5 Wonder Women in STEM!

In this month’s Wonder Women Wednesday post, we feature not one – but five – inspirational women who have made significant contributions to the STEM fields. While these five women cover a broad range of disciplines, they have all overcome adversity in order to pursue their passions in STEM.

Edith Humphrey (1875-1978)

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               Humphrey was a British inorganic chemist who is believed to be the first British woman to obtain a doctorate in chemistry. As a child, Humphrey was fortunate enough to attend North London Collegiate School, one of the first girls’ schools to include science in the UK curriculum. Humphrey continued her studies in chemistry and physics at Bedford College, London, before completing her PhD at the University of Zurich in chemistry. Humphrey’s research focused on studying a series of geometrically isomeric cobalt complexes which became instrumental in the development and proof of Werner’s coordination theory. Following her PhD, she moved to Leipzig to conduct more research. This transition was not easy and “she wasn’t allowed in any Leipzig laboratories, as it was thought that her presence there would distract the men.” Eventually she moved back to England to continue her work as a research chemist. 

Muriel Wheldale Onslow (1880-1932)

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              Onslow was a scientist who combined genetics with biochemistry. Her work on the inheritance of flower color in snapdragons became one of the foundations of modern genetics. She also made significant discoveries in the field of biochemistry, including the discovery of anthocyanins, a group of pigments in plants. Her work has paved the way for future genetics research. Her route to success however was not easy. After achieving First Class Honors in her studies on botany at the Newnham College in Cambridge, she received no degree because Cambridge did not award degrees to women at the time. She overcame this adversity however, and in 1926, became one of the first appointed women lecturers at Cambridge. 

Lynn Margulis (1938-2011)

               Lynn Margulis is an American evolutionary theorist whose work in evolutionary biology has been fundamental to our understanding of endosymbiosis. Margulis studied cells and the idea that over time, natural selection acting on mutations could generate new adaptations and new species. Her work has been immensely important in explaining the process of symbiosis in biological evolution. However, before she received any sort of praise for her work, she also dealt with extreme criticism. For instance, it is stated that one of her grant applications with rejected with the harsh response, “your research is crap, do not bother to apply again.” This type of criticism didn’t phase Margulis however, and she continued her research and stuck by her theory until it proved to be one of the greatest accomplishments in endosymbiosis.

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012)

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               Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian neurobiologist and Nobel laureate, known for her discovery of nerve growth factor. After graduating from high school, Levi-Montalcini attended the University of Turin Medical School where she graduated summa cum laude with an MD. She went on to work as neurohistologist Giuseppe Levi’s assistant, before her academic career was halted due to Benito Mussolini’s 1938 Manifesto of Race, which barred Jews from academic and professional careers. As a result, Levi-Montalcini’s research was conducted in the confines of her bedroom. She conducted experiments from her home laboratory to study the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos, which laid the foundation for much of her later research. Fortunately, Levi-Montalcini’s achievements were eventually recognized, and she was the joint recipient of a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Chien Shiung-Wu (1912-1997)

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               Chien Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American physicist who made significant contributions to the field of nuclear physics. Wu worked on the Manhattan Project where she helped to develop a process for separating uranium metal. Her most well known achievement however, is conducting the Wu experiment, where she contradicted the hypothetical law of conservation parity. This discovery was pivotal in the work of her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, both of whom won the Nobel Prize in Physics for this work. Many people claim that Wu was cheated out of her Nobel Prize, possibly due to sexism by the selection committee at the time. Today, Wu’s achievements and contributions are acknowledged, and she has garnered the nicknames, “The First Lady of Physics” and the “Chinese Madame Curie.” 

Article Written By: Lisa He









Florence Bascom (1862-1945)

“I have always claimed there was no merit in being the only one of a kind…I have considerable pride in the fact that some of the best work done in geology today by women, ranking with that done by men, has been done by my students…”

Florence Bascom

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Florence Bascom was a woman of many firsts and a huge proponent in expanding career opportunities for women in science. She was one of the first women to obtain a Ph.D. from an American university in the field of geology. She was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. She was the first woman to join the United States Geological Survey. She was the first woman to present a paper before the Geological Society of Washington. She was the first woman elected to the Council of the Geological Society of America. She was the first woman officer of the Geological Society of America. And she founded Bryn Mawr College’s geology department – a site that would train some of the most accomplished female geologists in the early 20th century. She serves as a role model for ambitious women in the sciences who want to reach their dreams and aspirations despite the odds. Thus, this week’s Wonder Woman Wednesday post is dedicated to honoring the life and legacy of this woman of many firsts!

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Bascom was born in Massachusetts on July 14th, 1862, to a great family that actively supported women’s rights and had interest in the natural sciences. Her father was Dr. John Bascom, a professor of oratory and rhetoric at Williams College. He became the president of the University of Wisconsin in 1874, and his university began admitting women in 1875, affording Florence Bascom the opportunity to enroll in 1877. Despite having access to an education, Florence was still a product of the sexist times and only had limited access to the library, gym, and classrooms already filled with men, just like other women students at the time. Following her passion for geology, Florence continued her schooling and was only permitted to take graduate classes at Johns Hopkins University in 1889 under the conditions that she would not be an officially enrolled student and that she would be forced to sit behind a screen to prevent being disruptive to the male students. She was secretly accepted into the doctoral program in 1892, and she produced an astonishingly brilliant dissertation in 1893 that earned her the first ever Ph.D. granted by Johns Hopkins University to a woman.

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Bascom was an expert in mineralogy, crystallography, and petrology. Her dissertation was an important contribution to geology because she showed that rocks that were originally considered sedimentary were actually metamorphosed lava flows. She used cutting-edge methodology at the time to coordinate petrographic work with fieldwork. Part of Bascom’s work focused on the field of petrology, the study of how present-day rocks were formed. Petrology is considered one of the most essential components of geology because understanding the rock record is the foundation for interpreting Earth history and internal processes. Petrology helps scientists understand the Earth system and its connections with related fields like mineralogy, geochemistry, structural geology, and geophysics. Furthermore, it can be applicable to societal issues including natural hazards, natural resources, and even human health issues. Bascom focused a lot of her research on the Appalachian Piedmont region, establishing herself as an expert on crystalline rocks in the area, and publishing over 40 papers on the subject. Her contributions to Piedmont geology are still valued and used by geologists today.

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But Bascom’s legacy goes beyond her research contributions. She was also an educator that worked to train a new generation of young women in the field of geology. Through her hard work, dedication, and excellence, she was able to establish a geology department at Bryn Mawr College and elevate the status of geology in comparison with other natural sciences. Throughout the years, she has trained and mentored many successful women in science including crystallographer Mary Porter, paleontologist Julia Gardner, petroleum geologist Maria Stadnichenko, and glacial geomorphologist Ida Ogilvie, just to name a few.

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Article Written By: Lisa He






Jocelyn Bell Burnell

One of the things women bring to a research project, or indeed any project, is they come from a different place, they’ve got a different background. Science has been named, developed, interpreted by white males for decades and women view the conventional wisdom from a slightly different angle — and that sometimes means they can clearly point to flaws in the logic, gaps in the argument, they can give a different perspective of what science is.

– Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born on July 15, 1943 in Northern Ireland. As a child, she was already vastly exposed to the field of astronomy because her father was an architect for the Armagh Observatory where she would spent much of her childhood. She then attended Glasgow University where to earned a Physics degree, followed by University of Cambridge, where she completed her Ph.D under her advisor, Antony Hewish. During her time as a Ph.D. student, Burnell helped to construct a huge radio telescope to monitor quasars.

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Quasars are extremely bright and distant objects in our universe. Upon their discovery in the 1960’s, quasars were known as radio stars because they were discovered to be a strong source of radio waves. However, as technology advanced and telescopes improved, astronomers discovered that quasars aren’t actually true stars, but actually some type of star-like objects. Even today, it is unclear exactly what these objects are. What we do know for certain is that they emit enormous amounts of energy, some of which can produce 10 to even 100 times more energy than our entire galaxy. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that quasars are produced by super massive black holes consuming matter in an acceleration disk. As the black holes devour large masses, enormous amounts of energy are ejected. On the contrary, other scientists believe that quasars may be the opposite of black holes – namely, points in space where new matter enters our universe, or where galaxies begin to form.

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As Burnell reviewed the data from her experiments that monitored the quasars, she discovered a series of regular radio pulses that didn’t fit with the patterns produced by quasars. They called these radio pulses “Little Green Men” to reference their potentially artificial origins, and over the next few months, they did everything they could to rule of potential causes of these pulses. Eventually, Burnell and her advisor Hewish discovered that these signals were from rapidly spinning, super-dense collapsed stars, later named pulsars.

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Pulsars belong to a family of cosmic objects called neutron stars that form when a star collapses on itself, a type of stellar death that typically creates a massive explosion called a supernova. The dense material left over after this explosive death is what is known as a neutron star. From Earth, pulsars look like flickering stars, but in reality, pulsars actually radiate two steady, narrow beams of light in opposite directions. These light beams appear to flicker because of the spin associated with the pulsar. Pulsars are useful for scientists because they can give information about the physics of neutron stars, they can act as very accurate natural clocks in the universe, and they can potentially help scientists identify the presence of alien planets. Most of these benefits can be attributed to the precision of the pulses of pulsars. Since pulsars appear to blink very regularly, they are a great way to monitor what is happening in nearby space, because any slight changes are indicative of changes in the surroundings. Other applications of pulsars include calculating cosmic distances, and even testing aspects of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

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The discovery of pulsars was published in February 1968 and garnered immediate attention. However, in 1974, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded only to Hewish and Ryle for the discovery, omitting Burnell. Many scientists objected and protested, claiming that Burnell had been unfairly snubbed of the Nobel Prize. Although gender discrimination was probably a contributing factor, Burnell humbly accepted not receiving the prize, acknowledging that she thought it was a fair decision considering her status as merely a graduate student at the time. Despite not receiving the Nobel Prize, Burnell’s contributions and knowledge had already earned her recognition and respect amongst the scientific community. Later in her life, Burnell received a plethora of awards in recognition of her incredible achievements, including Commander and Dame of the Order of the British Empire, an Oppenheimer Prize, the Herschel Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, and many other honorary degrees.

Article Written By: Lisa He








Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

As a scientist Miss [Rosalind] Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.

— John Desmond Bernal

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Today’s Wonder Woman Wednesday post is dedicated to Rosalind Franklin, a huge contributor to the discovery of the double helix structure in DNA. Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920 in London, England to an affluent family, affording her the opportunity to receive an education. Initially, her father was opposed to her studies in chemistry and wanted her to pursue a more “ladylike” field, like sociology. However, Franklin went against her father’s will and followed her passion and excellence in the sciences. After years of schooling in chemistry, Rosalind Franklin obtained her Ph.D. in 1945 for her work on “The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal.” Later, she worked at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris, where she learned x-ray diffraction techniques that would later prove extremely important in her greatest discovery – the discovery of the structure of DNA. Furthermore, her research also involved using x-ray techniques to create images of crystalized solids in analyzing complex, unorganized matter.

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After hundreds of hours of x-ray exposure through her work, Rosalind Franklin and her student Raymond Gosling made a breakthrough when they took pictures of DNA and obtained photograph 51, a photo of the wet “B” form of DNA that would later provide critical evidence for the identification of DNA structure. To anyone familiar with x-ray diffraction, photo 51 was clear cut evidence that there was indeed a helix involved in the structure of DNA. This single photo conveyed a plethora of information, including the distance between each full twist of the helix, the diameter of the helix, and even how the chemical groups (such as the phosphate groups and the nucleotide bases) were arranged throughout DNA.

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Unfortunately for Rosalind Franklin, colleague Maurice Wilkins gained access to the photo in 1953 and showed the photograph to James Watson without Franklin’s permission. Together with Francis Crick, Watson used the photo as the basis for their own DNA research, and ultimately published their model of DNA, claiming all the credit for the finding as their own, despite using Franklin’s photo as the main foundation for their work. Watkins and Crick went on to receive a Nobel Prize for their DNA model. Franklin, on the other hand, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, likely due to the huge radiation exposure that she endured during her career. Franklin passed away on April 16, 1958 at the age of 37. Although she was posthumously recognized for her contribution to the DNA structure, she never received a Nobel Prize because the prize could only be awarded to alive recipients.

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While Franklin’s role in the discovery of the structure of DNA was largely unacknowledged during her lifetime, the gravity of her contributions was eventually recognized after her death. Crick himself later admitted that Franklin had been only steps away from the solution to the DNA structure herself. Although Franklin did not receive a Nobel Prize, many people believe that she deserved explicit mention in the award and that her role in the discovery was completely overlooked, partially due to the sexist nature surrounding science at the time.

Rosalind Franklin’s contributions to the chemical and biological sciences are still felt today. Without Franklin’s research and photo 51, the structure of DNA may still remain a mystery even today. Without knowing the precise structure of DNA, many technological advancements including bioengineering and biotechnological techniques would not be possible. Franklin’s work has contributed vastly to understanding genetics and enabling advancements in science and medicine. Posthumously, Franklin has been widely acknowledged and honored, and there are now many facilities, scholarships, and research grants, especially for women, rightfully named in her honor; allowing her legacy to live on.

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Article Written By: Lisa He










Maria Mayer 1906-1972

Winning the prize wasn’t half as exciting as doing the work itself.

-Maria Goeppert-Mayer

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Maria Mayer was a physicist and mathematician who helped to make huge advancements in the world of nuclear chemistry and physics. Amongst her many achievements, her greatest contribution was the proposal of a nuclear shell model. Her research and life work afforded her the Nobel prize in physics in 1963, making her the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for theoretical physics and the second woman in history to win a Nobel Prize at all (after Marie Curie). Thus, Maria Mayer is the subject of this week’s Wonder Woman Wednesday post!

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Maria Mayer was born on June 28, 1906 in Germany. Consistent with the times, her ascent into the upper realms of academia was not easy as a woman. After obtaining her PhD under Max Born at the University of Gottingen in 1930, and holding a doctorate for years, she was still largely limited to unpaid and unofficial work in university laboratories. Her early career consisted of taking on a variety of different positions including both teaching and research jobs. Fortunately, she was eventually offered a job at Argonne National Laboratory, managed by the University of Chicago, which allowed her to work with Edward Teller, and delve into her research interests.

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Her primary research interests were concerned with developing a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells, similar to electron shell structure in atoms. She proposed that inside the nucleus, protons and neutrons are arranged in a series of nucleon layers. Furthermore, each nucleon moves in a central potential well created by other nucleons, just as the electrons orbit a potential well created by the nucleus in the atomic shell model. The orbits form a series of shells increasing in energy, and the nuclei with completely filled outer shells are the most stable. She studied the elements and noticed the repetition of seven magic numbers: 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, and 126. Initially, she was unable to figure out a theoretical explanation, until asked about spin-orbit coupling. This simple question immediately made everything fall into place for Mayer, allowing her to finish her computations immediately because she realized that the phenomenon was due to the spin orbit coupling, in which the electron spinning on an axis was coupled with the electron’s orbit around the nucleus. All of this work ultimately led to Maria Mayer winning the Nobel prize for theoretical physics.

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Prior to winning the Nobel Prize in 1963, Maria Mayer was already recognized for her accomplishments and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Her legacy will live on and her contributions to the field of nuclear chemistry and physics have helped shape our understanding of nuclear shells and elements.

Article Written By: Lisa He







Ruzena Bajcsy

“Many people think of robotics as mechanical things, but robotics is also perception – and communication between machines.” – Ruzena Bajcsy

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Today is Wednesday which means it’s time for another Wonder Woman Wednesday post! Today’s feature is Ruzena Bajcsy, an electrical engineer and computer scientist, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. Bajcsy received her PhD in electrical engineering from Slovak Technical University, and her PhD in computer science from Stanford. She was actually the first woman to obtain an electrical engineering PhD in Slovakia, which afforded her the opportunity to come to the United States and attend Stanford. Throughout the years, Bajcsy has garnered an incredible reputation through her research contributions and outstanding leadership. She founded UC Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRUS) where she is now director emeritus. She has published over 225 articles in journals and conference proceedings, 25 book chapters, and 66 technical reports. And she has received numerous awards for all of these accomplishments, including the Benjamin Franklin Medal for Computer and Cognitive Sciences, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Award, and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Allen Newell Award. She was also named one of the 50 most important women in science in Discover Magazine’s November 2002 issue. Today, we will take a look at the main contributions that have afforded Bajcsy these awards.

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Bajcsy’s research focuses on a wide range of subjects including artificial intelligence, biosystems and computational biology, control, intelligent systems, and robotics, graphics and human computer interaction, computer vision, and security. Furthermore, she believes strongly in cross-disciplinary research, which is evident in the fact that she has a strong interest in biology and psychology. For example, she has looked at the sensory and motor adaptations in living organisms, and then translated that into her robotics work to determine how much sensor is needed in robots. Her cross-disciplinary talents have allowed her to bridge diverse areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, engineering, and cognitive science. The two contributions in which Bajcsy is most well known for are “active perception” and “elastic matching.”

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Until the 1980s, the model for robotic vision was to interpret and analyze still images taken from static cameras and sensors. Bajcsy however, suggested a more effective method called “active perception” in which moving sensors would allow a machine to gather more information from the surroundings. This idea revolutionized the robotics field because it improved robotic perception greatly, and thus lead to a streamlining in robotic movement as well. Bajcsy was able to recognize and execute the need for robots to act more like humans to perceive their surroundings effectively. Furthermore, this paradigm of vision became applicable to the understanding of human vision, becoming the leading theory for human visual perception. This just goes to show the powerful cross-disciplinary effects of Bajcsy’s work.

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The other contribution by Bajcsy, known as “elastic matching” has transformed and improved medical imaging. The technique involves matching up defined points on anatomical structures and organs, allowing the structures to automatically, align, measure, and analyze the uniquely shaped body parts of an individual. By elastically fitting the deformed images into the idealized medical images, a computer can easily identify body parts and spot anomalies or problems. This has improved medicine by advancing non-invasive measurements of brain structure and function, for example.

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Bajcsy is a female scientist who has made significant contributions to multiple fields using her interdisciplinary work, in which the influences of psychology and biology on computer science and robotics is evident and necessary. Robots are commonly modeled after the human body after all, and perhaps in the future they will resemble human beings more and more closely. The contributions of scientists like Bajcsy, have initiated these scientific advancements in robotics and will continue to allow science to move forward. Thus, Bajcsy is our Wonder Woman this Wednesday because of both her cross-disciplinary research and her outstanding leadership in the creation of a world class robotics laboratory.

Article Written By: Lisa He















Virginia Apgar (1909-1974)

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If you have ever been in the maternity ward of a hospital or seen the birth of a newborn baby, you may have heard of the Apgar Test. It is a quick assessment of the well-being of a newborn, and it measures many vital indicators of health including a baby’s color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, and respiration. Each of the health indicators are rated from zero to two, for a final maximum score of ten. The Apgar score is necessary for physicians to determine whether immediate medical attention is needed following the birth of a baby. This Apgar score was revolutionary for the field of neonatology because it recognized that a newborn’s needs should be the main priority, and it helped to increase health and survival rates during a time when babies were given little attention after birth. The invention of the Apgar score came about with the research of Virginia Apgar; who is the subject of this week’s Wonder Woman Wednesday post!

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Virginia Apgar was determined to become a doctor from a very young age, possibly due to her father’s scientific hobbies, her brother’s death from tuberculosis, or her other brother’s chronic childhood illness. She attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and went on to excel in a surgical internship. However, she soon struggled to find a training program in anesthesiology because it was not recognized as a specialty until later on. Apgar was even discouraged by Dr. Alan Whipple from continuing her studies because other women Whipple had trained in surgery failed to establish successful careers. Despite all this, she trained with Dr. Ralph Waters in the first ever department of anesthesia in the United States at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Eventually, Apgar successfully became an anesthesiologist, and later went on to become the first women full professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

A huge part of her career involved studying obstetrical anesthesia, where she looked at the effects of the anesthesia given to a mother during labor on the baby. This work led to the famous Apgar Score, which was the first standardized method for evaluating a newborn. Despite some initial resistance, the Apgar Score later became the standard test. She then went on to continue to study the effects of labor, delivery, and maternal anesthetics on the baby and related that to the Apgar score. This led to important findings; such as the fact that babies with low blood oxygen levels and highly acidic blood had low Apgar scores, and that giving cyclopropane anesthesia was also likely to result in a low score.

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Later in her life, Virginia Apgar dedicated herself to preventing birth defects through public education and fundraising for research. She even became the director of the division of congenital defects at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (which is now called the March of Dimes). She devoted herself to spreading awareness about birth defect prevention, and gave many lectures and even co-wrote a book on the topic. Her contributions to science in the classroom, the laboratory, and in the clinical setting gained her many awards and accolades.

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Virginia Apgar truly was an inspirational female scientist who made great contributions to perinatology and helped to prevent thousands of infant deaths. Her Apgar scoring system has become the standard medical procedure for newborns and has resulted in the prevention of thousands of infant deaths.

Article Written By: Lisa He