By: Suruchi Ramanujan '20
Medical professional and feminist Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American university. Although initially opposed to studying medicine, Blackwell turned to the physician profession after hearing about the mistreatment of women in the hospital from a close friend who while dying claimed that she would have had a greater chance of survival if her physician were a woman. Following this encounter, Blackwell abandoned her “feminine” job as a teacher and pursued her studies to become a physician. With the help of two physician friends, she was accepted into Geneva Medical College, an all-male school as a joke, where she pursued her M.D. until completion two years later. While this entrance could easily be deemed a success, she pursued further in the medical field, combatting the inherent sexism within the student body and teaching staff. Blackwell was forced to sit separate from her male counterparts and was frequently excluded from labs. Physicians often shunned her, but ultimately she completed her degree, ranking first in the class. Even following this success, patients and doctors felt uncomfortable with Blackwell treating them, regardless of her superiority as a physician. With much resistance from the global community, Blackwell created a hygiene initiative for those in poverty, opening a small clinic to treat the poor and educate women about the importance of feminine hygiene. At the same time, she combined her interests of medicine and educating the public to become a proponent of women pursuing medicine, demanding equality in the career world.
By: Nike Izmaylov '19
Anyone who has used a computer program has encountered a bug—an error in the program, a ghost in the machine. Though the term debugging had been in use long before a certain incident, perhaps the first literal case of debugging arrived at the wings of a moth trapped in a Mark II relay. After being unable to determine the computer’s malfunction for some time, the researchers at the Virginia laboratory were quite surprised to remove an actual bug from the computer; among them was Grace Brewster Murray Hopper, computer scientist extraordinaire.
An intelligent woman and incredible programmer, Grace Hopper created the first compiler for any computer programming language, introducing the very idea of compilers upon which programming now depends. Here at Harvard University, she gained a position as one of the original researchers on the Mark I computer, where she was the only woman on the team. A prominent figure in the computer world during the entirety of her career, Grace Hopper invented the FLOW-MATIC programming language, which she and her associates later refined into the Common Business-Orientated Language. “Grandma COBOL” helped the language become the most widely-used programming language in business even today. While many still coded in machine or assembly at the time, Grace Hopper believed that computer languages should be written more closely to plain English to assist in coding and in teaching new programmers. This philosophy permeated through the computer world and has inspired—and continues to inspire—the development of higher-level programming languages and tools that make the process less daunting than ever before.
Her accomplishments do not end at the computer. Over the course of her lifetime, Grace Hopper received nearly fifty degrees or honorary degrees from a variety of institutions worldwide. Her dedication and flawless service in the United States Navy led to her promotion to the prestigious position of rear admiral. Grace Hopper additionally received a full gamut of awards, from the Legion of Merit to the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. In 1969, she was the first woman awarded the Data Processing Management Association Man of the Year award, and in 1973, she became the first female Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. 1987 saw her receive the very first Computer History Museum Fellow Award in American history. Many institutions in the United States and beyond have computer labs, streets, and even supercomputers—a Cray XC-30 model at the University of Maryland-College Park—named after this amazing woman.
A lasting testament to the ability of woman to contribute to computer science, the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing assists aspiring computer scientists and showcases the research and endeavours of women in computing. Without Grace Hopper to break down the doors, spearhead efforts like this one and others may not exist at all.
As for the moth that bugged her computer? It resides, preserved, in the National Museum of American History alongside a note from the Mark II research team about the first case of literal debugging. Next time your compiler chokes, perhaps you can blame Grace Hopper’s fluttery friends instead.
By: Anna Laws
The South Pole was discovered in 1911. The first female scientists arrived in 1969. For the almost six decades in between, it was preposterous to consider women making the arduous journey to the Pole. The US navy refused to even transport women to the continent, citing concerns for their hygiene and safety. Although a few ladies from other nations had stepped foot on Antarctica, certainly none had travelled the almost one thousand miles between the two key US stations linking the coast with the South Pole itself.
Women making such a journey just wasn't the done thing. The men already present on the continent were quite content to retain a boys' club. Popular opinion held that women simply couldn't handle the harsh climate. Icy winds complement temperatures that never rise above a frigid +7.5F. The entire winter is cast into darkness, and even the perpetual daytime of summer can bring danger. Any sunlight that doesn't hit the travellers directly can still reflect off the white plains for a second attack. This brightness can cause blindness. Despite this, Antarctica is a valuable research area and well worth the journey.
In the late sixties, two major changes cleared the way for women to finally travel to the South Pole. Firstly, the US navy lifted its transport restrictions in the face of increased women's rights awareness. Soon after, the NSF welcomed proposals from female science teams wishing to research the area. Immediately an all-female group of geologists led by Dr. Lois Jones seized the opportunity. Along with a biologist and a journalist already present on the ice, they were flown out to the Pole. The six women chose to march together from the plane to share the historical significance of being the first woman to walk on the South Pole.
Today researchers live and work on the continent, using the unique location to their advantage. For instance the grim isolation is perfectly suited for the BICEP2 experiment, poised to feel the tiniest tremors caused by gravitational waves yet escaping false signals arising from the rumble of nearby traffic and other urban difficulties. The long nights are ideal for observing the skies, with the South Pole Telescope and Keck Array currently scanning the Cosmic Microwave Background (the fingerprints of the Big Bang). And where else could we watch emperor penguins going about their daily business?
This summer an expedition of seventy-eight female scientists lived on Antarctica to research the impact of climate change, with a broad range of represented disciplines including astronomers, engineers, and doctors. Connecting these disciplines shows that part of the magic of Antarctica is in its power of unification. May the legacy of those first six women continue!
Final ScientisTalk of the Semester!
When: 4/25, 6-70pm
Where: Lowell Small Dining Hall
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