Women in STEM: Ruth Benerito, Grace Hopper, Lillian Gilbreth, Katherine Johnson

Shining the Spotlight on Women in STEM

Celebrated annually each March, Women’s History Month promotes the study, observance, and celebration of the vital role women play in shaping America. With the goal of amplifying women's voices to honor the past, inform the present, and inspire the future, it seems fitting to focus on a few shining STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) stars this month.

Science
You can thank American chemist Ruth Rogan Benerito for her work in developing flame-resistant, stain-free, and wrinkle-free fabrics. In fact, her scientific find was credited with saving the cotton industry in post-WWII America. Beyond this notable achievement, Benerito distinguished herself as a pioneer in bioproducts. Through her innovative thinking, Benerito created a process to harvest fats from seeds. This created a revolutionary way to nourish medical patients by feeding them intravenously—a foundational system still used in healthcare today.

Technology
If you’ve ever programmed in COBOL, you can thank Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. For nearly 45 years, Hopper was a leader in developing programming languages, taking a radical approach by writing them in English instead of mathematical notation. COBOL (an acronym for Common Business-Oriented Language) is still used around the world today. Hopper's legacy lives on at the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference—the world’s largest gathering of women in computing.

Engineering
Like many shining STEM stars, Lillian Moller Gilbreth was a “Jill of all trades.” She tapped into her expertise as both a psychologist and industrial engineer to carve a path as a management consultant specializing in efficiency and organizational psychology. While this certainly helped streamline the inner workings of major corporations, it also helped her manage her family of 12 (yes, 12!) children. You might have read her story recounted in the book Cheaper by the Dozen. Gilbreth earned many “firsts” during her storied career, including being the first female engineering professor at Purdue University and the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Mathematics
Portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the movie Hidden Figures, the late Katherine Johnson was a trailblazer in the fields of STEM. A curious and brilliant pupil, Johnson attended high school at age 13 and graduated with highest honors from West Virginia State College at 19. After attending graduate school and serving as a public school teacher, she was hired to be a “human computer” at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1953. With the launch of Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, NACA became NASA, and the Space Race was on. Johnson’s calculations and analysis were integral to many missions, including John Glenn’s famous spaceflight in 1962. Her skills were so apparent that Glenn asked for her to personally check the orbital equations from NASA’s supercomputers. “If she says they’re good,” Johnson remembers him saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and passed away in late February 2020 at 101 years of age.

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Author: Lisa Beach

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