ALD23: Professor Isabella Aiona Abbott, Phycologist and Ethnobotanist

Professor Isabella Aiona Abbott

Isabella Aiona Abbott was a phycologist, ethnobotanist and educator from Hawaii. The first Native Hawaiian woman to receive a PhD in science, she was a leading expert on Pacific marine algae and the first woman and person of colour to be appointed as a full-time biology professor at the University of Stanford. Over the course of a long career, she was credited with discovering hundreds of species of seaweed.

Abbott was born Isabella Kauakea Yau Yung Aiona in Hana, Maui, on 20 June 1919 (Abbott was her married name). When she was young, her mother opened her eyes to the diversity and uses of Hawaii’s native plants – particularly seaweed, edible varieties of which they used in recipes at home. After a bachelor’s degree and master’s in botany, Abbott gained her PhD in algal taxonomy from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1950.

By the time she earned her doctorate, Abbott was 31 and married. Academic posts were not forthcoming for female scientists in the early 1950s, and Abbott took a break from her research career when her daughter was young. But in 1966, she was hired as a research associate and lecturer at the Hopkins Marine Station in California, run by Stanford University – making her the university’s first Native Hawaiian faculty member.

Abbott went on to build a formidable reputation as one of the world’s foremost experts on algae, especially that found in the Pacific marine basin. In 1972, Stanford promoted her directly to full professor of biology. Drawing on Native Hawaiian knowledge and oral histories, a rarity in the academic study of oceans at the time, Abbott’s research uncovered ancient uses for newly-named marine algae. She was one of the first scientists to highlight the vital role seaweed forests play in healthy marine ecosystems.

Today, Abbott’s work is recognised as laying the foundations for modern research into seaweed, covering everything from its use in human nutrition to its potential for sequestering carbon and limiting ocean acidification. She was the GP Wilder Professor of Botany at Stanford from 1980 before retiring in 1982 and moving back to Hawaii with her family. The University of Hawaii appointed her professor emerita of botany, and she continued to research algae and native plants and established an undergraduate degree in ethnobotany (the interaction of humans and plants). Abbott was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1998.

By the time she passed away on 28 October 2010 at the age of 91, Abbott had single-handedly discovered more than 200 species of seaweed. Many were named after her, including the red algae genus of Abbottella. She had also authored over 150 scientific publications and eight books, including the influential Marine Algae of California. Several of her specimens remain part of the botany collections in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Abbott was awarded the Darbaker Prize by the Botanical Society of America in 1969, the Charles Reed Bishop Medal in 1993 and the Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1997. In 2005, she was named a “Living Treasure of Hawaiʻi”, and received a lifetime achievement award from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources for her studies of coral reefs in 2008.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: Dr Frances Wagner, Palaeontologist

Dr Frances Wagner

Dr Frances Wagner was a Canadian palaeontologist and one of the first female scientists to carry out field research for the Geological Survey of Canada (GCS). Over the course of a long career, she became a distinguished expert in the use of micropaleontology – the study of microscopic fossils – to study marine geology.

Wagner was born into an outdoorsy family in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1927. Her parents had a holiday cottage in Muskoka in the Canadian Shield, a region notable for its exposed precambrian rocks, and Wagner’s love of nature was sparked by a childhood spent learning about the area’s flora, fauna and geology. She studied palaeontology during her bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto before embarking on a master’s in invertebrate palaeontology. Her MSc research, conducted at an Ordovician limestone sequence near Ottawa, was the start of a lifetime’s delight in field studies.

Halfway through her master’s, Wagner was hired by the GSC – Canada’s national organisation for geoscientific information and research – to catalogue fossil samples. She started working full-time for the GSC on her 23rd birthday in May 1950, becoming only the third female research scientist to do so. At the time, women were not generally considered physically or mentally strong enough to take part in geobiological field research. Wagner disproved this view during her first field excursion, which saw her travel by canoe to the remote Moose Factory Island in northeastern Ontario.

After a year in the field, Wagner went to Stanford University, earning her PhD in micropaleontology in 1954. The study of tiny remains of animals, plants and single-celled organisms in order to unlock the secrets of biogeological evolution, micropaleontology continues to inform modern-day resource development, including in the hydrocarbon industry. Wagner’s specialism was marine micropalaeontology. Over the course of countless expeditions, she became an expert on ancient seas in Canada and the microbiota of the Arctic and Atlantic continental shelves, with her fieldwork taking her to the Caribbean and the Canadian Maritimes.

Aged 40, Wagner moved to Nova Scotia to work at the esteemed Bedford Institute Laboratory (now the Bedford Institute of Oceanography), where she spent many years. From late 1969, she studied microorganisms from the CSS Hudson – a new research vessel and the first ship to circumnavigate the Americas – for almost a year as it travelled the treacherous Northwest Passage. She was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 1973, in recognition of her achievements and scientific research.

In 1979, Wagner co-authored a definitive study on the holocene marine environment of the Beaufort Shelf, helping to illuminate how even small interferences with natural processes  – such as those caused by hydrocarbon drilling – can cause profound disturbances in Canadian Arctic waters. Five years later, after a career defined by countless field investigations, she retired from the GSC. She died on 8 November 2016 in Falmouth, Nova Scotia, aged 89.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

A century of women at the Royal Institution

The Ri is celebrating 100 years since Joan Evans gave the first presentation by a woman, making it the perfect venue for the 15th Ada Lovelace Day.

This year is marks the 100th anniversary of the first presentation by a woman at the Royal Institution – archaeologist Joan Evans, who was an expert in English jewellery from the fifth to the 17th centuries, gave a Discourse in June 1923 titled “Jewels of the Renaissance” – making it the perfect setting for the 15th celebration of Ada Lovelace Day!

Ada Lovelace herself attended lectures at the Ri, in the very theatre where ALD 2023 will be taking place this year and the same theatre where Michael Faraday first demonstrated many of his discoveries. The Ri is still home to his original laboratory and his collection of notes, which are preserved as part of their internationally significant collection, on display in the Ri’s free museum.

Lovelace was keen to receive tutelage from Faraday, writing to him several times, and their letters can still be seen today at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). Sadly for Lovelace, Faraday declined her request.

The Ri is not just a home for science where everyone is welcome, it continues to champion the known and unknown contributions of women to science. It has hosted many amazing female speakers, including:

And if that’s not enough inspiration, the Ri has this compilation of 10 mind-blowing science talks by women.

Notable members and fellows of the Royal Society include Katherine Lonsdale, a pioneering scientist, especially known for her groundbreaking work on x-ray crystallography, who worked at the Ri at numerous points throughout her career; Angela Burdett-Coutts, “the wealthiest woman in England after Queen Victoria” and campaigner for children’s education, whose application was signed Michael Faraday; and Agnes Clerke, renowned astronomer and author of A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century.

If podcasts are more your speed, then try these two episodes: Tackling climate change with innovation features the Ri’s Director Katherine Mathieson in conversation with Alyssa Gilbert, the Director of Undaunted, a partnership with Imperial College London that supports climate-positive startups; How did patriarchy develop across the world?, in which award-winning science journalist Angela Saini and former Australian prime-minister Julia Gillard discussed the roots of gendered oppression.

The Ri has long championed women in science and it’s an honour for Ada Lovelace Day to be returning to the venue for the third time with our science cabaret, featuring some of the smartest and most innovative women in STEM from across the UK: Prof Jennifer Rohn, urologist; Dr Anjana Khatwa, Earth scientist and presenter; Dr Sophie Carr, mathematician; Dr Aarathi Prasad, writer, broadcaster, and geneticist; Dr Azza Eltraify, senior software engineer; Dr Antonia Pontiki, biomedical engineer; Rosie Curran Crawley, presenter.

Join us in person or online, on Tuesday 10 October for seven fascinating talks that will entertain, inform and surprise you.

Ada Lovelace Day is back on 10 October 2023!

Thanks to generous support from The Royal InstitutionStylistRedgate, The Information Lab’s Data School and dxwAda Lovelace Day Live 2023 will now go ahead on the evening of Tuesday 10 October.

The Royal Institution will be hosting ALD Live as part of their autumn program of public events, and Stylist have come on board as our media partner, providing outreach and promotional support.

“We’re delighted to be hosting this year’s Ada Lovelace event at the Royal Institution,” said Katherine Mathieson, Director of the Royal Institution. “We’re looking forward to welcoming a wide range of people on the day, in-person and online, to meet and celebrate some inspirational women working in computing and technology. It’s a perfect fit for our mission of bringing people and scientists together to celebrate their interest and passion for science. We’re a home for science and everyone is welcome.”

“When we heard that Ada Lovelace Day was under threat we wanted to help save it,” said Lisa Smosarski, Editorial Director at Stylist. “As a champion of gender equality, we had always admired the day as a truly authentic way of championing women in STEM and for showcasing the pioneering work of women like Ada. Considering women are still hugely underrepresented in this field, this day is still very important and much needed. By adding the Stylist brand network and influential audience, we’re thrilled the day will run in 2023 and for many more years to come.”

Over the next twelve months, we will be working hard to build an Ada Lovelace Day that can serve women and girls in STEM long into the future. As part of that work, we are relaunching our newsletter on Substack, where we’ll keep you up to date on Ada Lovelace Day news, as well publishing profiles of women in STEM and highlighting books and podcasts by and about women in STEM. We will also have a membership option for those who would like to support us financially, so sign up now and pledge your support. We do still need additional sponsors, so if your company wants to get involved, drop Suw Charman-Anderson a line.

We are delighted to be back and we hope you’ll join us at the Royal Institution in October for a fascinating and entertaining evening featuring seven women in STEM who will share their experiences, insights and expertise and whose stories we hope will inspire and empower the next generation.

Do you have an ecological #FieldworkFail you’d like to share?

We are looking for ecologists to share their experiences of working in the field as part of our Fieldwork short comedy film project. If you’d like to take part, you can either do so by answering some or all of the questions in the form below, or you can arrange an hour-long interview with Suw – just pick a convenient date and time via Calendly.