Throughout history, women have made significant contributions in fields ranging from economics and civil engineering to yes, you guessed it, science. For example, Ada Lovelace wrote what is considered the world’s first computer code. Chemist Katharin Blodgett is credited with creating the world’s first clear glass. And on a hot, sunny day, you can thank Nancy Johnson for inventing the very first ice cream maker.

Since magnets play a major part in many scientific discoveries and innovations, and since we’re all about magnets, we’re highlighting a few of the many women in STEM magnetism, just in time for Women’s History Month.


Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

Dr. Shirley Ann JacksonEvery time you use your smart phone or play on your iPad, you can thank Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson. One of the first two Black American women to obtain a doctorate degree in physics in the United States, theoretical physicist Dr. Jackson’s work helped create the materials used in today’s computers, smart phones, and other electronics.

To understand Dr. Jackson’s work, you first need to understand electrons and semiconductors. You probably know that everything around you is made of molecules, and that molecules are made of atoms, and that inside atoms there are protons, neutrons, and electrons, the tiny, charged particles whose electrical charges line up to create a magnetic field.

Just like its name sounds, a semiconductor is a special material that semi – or somewhat – conducts an electrical current. Working in the top physics labs in the world, Dr. Jackson explored different ways to control electrons inside semiconductors and her discoveries made things like touch tone phones, caller ID, and call waiting possible.

Her contributions to science and technology were so important that she was named the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and served on Obama’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Donna Elbert

American applied mathematician, Donna Elbert, is proof that you don’t necessarily need advanced training to dive into deep problems.

With no formal training in math or even a university degree, Elbert spent more than 30 years conducting advanced analytical physics computations by hand for renowned astrophysicist Subramanyan Chadrasekhar. Serving as a human computer, Elbert worked side by side with Chandrasekhar, researching the magnetic fields of planets and it was she who recognized and calculated the consequences of the balance between planetary rotation, convection, and magnetic fields.

Chadrasekhar credited Elbert’s finding in his textbook, published in the 1960’s, but it is only recently that scientists and mathematicians have the computing power to calculate the scenarios Elbert observed. Her observations have been dubbed the Elbert range and physicists are still working through its ramifications today.

Chien-Shiung Wu

You may have seen the movie Oppenheimer, about the man who led the building of the atomic bomb as part of The Manhattan Project. What the movie didn’t tell you is that a Chinese American scientist named Chien-Shiung Wu also played a major part in The Manhattan Project.

Born in China in 1912, Wu taught herself algebra, geometry, and trigonometry and studied math and physics in college in China before moving to America to earn her Ph.D. physics at U.C. Berkeley. This is where she eventually presented her thesis on bremsstrahlung, a German term for the electromagnetic radiation that is produced by a sudden slowing of charged particles. Her work was so impressive that she was asked to join The Manhattan Project, where she solved a major nuclear reactor problem and built a Geiger counter designed to detect nuclear radiation levels.

Wu’s contributions to the study of beta decay are still referenced by nuclear physicists today. Wu’s intelligence and dedication to her field earned her positions that were not available to most women at the time; she is thought to be the only Chinese person to have worked on The Manhattan Project. Her groundbreaking and barrier breaking work earned her many awards, including the Wolf Prize in Physics, the Comstock Prize in Physics, and the National Medal of Science for Physical Science.

Myriam Sarachik

Belgian-born Myriam Sarachik spent her early years in a concentration camp in France before escaping to Cuba, where her family sought refuge while seeking entry into the United States. Sarachik studied physics at Barnard and later at Columbia, where she researched the reductive powers of Type-I superconducting films on magnetic fields. She went on to serve as a full professor at City College of New York.

Sarachik studied the effects of low temperatures on condensed matter properties, conducting some of her research near temperatures of absolute zero. She has been published extensively in professional journals on her work in superconductivity, disordered metallic alloys, metal-insulator transitions in doped semiconductors, hopping transport in solids, properties of strongly interacting electrons in two dimensions, and spin dynamics in molecular magnets.

The recipient of countless awards and fellowships, Sarachik served as President of the American Physical Society and on the council of the National Academy of Sciences. She was also an avid defender of the human rights of scientists.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind FranklinA baby with two parents with green eyes will always have green eyes, right? These findings – and other, more important genetic information – can be predicted thanks to Rosalind Franklin, the British chemist who discovered the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, aka DNA.

Franklin used X-ray diffraction to reveal this structure of complex molecules, a process that uses a crystal to diffract the X-ray wavelengths and reveal the geometry of a molecule. In addition to uncovering the structure of DNA, Franklin’s process contributed to our understanding of the structure of other complex molecules, including the molecules that make up magnetic materials as well as the first ever detailed molecular structure of a virus.

There’s also a bit of drama surrounding Franklin’s DNA discovery. Some people think that James Watson and Francis Crick, the two men credited for discovering the DNA double helix, or twisted structure of DNA, only made the discovery after being shown Franklin’s X-ray image – without her permission. As the old joke, which is not so funny, goes, “What did Watson and Crick discover in 1953? Franklin’s data!”

This Women’s History Month we honor these women, and so many others, who have worked tirelessly to break the gender barriers that existed in science in their day and make these meaningful contributions. Thanks to their work, girls and women today are free to work in any field they like – and to receive credit for their discoveries.