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 Books: Carbon Queen, Maia Weinstock

Carbon Queen: The Remarkable Life of Nanoscience Pioneer, Maia Weinstock

As a girl in New York City in the 1940s, Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus was taught that there were only three career options open to women: secretary, nurse, or teacher. But sneaking into museums, purchasing three-cent copies of National Geographic, and devouring books on the history of science ignited in Dresselhaus a passion for inquiry. In Carbon Queen, science writer Maia Weinstock describes how, with curiosity and drive, Dresselhaus defied expectations and forged a career as a pioneering scientist and engineer. Dresselhaus made highly influential discoveries about the properties of carbon and other materials and helped reshape our world in countless ways — from electronics to aviation to medicine to energy. She was also a trailblazer for women in STEM and a beloved educator, mentor, and colleague.

Her path wasn’t easy. Dresselhaus’s Bronx childhood was impoverished. Her graduate adviser felt educating women was a waste of time. But Dresselhaus persisted, finding mentors in Nobel Prize-winning physicists Rosalyn Yalow and Enrico Fermi. Eventually, Dresselhaus became one of the first female professors at MIT, where she would spend nearly six decades. Weinstock explores the basics of Dresselhaus’s work in carbon nanoscience accessibly and engagingly, describing how she identified key properties of carbon forms, including graphite, buckyballs, nanotubes, and graphene, leading to applications that range from lighter, stronger aircraft to more energy-efficient and flexible electronics.

Order the book on here and your purchase will support a local independent bookshop of your choice!

About the Author

Maia Weinstock is an editor, writer, and producer of science, academic, and children’s media. She is a lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the history of women in STEM and Deputy Editorial Director at MIT News. Previously,  she was the editorial director at BrainPOP and staff member at Discover,, Aviation Week & Space Technology, and Scholastic’s Science World.

Maia is a strong advocate for girls and women. She writes often on the history of women in STEM and on diversity in STEM media, including for Scientific American, Discover and Science World. Internationally, she is known for her custom LEGO projects including Women of NASA, a LEGO Ideas-winning and Amazon best-selling toy; Women of Computing, a LEGO Ideas finalist; and the Legal Justice League, a set featuring the first four women of the US Supreme Court.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @20tauri
Instagram: @20tauri

ALD22: Professor Nadine Caron, General and Endocrine Surgeon

Nadine Caron

Professor Nadine Caron

Nadine Caron, born in British Columbia in 1970, is a General and Endocrine surgeon in Canada of First Nations descent (Ojibway). She currently works at Prince George Regional Hospital and also as an Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery at University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). She is Co-Director of UBC’s Centre for Excellence in Indigenous Health, which she helped to establish.

Caron obtained a BSc in Kinesiology at Simon Fraser University, where she was the top undergraduate student, winning the Shrum Gold Medal. She went on to complete her MD at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine, the first woman of First Nations descent to graduate there, and was also ranked as the top student. Additionally, Caron completed an MA in Public Health at Harvard and a postgraduate fellowship on endocrine surgical oncology at the University of California. She is also the recipient a Doctorate of Laws and an honorary degree.

She is an advocate for improving quality healthcare available to First Nations communities, and leads the Northern Biobank Project, which investigates genetic factors in diseases from tissue samples from rural and remote people in this community. She was also appointed as the First Nations Health Authority Chair (FNHA) in Cancer and Wellness to ensure that Indigenous people have better outcomes from cancer treatment.

Caron has been recognised with several awards for her work in diversity and inclusion, including the Canadian Cancer Society’s Inclusive Excellence Prize and the Dr Thomas Dignan Indigenous Health Award.

Further Reading

ALD22: Mary Golda Ross, Aerospace Engineer

Mary Golda Ross

Mary Golda Ross

Mary Golda Ross (1908-2008) was the first female engineer to work at the Lockheed Corporation, as well as the first female Native American engineer.

As a child, she lived with her grandparents so she could go to school, after which she attended Northeastern State Teachers’ College where she earned a degree in Maths. A decade later, she attended Colorado State Teachers College to complete her Masters degree in maths, where she additionally took several astronomy modules. During the Great Depression, she worked in schools as a maths and science teacher before applying to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), to work as a statistical clerk. She then became an advisor to girls at Santa Fe Indian School.

During World War II, her father advised Golda Ross to find work in California, where she was hired by Lockheed to work as a mathematician. She started working on some design problems with the P-38 Lightning fighter plane, to ensure that it could withstand its high speed. Lockheed were pleased with her work and sent her to UCLA so she could attain professional engineering qualifications for aeronautics and missiles. Despite many companies letting go of their female staff once the war had finished, Golda Ross was kept on at Lockheed, and was invited to join a top-secret project, Skunk Works, the only female mathematician to take part.

In Skunk Works, she worked on space travel designs and operational designs, including the Agena-B spacecraft, which later was used for the Apollo missions. Additionally, she worked ideas on potential flights to Mars and Venus, and wrote the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook III. Much of this work is still classified. Towards the end of her career, she worked on the Polaris re-entry vehicle, and the missiles, Poseidon and Trident.

Golda Ross was a strong supporter of young women and Native Americans in engineering, including American Indians in Science and Engineering Society and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, and was also a member of the Society of Women Engineers. She participated in a parade of Native Americans at the National Museum of the American Indian, wearing a traditional Cherokee dress, and bequeathed $400,000 to the museum in her will. She died in 2008 and in 2022 was honoured with a statue in celebration of International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Further Reading

ALD22 Books: The Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything, Dr Hannah Fry and Dr Adam Rutherford

The Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything: Adventures in Math and Science, Dr Hannah Fry and Dr Adam Rutherford

Despite our clever linguistic abilities, humans are spectacularly ill-equipped to comprehend what’s happening in the universe. Our senses and intuition routinely mislead us. The Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything (Abridged) tells the story of how we came to suppress our monkey minds and perceive the true nature of reality. Written with wit and humuor, this brief book tells the story of science — tales of fumbles and missteps, errors and egos, hard work, accidents, and some really bad decisions — all of which have created the sum total of human knowledge.

Mathematician Hannah Fry and geneticist Adam Rutherford guide readers through time and space, through our bodies and brains, showing how emotions shape our view of reality, how our minds tell us lies, and why a mostly bald and curious ape decided to begin poking at the fabric of the universe.

Rutherford and Fry shine as science sleuths, wrestling with some truly head-scratching questions: Where did time come from? Do we have free will? Does my dog love me? Hilarious sidebars present memorable scientific oddities: for example, hypnotized snails, human-sized ants, and the average time it takes most animals to evacuate their bladders. (A surprisingly consistent twenty-one seconds, if you must know.)

Both rigorous and playful, The Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything (Abridged) is a celebration of the weirdness of the cosmos, the strangeness of humans, and the joys and follies of scientific discovery.

Order the book on here and your purchase will support a local independent bookshop of your choice!

About the Authors

Dr Hannah Fry is a Professor in the Mathematics of Cities at UCL, and honorary fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). She is a best-selling author, having written The Mathematics of Love: Patterns, Proofs, and the Search for the Ultimate Equation, The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus (co-authored with Thomas Oléron Evans) and Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms. She is also an award-winning science presenter and recipient of UCL Provost’s Public Engager of the Year in 2013, the Christopher Zeeman Medal in 2018 and the Asimov Prize in 2020.

Hannah regularly features on television, having recently appeared as a panellist on Have I Got News For You on BBC One, and has presented many documentaries on BBC Two and Four, including How to Find Love Online, Contagion! The BBC Four Pandemic, The Great British Intelligence Test, Making Sense of Cancer with Hannah Fry and Unvaccinated. She also co-hosts The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry on BBC Radio 4.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @fryrsquared
Instagram: @fryrsquared

Dr Adam Rutherford is a scientist, writer and broadcaster, and lecturer in Biology and Society at UCL. He is a best-selling author, having written Creation: The Origin of Life / The Future of Life (2014), A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes (2016), Genetics (2018), The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us (2018), Humanimal: How Homo sapiens Became Nature’s Most Paradoxical Creature—A New Evolutionary History (2019), How to Argue with a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality (2020) and Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics (2022). 

He has written and presented numerous documentaries for BBC television including Playing God, The Gene Code, Science Betrayed and The Cell. He also hosts BBC Radio 4’s flagship weekly science programme Inside Science, and co-presents The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry.

You can follow his work here:

Twitter: @adamrutherford