Meet 12 Badass Scientists…Who Also Happen to be Women — TED Fellows
What do you see when you picture a scientist? Is it a white man in a lab coat? This portrait will smash that stereotype …
By Karen Eng

“This week, a cab driver asked me, ‘What do men say when you tell them you’re a scientist? Because you don’t look like a scientist,’” marine biologist Kristen Marhaver says. “In this picture, I see a twinkle in each of our eyes, saying, ‘No, that’s the thing, sir. I do look like a scientist.’”

Badass Scientist of the Week: Dr. Nathalie Cabrol 

Dr. Nathalie Cabrol is a planetary scientist and explorer currently working with the SETI institute. 

Born near Paris, she spent her childhood fascinated with the world above her head and the world below her feet. She pursued her interest in science and gained a degree in Earth Sciences at Nanterre University, but was soon hooked on planetary science when a professor showed her maps of Mars in the mid 1980s. Cabrol gained her Masters and P.h.D from Sorbonne, and while she was a P.h.D student, she became interested in the formation of lakes on Mars—an area that very few scientists were talking of at the time. 

In 1994, Cabrol took up a postdoctoral position at NASA. She was influential in arguing for Gusev Crater to be the landing site of the Mars Spirit Rover, on the basis that it may have housed water billions of years ago—and sure enough, Spirit found traces of ancient salty water in the rocks. 

Now a senior research scientist at SETI—the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—as well a member of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Team, Cabrol is focused on searching for evidence for life in the solar system, especially Mars. She is currently looking for signs of subsurface life, but while she uses evidence from the Mars rovers in her work, she also uses a lot of evidence from here on Earth, by studying extreme terrestrial environments that may be similar to the Martian environment billions of years ago. The Andes are especially pertinent to her research, as the elevated lakes are exposed to high UV radiation—in fact, her expeditions to one of the highest lakes in the world, atop 20,000-foot volcano Licancabur in South America, have uncovered new microbial and zooplankton species, and she’s planning further research in the Arctic, Antarctic, and Australia. 

Cabrol is also currently leading the Planetary Lake Lander project, which is developing strategies to explore the lakes of Titan and to monitor the impact of melting glaciers on the biodiversity in the Chilean Andes. These results are also expected to give insight into the potential of lie on Mars.

According to Cabrol, exploring Mars and its environment is vitally important because it can act as a warning sign, showing us the potential future of Earth. 

Watch Dr. Nathalie Cabrol’s TED Talk

Badass Scientist of the Week: Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper (1906–1992) was a pioneer computer scientist who primarily helped to develop programming languages. She graduated from Vassar College with a B.A. in mathematics in 1928, then went on to teach at Vassar while simultaneously earning her MA and PhD. She came from a military family, and so it was not surprising when she left her position of associate professor in to join the United States Naval Reserve. In 1944, she was appointed to a research team at Harvard University to work on the electromechanical Mark I computing machine. Her main aim was to create a program called the compiler to translate English language instructions into the language of the computer—she realised that in order to give computers a larger audience, programming languages must be developed so that anyone could use them. In 1949, Hopper join the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation to provide businesses with computers, and began to work on the first large-scale electronic digital computer. She later returned to the Navy as a leader in the Naval Data Automation Command, and after she retiring from the Navy, she became a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation and worked well into her eighties. She died in 1992 and was buried with full Naval honours. Her visionary contributions to computer science were vital to the sophisticated computers we know today, but Hopper felt her greatest contribution had been “all the young people I’ve trained.”

Badass Scientist of the Week: Richard Feynman

Richard P. Feynman (1918–1988) was perhaps the most original theoretical physicist of his time, best known for his work in quantum mechanics and particle physics. He taught himself elementary mathematics before he learnt it in school, and by fifteen he’d mastered differential and integral calculus. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree at MIT in 1939 (after switching from mathematics to electrical engineering to physics), and then went on to receive his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1942, where he assisted in the development of the atomic bomb project. Feynman soon became head of the theoretical division of the project in Los Alamos. After WWII, he was appointed as a professor of theoretical physics at Cornell University, and in 1950 he moved to Caltech to fill the same position, returning to researching the quantum theory of electrodynamics he’d been working on before the war, including the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, and a model of weak decay. He was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1965 with Schwinger and Tomonoga for his fundamental work in this field. His other work included particle spin and a theory of ‘partons’, which led to the current theory of quarks, and he wrote many popular books. He became part of a committee to investigate the explosion on the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and became a public scientific figure, but his health gradually deteriorated. Cancer was found in his abdomen, and he died in 1988. He’s remembered for his insatiable curiosity, gentle wit, brilliant mind and playful temperament.

Badass Scientist of the Week: Dr. Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa (1958—) is an astronaut, engineer and musician best known as the world’s first Hispanic female astronaut. Born in Los Angeles, Ochoa completed her undergraduate degree in physics at San Diego State University in 1975, then went on to achieve her Masters and PhD at Stanford University in electrical engineering. She’s a pioneer of spacecraft technology—she researched optical systems for automated space exploration at the NASA Ames Research Center, and she has co-invented an optical inspection system, an optical object recognition method, and a method to remove noise from images. In 1990, she was selected by NASA as a mission specialist and flight engineer, and served on her first space flight in 1993: a nine-day mission on the shuttle Discovery, during which the crew conducted atmospheric and solar studies, and Ochoa operated a research satellite in the study of the sun. Ochoa went on to undertake four space flights in total, logging over 950 hours in space. Her assignments while in the Astronaut Office included flight software, computer hardware development, and robotics development, and her awards include NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal (1997), Outstanding Leadership Medal (1995) and Space Flight Medals (2002, 1999, 1994, 1993). Aside from being an astronaut, Ochoa is also a classical flutist and a private pilot, and she currently lives in Texas with her husband and two children, where she serves as Director of Flight Crew Operations at Johnson Space Center, Houston.

Badass Scientist of the Week: Mae Jemison

Born in 1956 to a maintenance worker and a teacher, Mae Jemison graduated high school at sixteen and went on to simultaneously earn a BS in Chemical Engineering and a BA in African-American Studies from Stanford University. She studied medicine at Cornell, during which she travelled to Cuba, Kenya and Thailand to provide medical care, then served as a medical officer in the Peace Corps from 1983–1985 in Sierra Leone and West Africa, where she researched Hepatitis B, schistosomaisis and rabies vaccines. After returning to the US, Jemison enrolled in graduate engineering classes and applied to NASA’s astronaut program. Her first application was turned down, but in 1987 she was chosen as one of fifteen candidates out of 2,000 applicants. In 1992, she became a co-investigator on bone cell research on the shuttle Endeavour (STS-47 Spacelab-J), a cooperative mission between the US and Japan. The mission lasted eight days—Jemison logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds in space, making her the first female African-American astronaut. Oh, and she’s also fluent in Russian, Japanese and Swahili, she’s trained in dance and choreography, and she was the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek in 1993.

Badass Scientist of the Week: Felix Baumgartner

Felix Baumgartner (1969–) is an Austrian skydiver known for his daredevil stunts. He spiralled to fame last week when became the first man to break the sound barrier in a breathtaking, death-defying jump from the edge of space. Born Salzburg, Austria, Felix began to skydive at 16, and honed his expertise in the military as part of a demonstration and competition team. In 1988, Baumgartner teamed up with Red Bull and began to perform skydiving exhibitions, and in the 1990s he set his sights beyond traditional skydiving, and made record-breaking BASE jumps—which involve parachuting off low-altitude fixed landforms or objects, and require lightning-fast reflexes and precision. Baumgartner then turned his gaze to the sky. I’ve previously written about Joseph Kittinger, who made a record breaking skydive in 1960 at an altitude of 31 kilometres—and under Kittinger’s mentorship, Baumgartner made a jump from a 39 kilometres up. He was so high that he was actually in the stratosphere—the edge of space—and had to wear a spacesuit to survive. If there had been the slightest crack or tear in his suit, it would have instantly depressurised and Baumgartner’s blood would have boiled. If this didn’t faze him, then it’s unsurprising that a mere technical malfunction—causing the fogging of his visor on the ascent up—didn’t bother him either. This nearly forced the mission to abort, but the unshakable Baumgartner made the badass decision to jump anyway. He was in freefall for 4 minutes and 19 seconds, and reached speeds of 1342 km/h (1.24 times the speed of sound)—so he smashed he soundbarrier and broke world records for highest jump, highest balloon flight, and fastest jump. Luckily, he didn’t break himself, and landed successfully on Earth in one piece. His last words before the milestone jump: “Sometimes, you have to go up really high to understand how small you are.”

Watch the recap of the jump