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 Books: Holding The Knife’s Edge, Dr Thato Motlhalamme and Dr Evodia Setati

Holding The Knife’s Edge: Journeys of Black Female Scientists, Dr Thato Motlhalamme and Dr Evodia Setati

To be born in a developing country is like competing in a race with your arms tied behind your back. To be born a female is to compete with your arms tied behind your back and blindfolded. An African child faces many barriers to education, health and social welfare. Yet, despite all these hurdles, some children grow up to become industry leaders in fields that seemed beyond reach in their childhood.

Authors Dr Thato Motlhalamme and Dr Evodia Setati follow the journeys of 14 award-winning and pioneering black women in Science, from their childhoods and education to their arrival in the upper echelons of various organisations, achieved through innovation, academic excellence, social intelligence, authentic leadership and tenacity. The humble rural beginnings of some of these women did not limit intellectual growth, but rather stimulated creative, out-of-the-box thinking, which has served them well in their respective industries and businesses.

The remarkable stories in Holding the Knife’s Edge: Journeys of Black Female Scientists tell of a deep hunger for knowledge, a determination and commitment to succeed, and a work ethic that ensures success. 

About the Authors

Dr Thato Motlhalamme is a wine biotechnologist and passionate medical bioscientist. She obtained a degree in Complimentary Medicine and a master’s degree in Medical Biosciences from University of the Western Cape and a PhD in Wine Biotechnology from Stellenbosch University. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Grape and Wine Sciences and has previously worked in academia as a tutor and junior lecturer and in the retail space as a health consultant. She has a passion for science and inspiring young women to choose careers in science.

Dr Evodia Setati is a microbiologist and professional coach. She is the recipient of the 2018 Distinguished Woman Scientist award (Engineering and Natural Sciences) from the Department of Science and Innovation. She obtained a BSc Hons degree from University of Limpopo, a PhD in Microbiology and a MPhil in Management Coaching from Stellenbosch University. She is a chief researcher in Grape and Wine Sciences. Evodia mentors early career academics and young scientists.  

You can follow their work here:

Twitter: @holdingtheknife
Instagram: @holdingtheknifesedge
Website: pathtoscience.com

ALD22: Mary Eliza Mahoney, Licensed Nurse

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American woman to become a licensed nurse and to work professionally as a nurse in the USA.

Born in 1845 in Massachusetts, Mahoney’s interest in nursing began at school, where alongside traditional subjects she was taught about morality and humanity, and her interest was intensified by the increase in nurses during the American Civil War.

She began working as a maid, cook and nurse’s assistant at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which employed only female doctors. After working there for 15 years, and at the age of 33, Mahoney enrolled in the hospital’s nursing course, which covered medical, obstetric, surgical and paediatric services.

The criteria for admittance was strict, and the course extremely rigorous, with lectures and lessons from doctors, bedside training, working in wards and placements at other sites such as private family homes. She was also working as a private-duty nurse to top up her meagre wages. Mahoney was one of only three women to successfully complete the training and graduate from her class of 42 women and the only African American woman to do so.

She began her career after graduation as a private care nurse working for rich white families, particularly new mothers and their children. Initially, many families treated her as akin to a household servant, but as she gained a reputation for efficiency and professionalism, she began to receive requests from patients in a number of states.

Mahoney wanted to improve nursing for other women of colour like herself and change how patients thought of nurses from her background. Mahoney joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC), but discovered that they weren’t welcoming to African American women. This prompted her to start a new organisation, and in 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). Although the organisation launched with only 26 nurses, she felt it was important to challenge the inequality of nursing education.

In her later career, Mahoney became the director of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, which was one of the few institutions run by African Americans. After she retired, she maintained her activist spirit, supporting women’s equality and suffrage, and demonstrating in the civil rights protests.

She died in 1926, aged 81.

The NACGN honoured her legacy by creating the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936, which continues today under the American Nurses Association, and is awarded to nurses who strive for equality in nursing. Mahoney was also the influence of the Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Organization, started in 1949 by Anne Foy Baker for African heritage nurses.

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