Depending on someone’s age and exposure, when they hear the word ‘scientist’ they may automatically picture a man. But the number of women in science continues to rise, and with it that preconception will likely diminish. How quickly is it changing? The National Science Foundation says that 43 percent of scientist and engineers under the age of 75 are women. If you look at those under the age of 29 and that number jumps to 56% – more than half!
Though women are only now starting to be assume a significant (and even majority) number of roles in science, that is not to say that they have not previously made contributions. Some of the most groundbreaking work in neurology has been done by women, and many of the tests and syndromes that today’s neurologists rely on and diagnose are named for the women who first discovered them.
Patricia S. Goldman-Rakic – Goldman-Rakic is a professor of neurobiology, neurology and psychiatry at Yale University who is best known for her studies which proved that damage to neural circuitry such as seen following substance abuse derails thinking, leading to the confusion and distraction seen in conditions such as Parkinson’s, childhood attention-deficit disorder and Alzheimer’s. Goldman-Rakic refers to the prefrontal cortex’ persistent firing of neutrons as the “glue of consciousness” that allows our brains to connect events in our working memory.
Elizabeth Gould – Gould is a professor of psychology at Princeton University who is best known for proving that the brain consists of both cells that die and regenerated cells that form in the hippocampus and then go on to form new memories. She is also noted for her groundbreaking work [reference link no longer available] on how environment affects the structure of the brain.
May Britt-Moser – Britt-Moser is a Norwegian psychologist and neuroscientist who is founding director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience and Center for the Biology of Memory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Together with collaborating scientists, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 for research on how the brain represents space. She and her co-researchers discovered cells close to the hippocampus that guide the way the brain represents objects’ position. She has been referred to as the “queen of neuroscience.”
Suzanne Corkin – Corkin was a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory. She is famous for her work with a patient, H.M. who was unable to build new memories after submitting to brain surgery to control epileptic seizures. Her work led to the discovery that the hippocampus is where long-term memory is consolidated. She also was instrumental in the modern understanding of the impact of head injuries and the biology of diseases like Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease. (Washington Post)
Anita Harding – Harding was a neurologist and professor of clinical neurology at the Institute of Neurology at the University of London who has been credited with numerous groundbreaking discoveries. She was among the first neurologists who combined her clinical work with the study of genetics, and used that focus to create and validate diagnostic criteria for neurological disorders that her work later helped to identify as being rooted in genetics. She also was the first to associate human disease with mutations of the mitochondrial genome.
Rita Levi-Montalcini – Levi-Montalcini was an Italian whose path to studying neurology was blocked during World War II when Mussolini blocked Jews’ entrance to medical school. Instead of giving in she did her own research in her bedroom, where she grew nerve fibers in chick embryos. This early, primitive work led to her eventual isolation of nerve growth cells. When asked why she chose to be a scientist, she said, “The love for nerve cells, a thirst for unveiling the rules which control their growth and differentiation, and the pleasure of performing this task in defiance of the racial laws issued in 1939 by the Fascist regime were the driving forces which opened the doors for me of the ‘Forbidden City.’” She was the third woman ever awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. (NIH)
Cécile Vogt-Mugnier – Vogt-Mugnier was a French neurologist who largely did her research in Germany. She and her husband Oskar’s breakthrough research revealed what had previously been unknown about the structure of the brain and the role that each of its regions plays. They created the first map of the cortex and the thalamus and pursued some of the most critical anatomic work on brain structures on which the rest of the field relies today. The couple established the Cécile and Oskar Vogt Institute for Brain Research, which still has one of the world’s largest collections of brain samples. (The Lancet)
Marian Cleeves Diamond – Cleeves Diamond was a professor emerita of integrative biology at the University of California at Berkeley. Though she is considered one of the founders of modern neuroscience, she is perhaps best known for her study of Albert Einstein’s brain. Her research, both on the renowned genius’ brain and with laboratory animals, provided important evidence that experience and enrichment make physical changes to the brain’s structure, and that by contrast environments without those factors can have a negative impact on the ability to learn (Wall Street Journal).