune

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Phenomenal San Diego women in science and research - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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