This woman is playing a flute in what appears to be a cockpit. But why are her feet strapped to the floor? And why is her hair standing on end? The woman in the photo is astronaut Ellen Ochoa, Ph.D., and she’s playing her flute aboard the space shuttle Discovery. The straps prevent her from floating into the air in the zero-gravity ship. The lack of gravity also explains her hairdo. In addition to being an astronaut who has flown several space missions, Dr. Ochoa is a leading research scientist and an inventor with several patents to her credit.
Biases Against Women and People of Color
Dr. Ochoa is one of just a few dozen female astronauts in the U.S. She is also the first Hispanic woman in the world to go into space. Although females make up more than half of the U.S. population, fewer than 25 percent of U.S. astronauts are women. Women are also under-represented in science, especially physical sciences such as chemistry and physics. What explains this?
Throughout history, women—and also people of color of both genders—have rarely had the same chances as white males for education and careers in science. Cultural, social, and economic biases have made it far harder for them than for white males to excel in this area. This explains why there have been fewer scientists among their ranks.
Contributions of Women and People of Color
Despite their relative lack of opportunities, women and people of color have made many important contributions to science. Several have won Nobel prizes for their discoveries. Just a few of their contributions to physical science are presented in the Table below.
Marie Curie (1867–1934)
|Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize—and she won two of them! She won the 1903 Nobel prize for physics for her discovery of radiation. She won the 1911 Nobel prize for chemistry for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium.|
C. V. Raman (1888–1970)
|C. V. Raman was an Indian scientist who won the 1930 Nobel prize for physics. He made important discoveries about how light travels through transparent materials. He was also made a knight of the British Empire for his work.|
Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906–1972)
|Maria Goeppert-Mayer was a German-born American scientist who won the 1963 Nobel prize for physics. She helped to develop a new model of the nucleus of the atom. She was just the second woman to win a Nobel prize for physics, after Marie Curie.|
Ada E. Yonath (1939–present)
|Ada E. Yonath was a co-winner of the 2009 Nobel prize in chemistry. She made important discoveries about ribosomes, the structures in living cells where proteins are made.|
|Mario Molina (1943–present)||Mario Molina is a Mexican-born scientist who won the 1995 Nobel prize for chemistry. He helped to discover how the ozone layer in the atmosphere is being destroyed by pollution. He has received more than 18 honorary degrees for his contributions and even has an asteroid named after him.|
- Cultural, social, and economic biases have made it far harder for women and people of color than for white males to excel in science. This explains why there have been fewer scientists among their ranks.
- Despite their relative lack of opportunities, women and people of color have made many important contributions to science, and several have won Nobel prizes for their discoveries.
- What factors explain why women and people of color are underrepresented in science?
- Identify two female scientists and state their contributions to science.
Watch this video about three young female scientists at NASA, and then answer the questions below.
- What are some of the contributions that the three NASA scientists have made to science and engineering?
- What advice do the three scientists give to girls who want to become scientists or engineers?