by Ladann Kiassat //
Dating back to third century BCE ancient Egypt, the first recorded woman in medicine was Merit Ptah. Even though some argue that she might not have existed, she is representative of female physicians who were pioneers in medicine and science. Fast forward to the 21st century where technology, medicine, and engineering continue to make strides day in and day out, we begin to look back and remember those that took initiative in the face of scrutiny years ago, creating a culture of educational rebellion for the modern-day women.
For years, STEM has been dominated by the male make, and although there seems to be nothing wrong with this, our society has seen a slow climb of more and more women entering into STEM. In fact, according to the AAMC, for the first time since 2004, more women than men applied to U.S. medical schools, with women comprising 50.9% of applicants. In addition to this, women were also the majority of matriculants (new enrollees) to medical school for the second year in a row (51.6% versus 50.7% in 2017). We owe our slow, yet steady, climb to the brave and passionate women who have come before us, paving the path for women to become the most bold and audacious form of themselves.
As a young woman in STEM, I would like to pay tribute to some valiant women in the realm of STEM, who confidently marched into the uncharted waters of a male dominated industry, establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with, inspiring me to achieve my dreams one day at a time. Born in 1918, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for lifelong work as a pioneering physicist, mathematician, and space scientist. A teacher and research mathematician, she co-authored over 25 scientific papers. Katherine Johnson, an African American innovator, pioneered the way for the representation of women in space exploration. Additionally, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson’s colleagues, did the calculations that guided NASA’s 1962 Friendship 7 Mission.
Moving from life in space to life on earth, Radia Perlman is noted as an early computer scientist. Perlman was a student of MIT in the 60’s, she is noted in history as becoming an internet pioneer, developing the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), an innovation that made today’s Internet possible. She also invented TRILL to correct limitations of STP which allows for everyday people to become well versed in STEM. As a thoughtful and genuine creator, Dr. Perlman even developed a child-friendly programming language used by children as young as 3 years old. As of today, Dr. Perlman holds more than 100 issued patents.
One last woman that has played a huge role in inspiring me to pursue my dreams is Rebecca Cole. Rebecca Cole graduated from medical school in 1867 and became a public health advocate, physician, and hygiene reformer in the United States. As a potent evidence-based researcher, she took issue with the biased data used to conclude that a lack of hygiene was the cause of inner-city families’ high death rate from consumption. She went on to open the Women’s Directory Center with Charlotte Abbey, providing medical and legal services to destitute women, and was appointed Superintendent of a Home and was the esteemed colleague of the first US-educated female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell.
I have been extremely grateful to be born to two hard working immigrant parents who came to the United States with the pursuit of happiness in mind, not only for themself, but for their children as well. My parents didn’t care what my siblings or I decided to undertake in life, rather they cared that whatever we decided was our destiny was free from society’s preconceived notions of what we should and shouldn’t become. As an Iranian-American woman, I have gravitated towards the pursuit of women’s health because of how in tune I am to the oppression women in Iran face for simply being a woman. With this in mind, the pursuits of women like Dr. Cole is among the top reasons why as a second-year undergraduate student I am able to believe that in the future, I have a hand in providing medical care to all types of women regardless of socioeconomic background. In one way or another, it is because of the women that have come before me that I am able to say that I am a woman of color studying STEM in the year 2021.