Looking back on the year that was, science mavens may notice that tributes to those who’ve passed on in the preceding 12 months are far more often filled with stars of stage, screen, politics and sport than with the pioneering women and men who have bettered our society through discovery and invention. This is especially true of women, whose contributions to the sciences are often overlooked or underappreciated. The following list of 10 women in science who left us in 2014 offers a nod to individuals whose tireless work made the world a better place, both in their lifetimes and for years to come.
A noted expert in fungal genetics, British biologist Lorna Casselton was a trailblazer whose research determined how certain species of mushroom-forming fungi reproduce. Her decades-long genetic analyses elucidated the way in which fungal genes express various possible sexes and how individual organisms go on to recognize sex in others, allowing mating to proceed. An emeritus professor at the University of Oxford, Casselton had served as a foreign secretary and vice president of the Royal Society, and in 2012 was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She died on February 14 at age 75.
Theodora “Theo” Colborn was an American zoologist whose groundbreaking research transformed our understanding of how exposure to synthetic chemicals, even in small doses, can produce lasting effects on living organisms. Her tracking of human-made chemicals in multiple generations of predator species, for example, led to coinage of the term “endocrine disruption.” Her studies also resulted in bans of bisphenol A (BPA) in consumer products and in awareness of the effects of pesticides on human sperm. A longtime Environmental Protection Agency advisor, Colborn was considered by many to be the Rachel Carson of her generation. She passed away at age 87 on December 14.
Modern computing owes a great debt to Esther Conwell, an American physicist whose early work helped determine how electrons travel through semiconducting materials. Later in her career at the University of Rochester, Conwell shifted her focus toward finding out how charges move through DNA — research that has helped scientists understand how potentially cancer-causing mutations can occur. For her remarkable accomplishments and advocacy of women in science, Conwell received many prestigious awards, including the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in 2010. She died on November 16 at age 92.
American neuroscientist and psychiatrist Allison Doupe was a leader in the field of sensory-motor learning. After establishing the roles of certain environmental factors on autonomic neurons — those that control bodily functions unconsciously — she began a new line of innovative work on the mechanisms of song learning in birds. Her pioneering research led to the discovery of how specific neurons help young songbirds learn tunes from other birds and later imitate them in the presence of possible mates. A faculty member at the University of California at San Francisco, Doupe was also a beloved mentor, doctor, and role model. She died of cancer at age 60 on October 24.
The field of geomicrobiology lost a guiding star on October 26 when American oceanographer Katrina Edwards passed away at age 46. Edwards was a leader in the largely unexplored ecology of “intraterrestrials,” a class of microbes and other organisms living beneath the ocean floor. In recent years, Edwards had piloted a number of ocean-exploration projects, including a microbial observatory at Loihi, the burgeoning Hawaiian volcano and seamount. She also established, with National Science Foundation support, the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI) at the University of Southern California, where she had been a faculty member since 2006.
Thelma Estrin was an American computer scientist and electrical engineer whose critical advances in biomedical engineering helped solidify the connection between healthcare and computer science. In the 1950s, she and her husband Gerald developed WEIZAC, the first large-scale electronic computer outside of the U.S. and Western Europe. She later helmed the data-processing lab of the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, which broke ground in applying computing to neurology. Estrin was also noted as a champion of women in the STEM fields. For her many contributions, she was inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame in 1999. Estrin died on February 15 at age 89.
Before she passed away on February 6 at age 76, American-born Alison Jolly was to lemurs what Jane Goodall is to chimps, Birut? Galdikas is to orangutans, and Dian Fossey was to gorillas: a lifelong primate observer and advocate. She is best known for her discovery in the 1960s that lemurs exhibit female social dominance — a finding that overturned the conventional wisdom that in primate species, males rule. Jolly produced numerous research papers and popular writings on lemurs and biodiversity in their native Madagascar, including a dozen children’s books. In her honor, a species of mouse lemur was named Microcebus jollyae in 2006.
While working for DuPont in the 1960s, American chemist Stephanie Kwolek was given an assignment: find a strong, lightweight fiber that could perform well in extreme conditions. She developed the liquid-crystal fibers that spin together to make Kevlar, a material that has since been used in countless applications, from life-saving body armor to sporting equipment to backplates for smartphones. Following this milestone breakthrough, Kwolek continued work on polymer chemistry at DuPont until her retirement in 1989. For her pioneering inventions, she received numerous honors, including the National Medal of Technology in 1996 and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1994. Kwolek died on June 18 at the age of 90.
Scientists and inventors are often inspired by others to find a treatment or cure for disease. For Argentine-born British pathologist and histochemist Dame Julia Polak, her own lung failure and subsequent heart-and-lung transplant led her to become one of the world’s leading tissue engineers. She founded and taught at the Imperial College Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Center in London, where she aimed to develop lab-grown organs. In 2004 her team succeeded in producing brain and lung tissue from embryonic stem cells. When she died on August 11 at age 75, Polak was one of the world’s longest-surviving lung-transplant recipients and an author of some 1,000 research papers and 25 books.
In the annals of science history, accolades are usually given to the innovators and thinkers who move their fields forward by contributing novel ideas, products, or scientific breakthroughs. All too often are forgotten those who spur others to discovery, whose careers are focused on teaching and mentoring the next generation of scientists and engineers. Such a person was Marjorie Thomposon, a longtime professor and dean of biological sciences at Brown University, who died on September 1 at the age of 60. “Dean T” advised hundreds of students each year as they wound their way through the biology program and on to myriad post-graduate paths, from medicine to bioengineering to science journalism. She was a guiding light who instilled in students that they should always follow their passions, be they in a lab, in a classroom, or on a stage.