When it comes to science and biotech, the gender gap between men and women still persists. The UNESCO Science Report Towards 2030, published in 2015, revealed that women made up only 28% of people holding positions in science and research.
Things took a turn for the better in 2017 when the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reported that, for the first time ever, more female students enrolled in medical colleges than males, making up 50.7% of the 21,338 matriculants for that academic year.
Though still underrepresented, female researchers and scientists are here to stay and make change, inspire, and pave the way for new generations. Kicking off Women’s History Month this year, we’re featuring a list of some of the most notable female figures in science and biotech.
Dr. Cynthia Kenyon is a trailblazing figure in molecular biology and genetics of aging and life extension. As a biogerontologist, Dr. Kenyon is best known for her genetic analysis of aging in the roundworm, a frequently used model organism. She began teaching at the University of California San Francisco in 1986, where she later earned the titles of Herbert Boyer Distinguished Professor and American Cancer Society Professor. Dr. Kenyon is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and has served as the past president of the Genetics Society of America. Dr. Kenyon has won several honors and prizes in science, and she currently serves as Vice President of Aging Research at Calico Research Labs.
Esther Lederberg laid the groundwork for discoveries on genetic inheritance in bacteria, gene regulation, and genetic recombination. Her work on replica plating played a part in her first husband Joshua Lederberg winning the 1958 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine along with George Beadle and Edward Tatum. (Esther received no credit for the discovery.) A microbiologist, she is perhaps best known for discovering a virus that infects bacteria—called the lambda bacteriophage.
Barbara McClintock won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for discovering mobile genetic elements—paving the way for breakthroughs in plant breeding and genetic engineering. When she won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, McClintock became the first woman to be the sole winner of the award.
Venture capitalist Laura Deming is the founder of The Longevity Fund. Her work is focused on harnessing biological studies to delay or reverse the effects of aging and extend human life. Investments from the Longevity Fund include Unity Biotechnology, Navitor Pharmaceuticals, and Metacrine, biotech companies that create senolytic medications that treat aging-related illnesses. Deming developed an interest in the biology of aging at the age of 8, and at the age of 12, she joined Cynthia Kenyon’s lab at UCSF to study physics. Deming was accepted to MIT at the age of 14, where she studied physics. But she left MIT to accept the $100,000 Thiel Fellowship and launch a venture capital company.
Cynthia Seidel-Dugan is the Chief Scientific Officer for Werewolf Therapeutics, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company advancing a novel class of cancer biotherapeutics designed to enhance the body’s immune response to cancer. Dr. Seidel-Dugan was previously the Chief Scientific Officer for Potenza Therapeutics and built a pipeline of therapeutic antibodies targeting immunologic costimulatory receptors while Vice President, Biology of CoStim Pharmaceuticals.
Sofia Elizondo is the Co-Founder and Chief Operations Officer of Brightseed, a California biotech startup which utilizes AI to detect plant-based nutritional bioactives that advance human health. Prior to co-founding Brightseed, she worked at food tech company Hampton Creek and was a special advisor to the United Nations Global Compact, among other accomplishments.
Reshma Kewalramani is CEO and President at Vertex, which develops new medicines for cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. The approval of Vertex’s SYMDEKO/SYMKEVI, as well as the speedy approval of TRIKAFTA/KAFTRIO, could result in potentially treating up to 90% of all CF patients. She has received numerous awards including the American College of Physicians Associates Council Award, the American Medical Women’s Association Janet M. Glasgow Memorial Achievement Citation, and the Harvard Medical School Excellence in Teaching Award, among others.
Dr. Lyndsey Linke is the CEO and co-founder of SiVEC Biotechnologies, an R&D company with a tissue-specific nucleic acid delivery platform for therapeutic and vaccine development. With her Ph.D. in Infectious Disease Epidemiology and a Master of Engineering in Biomedical Engineering from Colorado State University, at SiVEC, Dr. Linke is focused on developing a delivery platform for nucleic acid therapeutics, mRNA vaccines, and gene-editing therapies.
Dr. Carolyn Porter is the CEO of CytoSeek, a discovery-stage biotech company that uses cutting-edge cell-membrane augmentation technology, developing the next wave of cell treatments to cure cancer. Dr. Porter has 20 years of leadership experience, and while attending Oxford University, she oversaw the creation of 16 businesses that raised a total of £52 million in startup funding. She held board positions in a number of biotech firms and previously worked in business development positions at large pharmaceutical companies like Novartis and large biotech firms like Chiron.
Diane Tager is Vice President of Strategy and Operations for Volastra Therapeutics, a West Harlem-based biotechnology company developing a deep understanding of chromosomal instability to ultimately leverage it into life-saving therapies to treat cancer. Tager previously worked at Celgene, managing a $2 billion portfolio of strategic equity investments. Prior to her career in pharmaceuticals and biotech, she was a community health nurse. Tager serves on the Board of Directors at World Hope International.
Dr. Annie Tsong is the Chief Strategy and Product Officer at Amyris, where she has developed key patents for the company’s IP portfolio. Amyris, under the leadership of Dr. Tsong, has created a biotech-based fermentation technology that effectively transforms feedstocks into goods and components, such as vitamin E and squalene, as well as flavors and scents. Her research creates biotech-based alternatives for components from scarce or endangered natural sources, benefiting the environment. In 2022, Dr. Tsong won the Rosalind Franklin Award for Leadership in Industrial Biotechnology and Agriculture.
Nicole Wagner is President and CEO of LambdaVision, a biotechnology company treating patients with retinal degenerative diseases by developing a protein-based artificial retina. Dr. Wagner’s research has included producing artificial retinas onboard the International Space Station (ISS), leveraging unique clinical and commercial opportunities from the environment’s microgravity.
Molecular biologist Dr. Elizabeth Helen Blackburn’s research has focused on the telomere, a structure of repetitive DNA sequences at the end of a chromosome that protects the ends of chromosomes from becoming frayed or tangled. This culminated in her 1984 joint discovery of the enzyme telomerase, along with her student Carol Greider, while working at UC-Berkeley. She received a one-third share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery, making her the first Australian woman Nobel Laureate.
Jennifer A. Doudna is one of the winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work to develop the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technique. Dr. Doudna and her collaborator, Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier, published their research in a landmark 2012 paper in the journal Science, which showed they could isolate the components of CRISPR/Cas9, insert them in a test tube, and make specific edits to DNA. In 2017, she founded BIO member company Mammoth Biosciences, which has received FDA Emergency Use Authorization for its DETECTR BOOST® SARS-CoV-2 Reagent Kit, a first of its kind CRISPR-based COVID-19 test.
Gertrude Elion was a scientist and pharmacologist who developed medicines to treat leukemia and prevent kidney transplant rejection. Elion officially retired in 1983, but helped oversee the development of the first AIDS drug treatment, azidothymidine (AZT). In 1988, she shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with George H. Hitchings and Sir James W. Black for their groundbreaking research methods that took a radical departure from the field’s previously used trial-and-error approach.
Rosalind Franklin’s research paved the way for biotechnology innovations such as synthetic biology, biobased manufacturing, and carbon capture and utilization. Her work was crucial to the discovery of DNA’s structure—which ultimately led to Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins being awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962, a few years after Rosalind’s death from cancer at age 37. BIO’s Rosalind Franklin Award (sponsored by the Rosalind Franklin Society) is presented annually to a pioneering woman in the industrial biotechnology and agriculture sectors.
Japanese American biologist and biochemist Ruby Hirose overcame anti-Asian racism and violence to save countless lives with her groundbreaking research, which led to the development of the polio vaccine. Hirose was among 10 women in 1940 to be recognized by the American Chemical Society for accomplishments in chemistry.
Katalin Karikó is a Hungarian-American biochemist and an expert in RNA-mediated processes. She has been working on the creation of in vitro-transcribed mRNA for protein treatments. She co-founded RNARx where she served as its CEO from 2006 through 2013. She created the modified mRNA technology utilized in the COVID-19 infection-prevention vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna alongside Dr. Drew Weissman.
Got masks? Thank Sara Little Turnbull, whose 1972 face mask design led to the medical-grade N95. 3M hired her to explore uses for a new melded polymer fiber material, which she realized might block disease particles. Turnbull also consulted for DuPont, Pfizer, and NASA, designing things like medication delivery systems, space suits, and household cleaning products.
Dr. Alaa Murabit is the Director of Health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in charge of coordinating global health advocacy and policy. Dr. Murabit also works for the UN as a High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment and Economic Growth and as one of 17 Global Sustainable Development Goal Advocates appointed by the UN Secretary General. Her work has impacted policy making in 193 nations and improved the lives of billions of people. Dr. Murabit is an award-winning global security strategist, women’s rights activist, and physician. Most recently, she was chosen as a 2021 Harvard Radcliffe Fellow and a 2022 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
Dr. Julie Gerberding is the current CEO of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH). She formerly served as Merck’s Executive Vice President for Population Health and Sustainability and Chief Patient Officer. Dr. Gerberding, a former director of the CDC and a known expert in public health, is devoted to addressing some of the most pressing health issues of the day and making a lasting influence globally. These include creating novel medications and vaccines that address significant unmet medical needs, making investments in innovations that protect health and well-being, and advocating for health policies that support biomedical innovation in order to increase health security and ensure that all people have access to better health.
Seema Kumar is the CEO of Cure, a health care innovation campus and was Johnson & Johnson’s former Vice President of Innovation, Global Health and Policy Communication. In addition to her nearly two-decade-long tenure at J&J, she has been in charge of directing the company’s COVID-19 vaccine external affairs efforts for the past two years. Kumar worked around the clock as a member of the J&J vaccine-steering committee, leading the communication and public affairs initiatives for the company, and developing an honorable program for the general public to educate them on COVID and the importance of vaccine literacy during the pandemic.
Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to have been granted an MD degree. In spite of being turned away by 10 medical schools due to her gender, Blackwell persisted and ultimately gained admission to Geneva Medical College in western New York. She went on to co-found the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children to serve the poor.
Mary Putnam Jacobi was an American doctor who was the first woman to study at L’École de Médecine in Paris. In 1872, she created the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women to address inequities in women’s medical education. She is also known for debunking sexist myths about menstruation, writing a paper refuting a Harvard professor’s book on the matter; her paper won Harvard’s Boylston Prize and helped advance the cause of women’s rights in the field of higher education.
Canadian-American pharmacologist and general practitioner Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey joined the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1960, where her work would lead to laws strengthening FDA oversight of pharmaceuticals. As a reviewer at FDA, she was criticized for her refusal to authorize the sleeping drug thalidomide because of her concerns about dangerous side effects—which would prove to be correct when the drug was shown to cause serious birth defects. She was the second woman to receive the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, in 1962, and the first person to win the FDA’s Drug Safety Excellence Award in 2010.
The first mainland Chinese scientist and the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize, pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou discovered a treatment in the 1970s, artemisinin, for malaria, based on her study of traditional Chinese medicine. She was one of three individuals to win the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery, though she received a half share. Now 91 years old, she is the chief scientist at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine.