ALD22: Professor Irene C Peden, Electrical Engineer

Irene C Peden

Professor Irene C Peden

Irene C Peden is an electrical engineer who was the first woman scientist to live and work in the interior of the Antarctic, developing techniques for studying deep glacial ice using radio waves.

Born in 1925 in Topeka, Kansas, Peden graduated from the University of Colorado when she was 22 with a degree in electrical engineering, although she was often the only woman in her classes. She worked in industry as an engineer from 1947 to 1954, but returned to education to get a masters and PhD from Stanford University, becoming the first woman to get a doctorate in electrical engineering from them. She joined the electrical engineering faculty at the University of Washington in 1961, again the first woman to do so. She served as president of the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Society, and was awarded their “Man of the Year” award. She was promoted to a professor in 1971, associate dean in 1973, and associate chair of the department in 1983.

She visited the Antarctic in 1970 to investigate the electrical characteristics of glacial ice, becoming the first female engineer or scientist to carry out research there. Because of the US Navy’s prohibition on women travelling alone to Antarctica, she had to find another woman to go with her but the New Zealand geophysicist who was supposed to join her failed her physical. Instead, a Christchurch librarian Julia Vickers, who was also an alpinist, took the job.

Three years earlier, the US Army Cold Regions Research Laboratories had drilled a 2.16km hole in the ice, and Pedersen lowered a probe 1.67km into the hole to study how very low frequency radio waves travelled through the ice. Her instruments also measured the electrical properties of the ice.

Because of the Navy’s scepticism of women, Peden was told that if she didn’t produce and publish robust scientific results, they would not allow other women to travel to Antarctica. Peden’s experiments were successful, and she expanded her work to measure the thickness of the ice sheets, and used very high frequency radio waves to discover structures under the ice. In 1979, she spent the whole winter at the South Pole, again the first woman to do so.

In 1993, she was named the National Science Foundation’s Engineer of the Year and was included in the American Society for Engineering Education’s Hall of Fame. A line of cliffs in Antarctica have been named after her by the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names.

Further Reading

ALD22: Professor Danielle N Lee, Behavioural Ecologist

Danielle N Lee

Professor Danielle N Lee

Danielle N Lee is a biologist whose research focuses on the connections between ecology, evolution and animal behaviour. From South Memphis, Tennessee, she earnt her bachelor’s from Tennessee Technological University in 1996, her master’s from the University of Memphis, and her PhD in biology from the University of Missouri-St Louis.

Lee’s research focuses on the extent to which the African giant pouched rat, Cricetomys ansorgei, exhibits behavioural syndromes, and the potential role of genetics in these behaviours. She has worked in Tanzania, collecting data on female rat biology, which is currently understudied. She also studies the behavioural differences between small rodents in urban and rural settings in the St Louis Metropolitan region.

Lee is also well known as a science communicator who specialises in outreach to the African American community and increasing the participation of under-served communities in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). She co-founded the National Science & Technology News Service, a “media literacy initiative to bring more science news to African-American audiences and promote science news source diversity in mainstream media”.

In 2009, she was honoured as a Diversity Scholar by the American Institute of Biological Sciences. In 2013 she was given the STEM Leader Award by the Kansas City Black Family Technology Awareness Association. She was one of EBONY Magazine’s Power 100 in 2014, a 2015 TED Fellow, and a White House Champion of Change in STEM Diversity and Access.

Further Reading

ALD22: Professor Rita Levi Montalcini, Neurobiologist

Professor Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini was a neurobiologist who discovered nerve growth factor in collaboration with her colleague, Stanley Cohen. They were both awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986, and Levi-Montalcini became only the fourth woman to be awarded the prize.

Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin in 1909. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Turin Medical School in 1936, staying there to investigate the development of the nervous system. But she lost her job just two years later when Mussolini banned Jews from academic and professional careers.

Unable to officially work, she began buying fertilised eggs and studying chicken embryos in a laboratory that she set up in her bedroom, working in “primitive conditions”. She focused on understanding how nerve fibres grow in the embryos’ wings using microsurgical instruments she made herself from tools such as sewing needles and watchmakers’ tweezers. As the Guardian reported in her obituary, “many of the experiments could be eaten when they were finished.”

In 1943, she and her family fled to Florence, where they were protected from the Nazis by non-Jewish friends. After the war, they returned to Turin and in 1946, she moved to the US to take up a short term position at Washington University in St Louis, in Missouri. She successfully duplicated the experiments she’d done in her bedroom, and was offered a research associate position. She stayed at the university for 30 years.

In 1952, Levi-Montalcini grafted mouse tumour tissue onto chick embryos, and discovered that the cancerous tissues caused the rapid growth of nerve fibres. Somehow the tumour was encouraging nerve fibres to grow. She isolated a protein that she called nerve growth factor (NGF) from these cancerous tissues. This was painstaking and difficult work, but its importance to embryology and oncology was clear.

She became a professor in 1958 and four years later established a second lab in Rome, splitting her time between Italy and the USA. She became the director of the Research Centre of Neurobiology of the CNR (Rome), and then became director at the Laboratory of Cellular Biology of the Italian National Council of Research. In 2001 she became an Italian senatore a vita, or senator for life, able to sit in the Italian upper house of parliament. In 2002, she founded and later became president of the European Brain Research Institute.

She died in 2012, aged 103.

Further Reading

ALD22: Professor Maria Pavlova, Palaeontologist

Maria Pavlova

Professor Maria Pavlova

Maria Vasilievna Pavlova, Мария Павлова, was a palaeontologist who discovered several hoofed mammals from the Tertiary period and changed our understanding of the ancestry of horses in Eurasia.

Born in 1854, from age 26, Pavlova studied natural history at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and the Sorbonne, graduating in 1884.

After graduation, she moved to Moscow where she began studying the geological collections held by the Moscow State University, where she worked for 30 years. She would go on to establish the Museum of Palaeontology there.

Pavlova began her career writing papers on Early Cretaceous ammonites from the Volga region before moving on to Tertiary mammal evolution. She travelled widely around Russia and Western Europe, studying museum collections and collecting fossils herself. She named and described several extinct species, including a rhinoceros P. transouralicum.

She also worked on the ancestry of horses, proving that Hipparion, a small three-toed horse, was not the direct ancestor of the modern horse as thought at the time, but an offshoot of the horse family tree. She then focused on ungulates (hoofed mammals) and proboscidians (elephants and their extinct relatives), especially mastodons.

In 1897, she was one of just two women to be invited to join the Organising Committee of the International Geological Congress, which was held in St Petersburg. Between 1887 and 1906, she published nine issues of Studies in the Paleontological History of Hoofed Animals. In 1899, she published a monograph, Fossil Elephants.

She became the head of the department of palaeontology at Moscow State University in 1910, and by 1912, she had collected over 10,000 specimens, which she gave to the university. In 1916, became a doctor of zoology of the Imperial Moscow University, an “extremely rare” rank for a woman.

She became a professor at the Moscow State University, and was instrumental in founding its palaeontological museum. In 1926, the museum was named after her and her husband who was also a geologist and palaeontologist.

Pavlova was the first Ukrainian or Russian woman to become a national and internationally successful vertebrate palaeontologist. In 1925, she was elected as a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and a year later the Geological Society of France awarded her and her husband with a gold medal for their work.

She went on her final geological expedition in 1931, collecting fossil mammoths, elephants and rhinos from the Volyn district of northern Ukraine.

Further Reading

ALD22: Dr Katalin Karikó, Biochemist

Katalin Karikó

Dr Katalin Karikó

Katalin Karikó is a biochemist whose work on RNA-mediated immune activation laid the foundations required for the development of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

Karikó was born in 1955 in Hungary, and earnt her PhD at the University of Szeged before going on to do postdoctoral research at the Institute of Biochemistry, Biological Research Centre of Hungary until the lab lost its funding in 1985, at which point she moved to the US.

She began working on Messenger RNA (mRNA) in 1989 at the University of Pennsylvania. She wrote a grant application that proposed using mRNA in gene therapy, but it was rejected. Her ideas were unorthodox and the basic work required to do the research, such as making RNA molecules, was difficult. After a string of rejections, the university demoted her in 1995.

She persevered, hopping from lab to lab in low-paid positions. Then, by chance, Karikó met immunologist Drew Weissman, who wanted to make an HIV vaccine. She thought she could do it, but the mRNA caused the mice’s immune systems to react, triggering inflammation. But during another experiment they noticed that transfer RNA, which they’d used as a control, didn’t result in the same immune reaction as mRNA.

They discovered that nucleoside modifications of mRNA could make it non-immunogenic, but had difficulty getting their findings published. Their results were eventually published in 2005, in Immunity, but didn’t cause a splash at the time because other scientists didn’t believe that mRNA was a “usable molecule”. The paper has, however, now become a seminal publication in the field of mRNA therapeutics.

Karikó and Weissman also worked on developing an mRNA purification technique, as no such protocol existed, and they were eventually able to use high-performance liquid chromatography to purify mRNA. They knew that they could use mRNA to order cells to make any protein, including insulin, hormones or diabetes drugs. They could also use it to create a new type of vaccine where the mRNA would tell cells to make part of the virus, which would then stimulate the immune system. But they couldn’t get any traction.

They founded a company, RNARx, in 2006 and patented several modified nucleosides that reduced the antiviral immune response to mRNA. But the University of Pennsylvania sold the intellectual property rights, so when Moderna asked Karikó if they could licence the patent, all she could say was that she didn’t have it.

Realising that her opportunities to work on mRNA would be greater in industry, Karikó became a vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals in 2013, becoming a senior VP in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a huge amount of scientific work and collaboration, but it was Karikó’s research that formed the foundation for the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Once Chinese scientists had posted the virus’s genome, BioNTech designed its mRNA vaccine in hours and Moderna completed the task in two days. Other groups provided the data and expertise needed to make the vaccine a reality.

In 2022, Karikó won the Vilcek Prize for Excellence which recognises immigrant contributions to biomedical science and the arts. She has also received Spain’s Princess of Asturias Award for technical and scientific research, the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, the Horwitz Prize, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

Further Reading