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Article by: Erin Carpenter

In Celebration of International Women’s Day: 8 Inspirational Female Scientists


March 8th is International Women’s Day. In recognition, we are highlighting the extraordinary achievements of 8 female scientists who made significant contributions to the field of human genetics, and altered our view of the world forever. These women prove that with hard work, tenacity and good scientific method, anything is possible. We sincerely hope you are as inspired by this short list as we were: Enjoy.

Marie Curie, neé Sklodowska (1867-1934)

Marie Curie is likely one of the most famous female scientists and best known for her pioneering research on radioactivity; a term she coined.1 She is the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize: the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. The award was shared with her husband Pierre Curie, and Antoine Henri Bacquerel "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel".2 She was the first person, and only woman so far, to win a second Nobel Prize (and in a different field of science): the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element".3 Her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie was also a Nobel Laureate.4

Nettie Maria Stevens (1861-1912)

Nettie Maria Stevens was an early American geneticist that discovered the XY sex-determination system. Her research illustrated that males and females have different chromosomes (XX versus XY) and her legacy provides critical evidence for the fundamental inheritance theory.5 Thomas H. Morgan, who received the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his discoveries concerning the role played by the chromosome in heredity",6 wrote an obituary for Nettie Marie Stevens in the journal of Science saying: “Her single-mindedness and devotion, combined with keen powers of observation; her thoughtfulness and patience, united to a well-balanced judgment, account, in part, for her remarkable accomplishment.”7

Rita Levi Montalcini (1909-2012)

Rita Levi Montalcini was born in Italy, and exhibited an indomitable will to continue her research in the face of extreme prejudice. After graduating from the University of Turin and continuing to work as an academic assistant, in 1938 she was dismissed due to Benito Mussolini’s Manifesto of Race and newly created laws barring those of Jewish descent from academic careers. Resilient by nature, during WWII she set up a laboratory in her bedroom and conducted a series of experiments that would form the groundwork for her most profound discovery.8 In 1986 she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Stanley Cohen "for their discoveries of growth factors". Rita Levi Montalcini lived to the age of 103 and is the longest living Nobel Laureate to date.9

"Above all, don't fear difficult moments. The best comes from them." -Rita Levi-Montalcini.

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992)

Barbara McClintock was a pioneer in the field of cytogenetics and devoted her life to science. She provided the first experimental proof that genes were positioned on chromosomes. Further, she discovered what she termed “jumping genes”, which are now known as transposable elements; DNA sequences able to change position within a genome.10 She was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "for her discovery of mobile genetic elements".11

"If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off... no matter what they say." -Barbara McClintock

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958)

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was an x-ray crystallographer and chemist that made significant contributions to understanding the structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal and graphite.12 Her most notable contribution to genetics occurred at King’s College London in 1951 when her data (Photo 51) was used to decipher the double-helical structure of DNA; a seminal discovery that James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for.13 Unfortunately, the Nobel Prize can not be awarded posthumously and Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer a few years earlier.

Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience, and experiment.” -Rosalind Elsie Franklin

Ruth Sager (1918-1997)

Unlike many scientists that focus on one area of research, the American geneticist Ruth Sager made significant contributions to both non-Mendelian modes of inheritance, as well as cancer genetics. She provided the first experimental evidence of cytoplasmic genetics; the transmission of genetic traits not involved with the nucleus. Later in her career she became an innovator in the area of cancer genetics; discovering and investigating the roles of tumour suppressor genes.14

Martha Chase, neé Epstein (1927-2003)

Martha Chase was an American geneticist who co-discovered the genetic material of life. Working with bacteriophage expert Alfred Hershey in 1952, they conducted a series of experiments that confirmed DNA, not protein, was the genetic material responsible for inherited traits. These experiments are famously known as the Hershey-Chase Experiments.15 Alfred Hershey shared the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Max Delbrück and Salvador Luria "for their discoveries concerning the replication mechanism and the genetic structure of viruses".16

Elizabeth H. Blackburn (b. 1948)

Elizabeth Blackburn was born in Australia. She discovered that telomeres have a specific repeating sequence and that telomerase produces telomeres’ DNA. She shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Carol Greider and Jack Szostack "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase".17 Telomere length can be used as a biomarker of cellular age,18 and with study topics involving telomeres ranging from longevity to cancer currently being published, the true extent of the significance of her findings have yet to be etched in history.

Have we missed one of your role models or mentors? Whittling down our list to include only 8 inspirational female scientists was tough. 

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