At age 14, Sabrina Pasterski walked onto the MIT campus to request notarization of aircraft worthiness for her single-engine plane. She built it herself and had already flown the craft solo, so even within the bastion of brilliance that is MIT, people were interested. Nine years have passed, and now Pasterski is an MIT graduate and Harvard Ph.D. candidate in physics at age 23. (You can stay up to date with her many published papers and talks on her website, PhysicsGirl.com.)
Pasterski focuses on understanding quantum gravity, explaining gravity within the context of quantum mechanics. She is also interested in black holes and Spacetime. It’s probably no surprise that she’s known to the NASA scientists, and that she has a standing job offer from Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin.
Pasterski is exceptional in many ways, but she’s also part of a growing trend. In 1999, the number of people earning physics bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. was at its lowest point in four decades, with only 3,178 awarded that year. However, in 2015 things looked much different, according to the American Institute of Physics. That year 8,081 bachelor’s degrees in physics were awarded — an all-time high. Physics doctorates also reached an all-time high of 1,860 in 2015. These numbers aren’t flukes or random spikes; the numbers for the previous two years were also high.
This trend is due in part to higher enrollment and less attrition among female students. These women remain a minority in physics and astronomy, and many are still having to face challenges with impostor syndrome and mentoring. However, more female students in physics means more graduates overall and a more active scientific community in the U.S.
Sabrina Pasterski and other women in science today have benefited from being part of a proud tradition of standout female scientists. Marie S. Curie, the mother of modern physics, was the first Nobel Prize winning woman in the history of science. She was the first European female to earn a doctorate degree for her scientific research, and she later became the first woman professor and lecturer at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Curie’s work with radiation — a term she invented — transformed our understanding of the natural world, and she remains one of the most notable minds in science, regardless of gender.
Less famous — but no less significant to science — was Ada Lovelace. Intrigued by Charles Babbage’s idea for an “Analytical Engine,” a machine for computing, Lovelace published an article on the machine and developed an algorithm that would allow it to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. She saw the potential of the device and predicted that it might use its algorithms in many different ways. Ada was the first person to articulate the concept of machines following rules in order to manipulate symbols and produce graphics for scientific and practical purposes. She was recognized as the world’s first programmer posthumously.
Rounding out this look back at female scientists, we look at Dian Fossey, a conservation biologist who fought passionately to save mountain gorillas. Fossey studied endangered gorilla species in the mountain forests of Rwanda and learned to mimic the actions, behaviors, and sounds of the gorillas in order to approach them. She strongly opposed poaching, financed patrols to destroy traps, and helped arrest several poachers. In 1977, Fossey’s favorite gorilla, Digit, was killed by poachers as he defended his group against poachers. Fossey became totally focused on preventing poaching, destroying gorilla traps, capturing and humiliating the poachers, and even burning their camps. In December 1985, Fossey was found murdered in her camp in Rwanda. The case was never solved, although she is believed to have been killed by poachers.
Female scientists like Sabrina Pasterski are joining an amazing group and a proud tradition. Their work will inspire the scientists of tomorrow and change our understanding of the world — just as the work of historical female scientists did for them.