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Underappreciated Females in Science

Hi, my name is Mackenzie and I am a BSA Academic Coordinator. I am currently completing my fourth year majoring in Ecology. I am going to highlight two stories in science: Lise Meitner and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. They are two women who worked on projects which went on to win Nobel Prizes but were not nominated.

Lise Meitner, 1878-1968

Lise Meitner was born in Austria in 1878. She studied there and then moved to Berlin after she received a doctorate degree. In Berlin, she worked with chemist Otto Hahn. They worked together for 30 years, collaborating closely. Combining her knowledge of physics and Hahn's knowledge of chemistry, they explored radioactivity and discovered protactinium (Pa).

Meitner was born to a Jewish family, so when Germany annexed Austria she had to flee to Sweden. The institute she worked at in Stockholm had a prejudice against women so she received little support. Hahn and Meitner met again in Copenhagen to plan experiments. These experiments took place in Hahn’s laboratory in Berlin. Hahn published this work and Meitner published the explanation in physical terms. Meitner named this nuclear fission.

Near the end of World War II, Hahn received the Nobel Prize for his research. Unfortunately, he had downplayed Meitner’s importance to the project so she had been overlooked for the Nobel Prize. This mistake has never been acknowledged but later in her career, Meitner received the Enrico Fermi Award with Hahn and another colleague. In 1982 a new element was discovered and in Meirner’s honour, they called it Meitnerium (Mt) which was officially accepted in 1997.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, 1943-present

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born in Northern Ireland in 1942. She received her bachelor's degree at the University of Glasgow and her doctorate at the University of Cambridge. She worked as a research assistant at Cambridge, monitoring quasars (extremely luminous active galactic nucleus). She noticed a set of regular pulses and consulted with her advisor Antony Hewish about these pulses. He was originally reluctant to study them, but she was able to persuade him. After studying these pulses, they determined they were from rapidly spinning neutron stars, now called pulsars.

In 1974, Hewish and another colleague were awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery. Several people protested her omission from the award but she accepted it as she was a student and it would not have been possible without Hewish. She has since held many prestigious positions at different institutions, anointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and Damehood.

In Conclusion

Academia is a difficult field to be in, especially as a minority. People in the past have faced a lot of prejudice due to their race, sex, and sexual orientation. Of course, it isn’t perfect yet, but it is getting a lot better. We have to continue to explore ways to break down the culture and celebrate those who make these discoveries.


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