Designing the trajectory of India’s first interplanetary spacecraft, helping a patient hear her mother’s voice for the first time in years, turning sneeze droplets into data, and carefully collecting killer snails in the hopes of finding treatments for pain and cancer—these are some pursuits and tasks of the scientists featured in a new Science Friday/HHMI series Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science, produced by Luke Groskin and me, which is an anthology of six short documentaries.

The series shows how women at the forefront of their careers navigate personal and profession challenges in their path to discovery. Showing how these researchers overcome challenges like disabilities, dangerous field conditions, and going against cultural expectations, will hopefully inspire future generations of women in STEM.

The overall challenges faced by women in STEM as a group have been well documented. Women make up half the workforce, but less than a third of STEM jobs, and are more likely than men to leave those positions. At the same time, women and scientists are underrepresented on film, and a recent survey found that most Americans aren’t able to name a living scientist. It was clear to all involved that a creative collaboration to share stories of women in science would be an ideal project and Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science was born. Filming took us from NYC to the Arctic, the Navajo Nation and India, and here are some of the scientists we met:

Rene Gifford and Allyson Sisler-Dinwiddie

Allyson Sisler-Dinwiddie was studying to become an audiologist when, one morning, after receiving a head injury in a car accident, she woke up in a world of complete silence. She wondered how she’d be able to work with the hearing impaired when she herself was deaf.  A cochlear implant restored some of her hearing, and then she met hearing researcher Rene Gifford. She became one of the first test subjects in Gifford’s multidisciplinary efforts to improve cochlear implants by manipulating electrodes that stimulate cells in the inner ear.  The results were transformative in Dinwiddie’s personal and professional life.

Nandini Harinath, Seetha Somasundaram and Minal Rohit

The Indian Space Research Organization’s first interplanetary mission was the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). The ambitious goals for MOM included becoming the first nation to reach the red planet on the first attempt and completing the mission on a tight schedule and for less than the cost of the film Gravity and a fraction of the U.S.’s MAVEN mission. Nandini Harinath, Seetha Somasundaram and Minal Rohit had leading roles in designing the mission, trajectory and payloads, which culminated with a jubilant photo that went viral, showing a celebratory control room when the mission was a success.

Lydia Bourouiba

Lydia Bourouiba’s childhood in Algeria introduced her to the waves crashing on the shore, a love of math, and awareness of the effects of diseases like tuberculosis. Now, as an applied mathematician at MIT, she films sneezes and toilet flushes in slow motion to turn droplets into data. Her work could mean new designs for hospitals and our understanding of disease transmission.

Karyn Rode

Flying in a helicopter scanning the white sea ice, for nearly equally white polar bears, is all part of the data collection process for USGS wildlife biologist Karyn Rode. Her research on polar bear nutrition and populations mean she’s darting, tranquilizing and then quickly taking measurements and samples of the bears before they wake up. Her research helps reveal how polar bears are adapting to a changing Arctic.

Mandë Holford

Killer snails that paralyze and hunt fish with venom so powerful it could, in some cases, kill a person, may be able to cure ailments, with the help of a chemist. Biochemist Mandë Holford studies peptides in venom to understand and recreate them in the lab for use to treat pain and cancer in humans. Looking to “nature’s deadliest cocktail” provides a “surprising twist” to this lethal toxin. 

Karletta Chief

Growing up on the Navajo, or Diné, Nation, Karletta Chief was familiar with impacts mines could have on communities. An explosion at a neighboring coal mine destroyed her grandmother’s house, and many of her family members became ill with black lung disease. Now, as a hydrologist, she helps the Diné and other indigenous populations contend with man-made changes to their water and communities, like when the Gold King Mine spill contaminated a main water source on the Diné Nation.

The Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science series showed in select Alamo Drafthouse Theaters across the country in March for Women’s History Month.  See more about the films, including lesson plans, and hear interviews with the researchers at: