Celebrating Women’s History Month
17 March 2023
Women and their contributions have built the foundations of our knowledge of nuclear science. Their research and discoveries have shifted commonly-held beliefs about theories in particle physics, chemistry and nuclear medicine and shaped our understanding of radiation. In honor of Women’s History Month, UUSA is celebrating the influential women who made modern work in the nuclear industry possible.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
As both a physicist and chemist, Madame Marie Curie pioneered research in radioactivity, winning two Nobel Prizes in two scientific fields. Her groundbreaking work in nuclear physics resulted in the discovery of new elements, radium and polonium, and she also developed the mobile x-ray unit which was first used in World War I to diagnose injuries. Curie is also the first woman to win the Nobel Prize.
Lise Meitner (1878-1968)
Austrian-Swedish physicist Lise Meitner was not only the second woman to receive her doctorate in physics at the University of Vienna—she also became Germany’s first female professor of physics. In 1939, Meitner also introduced the term fission to describe the splitting of a nucleus to produce energy in a nuclear chain reaction. Despite never winning a Nobel Prize, her work was nominated for the award 48 times for both physics and chemistry projects.
Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906 – 1972)
German-born American theoretical physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer is one of the most famous women who worked on the Manhattan Project. During World War II, she participated in theoretical studies of the thermodynamic properties of uranium hexafluoride gas, which would be used in the gaseous diffusion process for conducting isotopic enrichment of uranium by separating U-235 from U-238. She also won a Nobel Prize for her nuclear shell model.
Leona Woods Marshall Libby (1919-1986)
Physicist Leona Woods Marshall Libby was the youngest (and only) female team member on the Manhattan Project team working on the first nuclear reactor. She helped construct detectors for monitoring the flux of neutrons in the first atomic “pile” (the large stack of uranium and graphite blocks from which the group was building the reactor).
Many other women in science, including female mathematicians, engineers, and biologists worked alongside these prominent physicists and chemists to build the foundation that now makes up our modern understanding of nuclear science. The work of these women, and their stories, showcases the immeasurable benefit of increasing diversity and representation within Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.
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