Women Nobel Laureates

On October 5, May-Britt Moser became the 16th woman to win the Nobel Prize in science or medicine. Moser, a Norwegian neuroscientist, won the coveted prize for her part in discovering those important cells in your brain that allow you to navigate your surroundings and remember where you are — the ones that will get you, for example, to your favorite coffee shop after you’ve finished reading this post.

Moser and the other women Nobel laureates in the disciplines of physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine comprise fewer than 3 percent of the 575 winners in those fields since 1895, the year Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel (the inventor of dynamite) established the honor.

Polish-born physicist Marie Curie, of course, is a familiar name in the history of science and the only woman to have won twice (once in chemistry, a second time in physics), putting the total of women-won prizes at 17. But it’s a good guess that few would recognize the name of French virologist Francoise Barré-Sinoussi, co-discoverer of HIV. Or Gerty Theresa Cori, who shared the prize for studies in the catalytic conversion of glycogen. Or Maria Goeppert-Mayer for her work on the structure of the nuclear shell.=

Everyone knows about the prize, yet few Nobel laureates, male or female, ever become household names. Their legacy lies in the science they did, not in the kudos they won. To quote American biochemist and 1988 Nobel laureate Gertrude Elion, “It is amazing what you can achieve if you don’t care who takes the credit.”

Still, credit matters in a world where resources are scarce. The Nobel is a singular validation for scientific achievement — arguably the world’s most coveted imprimatur on a life of science. In this rarified realm, women have leaned in against long odds in male spheres of study. Seventeen times, they’ve pushed through to achieve that highest of honors. I suggest that it’s well worth your time to read about these amazing women. They remind us that even when no one takes you seriously or wants to fund you — the plight so many of these brilliant women endured — greatness in science is achievable through passion and determination, with or without the prize.

Mary Phillips directs the OSU Office for Research Development