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Marking International Women's Day

Published March 08, 2022

By Nicholas Dirks

Marking International Women's Day

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women scientists past and present and encourage more young women with an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to follow in their footsteps. Women have been major contributors to science for centuries, but their successes have often been under-recognized. Today, too many young women around the world continue to face systemic barriers or social bias that prevent them from pursuing a career in STEM.

At the New York Academy of Sciences, we have long valued the pioneering spirit of women scientists. Erminnie A. Smith, sometimes known as the world’s first female field ethnographer, became an Academy member as far back as 1877 when our venerable 200-year-old institution was still in its early years. In 1935, Eunice T. Miner, a research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History, joined the Academy and went on to lead our institution for over 30 years.  Under Miner’s leadership, the Academy gained stature as a convener of researchers in diverse disciplines working on cutting edge problems.

Numerous illustrious female scientists have graced our membership, including world renowned anthropologist Margret Mead, while breakthrough cancer researcher Charlotte Church became our first female president in 1978.

The world faces numerous major challenges – the pandemic, climate change and malnutrition to name just a few – and it needs outstanding innovators of all genders to tackle them. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that while science saves lives, scientific discoveries are not always trusted and understood. Part of our mission is to use the Academy’s convening power to promote diversity, broaden the conversation to be inclusive of different communities, and enhance the public’s trust and appreciation of science.

I recently returned from London where I attended the prestigious  Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the United Kingdom for 2022, which are administered by the Academy. Six of the nine talented laureates and finalists who were honored this year for their hard work and dedication across the fields of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Chemistry identify as women.  Selected among a wide cast of skilled nominees, these successful scientists are already making their mark on science, and we are proud to celebrate their success.

Our work also focuses on identifying and fostering new talent at an early stage. Our Global STEM Alliance aims to do just that by providing mentorship, training and resources for thousands of high school students and teachers. Our educational programs are designed to steer a new generation of young people, girls in particular, toward STEM.

We recognize that smart young women with an interest in STEM often have to overcome obstacles, which is why we strive to support female scientists and help them reach their full potential in all their endeavors. Since 2015, the Academy has supported the ambitions of thousands of young women from all over the world by helping them develop their scientific thinking and leadership skills.

A lack of role models who can inspire young women to embark on a STEM career path is one of the barriers we have identified. Our 1000 Girls, 1000 Future program addresses this issue. Enthusiastic female STEM experts, dedicated to sharing their passion for science, act as mentors to high school girls from all over the world, aged 13-17, and guide them through the program. The budding scientists also learn independently and work collaboratively with other STEM-focused global peers using Launchpad, the Academy’s unique online learning platform.

Working in partnership with government, academia and the private sector, the Academy has, for over a decade, set Innovation Challenges to thousands of young people, enabling teams of eager young scientists to apply their sharp minds and creativity to real-life problems like malnutrition in India, addressing the impact of wildfires, or tracking coronavirus cases. Not only do participants hone their scientific thinking in the course of these projects, but they also develop a range of crucial skills, including time management and collaboration skills. Over a thousand students from more than 50 countries signed up for our Fall Challenge, sponsored by PepsiCo, and 67 percent completed the program. About 60 percent of the teams who competed in the latest Innovation Challenges were led by students who identified as female.

In a series of virtual conversations we sponsored, STEM Supremes – women who have achieved the highest levels of success in science and technology – discussed a broad range of topics including how to attract and retain more women to STEM careers or fostering inclusivity for LGBTQ scientists.

On International Women’s Day and beyond, the New York Academy of Sciences will continue to promote diversity in science and engineering and support the advancement of women scientists. Their contribution improves the world of STEM and brings inclusive, innovative solutions to the major challenges of our times, thus helping make our world a better place for us all.