ALD22: Professor Jewel Plummer Cobb, Cell Biologist and Cancer Researcher

Jewel Plummer Cobb

Professor Jewel Plummer Cobb

Jewel Plummer Cobb was a biologist who discovered how skin cells produce melanin and how they become cancerous. She also discovered that methotrexate was an effective treatment for some skin and lung cancers and childhood leukaemia.

Born in 1924 in Chicago, Cobb graduated from Talladega College in Alabama with a degree in biology in 1944, earning her master’s and then her doctorate in cell physiology from New York University. Her research focused on understanding how skin cells produce melanin and how those cells become cancerous. Her doctoral thesis, Mechanisms of Pigment Formation, examined the enzyme tyrosinase, which is required for skin cells to produce melanin, which is what causes colour in human skin.

After finishing her PhD, she spent two years at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center where she developed a deep understanding of how to culture human tissue directly from a sample taken from a person. Few people understood these techniques in the 1950s. She became skilled at culturing cancer cells taken from patient biopsies and used these cultures to study the effect of various chemotherapy drugs on the cells’ morphology, migration and growth.

In 1952, she started her own laboratory which was the first tissue culture-based lab at the University of Illinois Medical School. She combined her early research on skin pigmentation and melanin with her newer work on cancer.

Two years later, she moved her lab back to Harlem, and began working with Jane Wright to study the effect that chemotherapy drugs had on melanoma, a type of skin cancer. Wright worked with the patients, and Cobb worked with cells cultured from the patients’ samples. They realised that Cobb’s results could help predict which treatments would work for each patient and type of cancer. Cobb used non-cancerous tissue samples as controls, something which wasn’t common practice at the time because it was so hard to culture non-cancerous cells.

In the early 1960s, Cobb and Wright showed that methotrexate was effective for treating several cancers, including skin and lung cancer, and childhood leukaemia. Cobb also worked with mice that had been bred to be more susceptible to skin cancer, and discovered that cells with more melanin were protected from damage caused by exposure to radium and X-rays. This was the first evidence that melanin protects cells from UVA/UVB light.

In 1969, Cobb became the first black dean at Connecticut College, where she began programs to encourage women and people of colour to study STEM and explore STEM careers. She later became the first black woman to be appointed to the National Science Board, which supervises the National Science Foundation.

Cobb died in 2017, aged 92.

Further Reading

ALD22: Professor Lise Meitner, Nuclear Physicist

Lise Meitner

Professor Lise Meitner

Professor Elise ‘Lise’ Meitner was a physicist who discovered the element protactinium and developed a theory of nuclear fission.

Lise Meitner was born in 1878. Fascinated by science and mathematics from an early age, her educational opportunities were severely limited because of her sex, and she had to take private lessons so that she could sit her exams. In 1905, she became only the second woman to earn a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna.

After initially studying optics, she moved on to radioactivity which was, at that point, a new field of study. She discovered that when a beam of alpha particles was fired at metal foil, its scattering would increase with the increased atomic mass of the metal atoms. Ernest Rutherford used the results of this experiment to then predict the nuclear atom.

Meitner was unusual in being allowed to attend Max Planck’s lectures, as Planck generally rejected the idea that women should be allowed to get an education but he recognised her as an exception. At this time, she was introduced to Otto Hahn, a chemist, with whom she began a lifelong collaboration. They developed a new way to detect isotopes and tests soon resulted in the discovery of two new isotopes. Meitner then began studying beta radiation.

Hahn and Meitner moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) for Chemistry, in 1912, where he became a professor whilst her position was as an unpaid ‘guest’. But later that year Plank employed her as an assistant, making her the first female scientific assistant in Prussia. She soon got promotion to associate, though, and later an increased salary to persuade her not to move to Prague.

With the outbreak of World War I, Meitner trained and then worked as an x-ray nurse-technician. She was discharged in 1916.

The next year, she was given her own lab at KWI, where she started to search for the ‘mother isotope’ of actinium. As the men at the institute had been called up, she did much of the work herself and discovered the first long-lived isotope of protactinium, for which she was awarded the Leibniz Medal.

At the beginning of World War II, when Austria was annexed by Germany, Meitner fled to Sweden. She and Hahn met in Copenhagen to discuss experiments that Hahn had conducted in his lab in Berlin. One key experiment showed that when uranium was bombarded with neutrons, it split into two, and one of the resulting elements, thought to be radium, behaved like barium.

Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch, who was also a physicist, discussed the data and Meitner theorised that the uranium broke into barium (and krypton). If the element was barium, then this would be evidence of fission, but if it were radium, it could not be fission because radium was too big. But there was no theory for how uranium could decay into barium. The two of them worked out how this decay could occur, developing the theory of nuclear fission.

Meitner and Frisch came up with an experiment which would test this theory and asked Hahn to examine the byproducts of uranium bombardment in more detail. Hahn confirmed that it was indeed barium, not radium, proving Meitner’s theory of nuclear fission. It was clear that fission could produce large amounts of energy, and whilst this resulted in the Manhattan Project in the US, Meitner refused to have anything to do with research that might lead to the development of a bomb.

In 1944, Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his fission research, but Meitner’s work was ignored. She did, however, receive the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966 along with Hahn and his colleague Fritz Strassmann.

In 1992, element 109, which is currently the heaviest element in the known universe, was named Meitnerium (Mt) in her honour, one of just two elements named after women (the other, curium, was named after Marie Curie).

Further Reading

ALD22: Dr Kateryna Yushchenko, Computer Scientist

Kateryna Yushchenko

Dr Kateryna Yushchenko

Kateryna Yushchenko, Катерина Ющенко, was a Ukrainian computer scientist who developed the Address programming language, one of the world’s first high-level languages.

Yushchenko was born in 1919, in Chyhyryn in central Ukraine. In 1937, her father was arrested as a Ukrainian nationalist (he later died in a gulag) and when her mother tried to prove his innocence she was arrested and imprisoned for ten years. Yushchenko had just started studying at Kyiv University, but was expelled as a “daughter of enemies of the people”. The only institution that would accept her on a full state scholarship was Samarkand University in Uzbekistan.

Moving back to Ukraine after WW2, she was awarded her PhD in 1950 by the Kyiv Institute of Mathematics of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, the first woman in the USSR to get a PhD in physical and mathematical sciences in programming. She was a senior researcher for seven years, at which point she was appointed director of the Institute of Computer Science.

Two years later, the Institute bought the first MESM, or Small Electronic Calculating Machine, which was the first universally programmable computer in continental Europe, and Yushchenko was appointed head of the MESM laboratory. She realised that complex tasks could not be completed by the MESM, which had little memory and was very slow, without a high-level programming language, but that required a way for humans to program in that language.

To solve this problem, Yushchenko developed the Address programming language, which referred to memory cell addresses rather than numbers, several years before Fortran, COBOL or ALGOL. The Address programming language was used in most Soviet computers, including those that controlled the Apollo-Soyuz international space mission in 1975.

Yushchenko also worked on probability theory, algorithmic languages and programming languages, as well as developing automated data processing systems. She wrote a series of programming textbooks in the 1970s, including Elements of Programming, which was used across the USSR and the Eastern Bloc countries.

Further Reading

ALD22: Dorothy Spicer, Aeronautical Engineer

Dorothy Spicer

Dorothy Spicer

Dorothy Spicer was an aviatrix and the first woman to earn an advanced qualification in aeronautical engineering.

Born in 1908, Spicer learnt to fly in 1929, when she was in her very early 20s. She took lessons at the London Aeroplane Club at Stag Lane Aerodrome, where she met pilot Pauline Gower. They became friends and started a business before flying in the Crimson Fleet air circus and then the British Hospitals’ air pageant together.

Spicer joined the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) in 1932, and studied for her ‘B’ engineers licence. She couldn’t access formal courses because women were barred from training at technical schools. But she persuaded Saunders Roe, which built the Spartan Aircraft plane she and Gower flew, to let her do the practical and theoretical training at their workshop in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. She was the first woman in the world to attain her ‘B’ licence.

She was also only the second woman to earn a ‘C’ licence, for ground engineers, after Amy Johnson. In 1935, she studied at Napier Engineering in Action and Cirrus Hermes in Hull to become the first woman to earn a ‘D’ licence. That licence authorised her to inspect, pass out and repair engines and airframes, and qualified her to build aircraft, airframes and engines from scratch and to approve the materials needed.

By this point, she was the first woman in the world to hold all four Air Ministry Ground Engineer’s licences.

In 1934, Spicer and Gower became the first all-female Air Ambulance crew, flying Gower’s three-seater plane as part of the Surrey Red Cross Brigade. They were the first Red Cross Air Ambulance anywhere in the world, and their Commandant was Mrs Victor Bruce, née Mildred Petre.

Two years later, she became the chief engineer for British Empire Air Displays, a flying circus that toured the UK. In 1937, She presented a paper on the “Selection and Treatment of Steels for Aero-Engines” at the WES conference.

A year later, despite having married, she took a job with the Air Registration Board and became the first woman in the British Empire to receive a technical appointment in civil aviation. In 1940, she became an air observer and research assistant with the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, where she worked on the development of new aircraft and aviation equipment.

She and her husband, Flight Lieutenant Richard Pearse, died on a commercial flight to Rio de Janeiro in 1946, when bad weather caused the plane they were on to crash into a mountain just ten miles from the airport. There were no survivors. She was just 38.

Spicer was a founding member of the Society of Licenced Aircraft Engineers, who created the Dorothy Spicer Memorial Award in her honour.

Further Reading

Understanding micromanagement

Cynthia Sanchez, a senior technical project management at SUSE, explains how to spot micromanagement, why it’s problematic, and how to stop yourself become a micromanager.

This video was provided by SUSE, one of Ada Lovelace Day’s generous sponsors.

About SUSE

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