Category Archives: Reflections

A few good days for computing and astronomy

Happy birthday on the 9th, 10th, and 11th of December to Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, and Annie Jump Cannon, respectively!

Grace Hopper: Born December 9, 1906 in New York City, Grace Hopper was said to always be curious. At the age of seven, after deciding to figure out how alarm clocks worked, she systematically dismantled seven alarm clocks in her house before her mother caught on. She graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with degrees in mathematics and physics before gaining her Ph. D. in mathematics from Yale in 1930. She taught mathematics at Vassar College until 1943, when she joined the US Navy Reserve WAVES program. Assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project in 1944 under Howard Aiken, she would co-author three papers on the developing Mark I computer over the next 5 years. In 1949, she began working on the UNIVAC I. During this project she also produced one of the first working compiler, the A compiler, in 1952. Although initially no one believed her, by 1954 she was appointed the first director of automatic programming.

In 1959, Hopper became the technical assistant in charge of developing the COBOL programming language, one of the first to use English-based code and be machine-independent. COBOL is still in use today. During the 70s, Hopper pushed for the creation of standards to test computer systems, components, and programming languages. These Navy standards led to significant convergence of programming languages used in computers and in the 80s were officially acquired by the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology. By her retirement in 1966, Hopper had been promoted to a Naval Reserve Commander, eventually achieving the rank of commodore by special Presidential Appointment. Over her life, she was made to retire from the Naval Reserve three times, although that never stopped her from continuing her work. Perhaps the best accomplishment of Rear Admiral Hopper, even according to her, was her commitment to training young people. Grace Hopper died in 1992.


Ada Lovelace: Born on December 10, 1815 as Augusta Ada Byron, she was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. Byron separated from his family soon after Ada was born. Her mother, Anne Byron (who by some accounts was also an intelligent mathematician) encouraged her daughter to study mathematics and logic in part to curb the insane romaticism she worried Ada had inherited from her father. This talent for mathematics led her to a friendship with Charles Babbage, and their working relationship led to Ada Lovelace collaborating on Babbage’s Analytical Engine. In 1842 and 1843, her work with Luigi Menabrea’s article on analytical engines culminated in what many consider the first computer program. While Babbage focused on the number-crunching capabilities of his engine, Ada Lovelace suggested that these machines could go much further into other fields of science. Ada Lovelace died at age 36 from uterine cancer. Possibly more so than any other scientist discussed thus far, I encourage everyone to read more about Lovelace’s work, and the controversy that still surrounds her contributions to science. Or, for something lighter, you could check out Kate Beaton’s Hark A Vagrant comic on Ada Lovelace, available online.


Annie Jump Cannon: As you may see in the Google Doodle, December 11 marks Annie Jump Cannon’s 151st birthday. Born in Dover, DE to a Delaware state senator, Cannon was taught about the stars from an early age by her mother. In 1884 she graduate from Wellesley College with physics and astronomy degrees. After two additional years studying solely astronomy at Radcliffe College, she was hired as an assistant at the Harvard Observatory in 1896. Hired to be one of “Pickering’s Women” (named after then observatory head E.C. Pickering) she work to empirically classify stars in the southern hemisphere. Her star classification system was created from two already known models into the now-universal O, B, A, F, G, K, M system. Between 1881 and 1924, Cannon classified more than 225,000 stars. In 1911, when she became curator of astronomical photographs, it was said she could classify as many as three stars a minute. In 1925, she became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford. She was given the Henry Draper Gold Metal by the National Academy of Sciences, and was the first female officer of the American Astronomical Society. Cannon retired in 1940, and died a year later, still living in Cambridge, MA.

Happy 100th Birthday to Hedy Lamarr

November 9th would have been Hedy Lamarr’s 100th birthday. If you weren’t aware, in addition to her acting career, Lamarr also helped invent frequency-hopping spread-spectrum signalling to prevent frequency jams of communications between submarines and torpedoes.

Lamarr was born in Austria in 1914. Her first husband, a munitions manufacturer, would take her to business lectures, where she learned the applied science of weapons and communications technology. After moving to the US and becoming an actress, Lamarr met George Antheil, an avant garde composer. During WWII, the two developed frequency hopping as a method of preventing communication jams by opposing forces. A piano roll, based on the 88 keys of a piano, was used to seemingly randomly jump the frequency of a message. Only the sender and receiver, who knew the sequence of hops in advance, could translate the message. Opposing forces couldn’t just attempt to jam every signal either, since there were too many possible hops.

Although the patent was filed in 1942, the US armed forces did not use the technology until 1962, after the patent expired. Nowadays, we can see the evolution of the Lamarr-Antheil invention in bluetooth devices and some types of wireless internet routers, which use communication technology based on Lamarr’s ideas. So if you ever you ever watch one of her movies on Netflix, remember that she helped to get that film to your computer in more ways than one.

Article written by R. Eaton. Information sourced from Wikipedia.

Female Scientist Birthday Announcements: Radiation Edition

Happy birthday to Lise Meitner (136) and Marie Curie (147)!

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878. She obtained her doctoral degree in physics from the University of Vienna in 1905 (she had to attend a private institution, since public institutes did not admit women at the time). In 1909, she began research with Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm institute, and by 1926 she was a full professor at the University of Berlin. It was while working with Hahn that she and another scientist first articulate the theory of nuclear fission to explain how uranium would break apart into smaller elements after being bombarded with neutrons. In 1938, she fled from Nazi Germany into Sweden, eventually taking a position at the University of Stockholm. She worked in Sweden until 1960, when she retired to the United Kingdom. Lise Meitner died in 1968.

Marie Curie was born in Poland in 1867. When Russia outlawed lab instruction in schools, Marie’s father, a teacher, brought home lab equipment for his children to learn with. From a family that had become destitute after supporting Polish independence, Marie worked as a tutor and governess for many years before saving enough money to join her sister in Paris. There, she attended the University of Paris, where she gained two degrees in physics and chemistry, the first in 1893 and the second in 1894. In 1894 she also began working with Pierre Curie, whom she would eventually marry.Her work with uranium lead her to the discovery of radium and polonium; she also coined the term radioactivity.In 1906 he became the first female professor at the University of Paris, following the death of her husband. In 1903, she and her husband won the Nobel Prize in Physics; her second Nobel Prize, this one for Chemistry, was awarded in 1911. Sadly, after years of exposure to radiation, she died in 1934 of aplastic anemia. Although Dr. Curie never acknowledged the potential health risks of radiation, her papers are now considered too radioactive to handle without protection.

Though both these women were pioneers in radiation chemistry and nuclear physics, only one (Curie) was ever honored by the Nobel committee. Meitner was later honored when element 109 (meitnerium) was named after her. Both of these women had long and fascinated careers that I’ve barely scratched the surface of, and I encourage everyone to read up on them today.

Want to see your favorite female pioneering scientist acknowledged? Give me her name and birthday in the comments, and we’ll make it happen!

This post written by R. Eaton. Information sourced from Wikipedia.

Talking While Female

You may remember a piece WCS-UW posted a while ago about uptalk and how men and women use it differently (link here).

To further that conversation, I’d like to introduce you to a piece that NPR recently published about which types of voices and speaking styles are perceived as more competent.  In addition to uptalk, the article talks about higher registers, vocal fry, and other factors that can make a woman sound less authoritative.  You can find the full article here.

What do you guys think?  Would you try to change the sound of your voice to make colleagues take you more seriously?


Men and Women Use Uptalk Differently: A Sociological Study

You might not know uptalk by its definition, but you likely know what it is:  the rising intonation that you would put at the end of a sentence as if you were answering a question.  You probably also wouldn’t be surprised to find that men and women use uptalk very differently.

Thomas J. Linneman performed a study analyzing the use of uptalk in the game show Jeopardy! and the results are quite interesting.  You can read a summary of the study here or the full research article here.

I think the most interesting conclusion of the study is that women use uptalk more frequently as they were more successful on the show, causing them “to appear uncertain of their knowledge and apologetic for their success.”  I wonder how this relates to imposter syndrome, and if we graduate students do this more than the average person.

What do you guys think?  How do you use uptalk?

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace By Brooke Reaser


Do you remember the first woman to inspire you?  Was she the first, the best, the strongest, fastest, or smartest?  I don’t remember whether my first was Picabo Street (the first American woman to win World Cup downhill skiing season titles) or Amelia Earhart (the first woman to fly across the Atlantic), but I remember the excitement and awe produced by learning about their inner strength and tenacity.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was another such inspirational woman.  Commonly known as Ada Lovelace, she was born December 10, 1815 to the Byrons:  renowned poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke.  When Ada was barely a month old, Lord Byron separated from his wife and moved away.  Ada’s mother feared her daughter would inherit her father’s poetic romanticism and volatile temperament, which was likely the result of bipolar disorder. So, in order to root out any possibility of “insanity,” and contrary to the fashion of the time, Ada’s mother had her privately tutored in mathematics, science and logic.  It was not until the age of seventeen when Ada’s mathematical genius began to emerge, and despite the fact she never knew her father, she called herself a “poetical scientist.”

Ada is most famous for her work with the British mathematician, Charles Babbage, on his Analytical Engine.  The Engine consisted of punch cards with circular holes as data input placed into mechanical looms.  These input cards were how the Engine was programmed to do simple calculations, including trigonometric functions and logarithms, as well as more complex actions. A primitive printer was also attached as an output device, while the Engine was also capable of punching output cards for later reading.  Ada is responsible for the transcription of many of Babbage’s notes as well as the translation of Luigi Menabrea’s work on the engine from Italian to English.  Many debate whether Ada’s work was merely secretarial, but most insist it was she that understood the potential of the Analytical Engine to do more than simple calculations.  She insisted the engine could be programmed to solve problems of greater complexity than simple number-crunching.  Scholars credit her with writing the first computer program, an algorithm encoded for processing by the analytical engine of interest.

Unfortunately, before she could see the completion of the Analytical Engine, Ada died from complications due to uterine cancer at the age of thirty-six.  However, her legacy lives on.  The United States Department of Defense named a computer language created specifically for them, Ada, in her honor; and the British Computer Society has both a metal in her name and an annual competition for women students of computer science.

Today there exists an international “Ada Lovelace Day,” often celebrated in the mid-October.  The website summarizes it nicely:  “Ada Lovelace Day is about sharing stories of women — whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians — who have inspired you to become who you are today. The aim is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of other women in STEM.”  The site encourages others to form Ada Lovelace Day parties around the world on whatever day works best to raise awareness and inspire other young women to engage and explore the STEM fields.

The motives of Women in Chemical Sciences and the University of Washington encompass the goals of Ada Lovelace Day.  I encourage you to consider participating in future Ada Lovelace Day and Ada Lovelace Day-type events, including those at UW in the coming year.  Reflect on the women—whether they be scientists, athletes, adventurers, or just friends—that inspire you to believe you can do, be, study or explore whatever you desire.  Share with others those experiences that led you to choosing a field of study in a STEM field, the adversities you faced, and how you overcame them.  And remember Ada, who in a time where women just didn’t do math and science, overcame others’ expectations and saw past a simple engine to foresee a computer.


Just for fun:

Google:  “Ada Lovelace,”  “Analytical Engine”

Thoughts on Women in Chemical Science: A Welcome Message from the President


At a recent talk for our group, Joan Bleecker was introducing our speaker, Professor Sarah Keller, and stated that she was a wonderful “template for a woman in science”.  Since that time, and throughout the fledgling stages of this group, I have been thinking a lot about what characteristics make for a good template and how I have seen them in my own life.  The answer for me was, literally, close to home.


I was very fortunate to have my mother be the first, and arguably, most profound example of a strong female in the sciences in my life.  Receiving her PhD in Engineering Mechanics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison she went on to work at Sandia National Labs in Livermore, CA where I grew up.  She worked with scientists at Stanford on something called a “holographic drilling technique for measuring residual stress,” she has three patents through research she did at Bethlehem Steel and she was president of the Society for Experimental Mechanics.  Yeah, my mom is pretty cool.


Beyond her scientific achievements, my mom also started a program, Science Understanding Promotes Environmental Responsibility (SUPER!), which combined local middle and high school teachers with educational specialists from the California Department of Education and Lawrence Hall of Science in a month long training program.  The idea behind this program was to use environmental issues to teach educators a hands-on approach to science education.  She was also active in the Expanding Your Horizons Conference, from which I still remember how to build the strongest bridge out of tinker toys (triangles!).  Did I also mention she is a painter, above average bowler and pretty much the toughest person to beat in any strategy game around?  I have, in fact, still never beaten her at Tetris.


Ok, yes my mom is super amazing…  But, the point here is not to brag about her (though I could go on and on) so much as to reconstruct some of the ways growing up she gave me positive messages about being a woman in the sciences.  One major lesson I learned from her was that you have to learn things for yourself.  Having the drive to go out into the world and ask questions is so important.  At a very young age, if I wanted to know about something on the menu at a restaurant she would encourage me to ask the waitress.  Anytime I had a question about how something worked, she would point to our encyclopedias (remember the blue World Books?!) and instruct me to look up the answer.  More importantly, there would be a follow up discussion that involved questioning what I thought about something, or what that thing really meant.  I had to convince myself of the answer, not just take it at face value.  And most importantly, communicating your ideas was of paramount importance.


Another huge lesson was about perseverance.  This one I really took to heart.  My mom told me many stories about how she became an engineer.  This was a pretty big deal considering she was one of the first women to graduate from her department at Madison and the first person in her family to attend college.  She had always wanted to study science and math but people had told her repeatedly that, “Women could not be engineers.”  She never had a female scientist as a role model telling her that, of course, those naysayers were wrong.  After trying out every other major (literally), a year abroad in Japan and a failed attempt at being a secretary she decided, “No, I still think I want to be an engineer.”  She managed to transfer from the small university in Indiana she had been attending, to Madison where she finished up her undergraduate degree (BS in Applied Math, Engineering and Physics… I said I could keep bragging) and went on to get her PhD.  She put herself through university and kept pushing the boundaries of gender stereotypes at the time.  She also told me these stories, repeatedly, to hammer home the point that I should never settle for what someone else thinks of my abilities.   One of the best lessons I have ever learned is: Don’t let anyone convince you that you are not good enough.


I, of course, was lucky enough to have a female scientist as a mom and role model growing up.  However, it can still be incredibly difficult to unwaveringly believe in your abilities all the time.  For those that were not fortunate enough to have someone that was on the sidelines, cheering them on, this can be especially difficult.  I believe this group, and others like it, are so important for fostering that conversation and mentorship both through role models and each other.  Sharing stories, both triumphs and failures, helps to strengthen the idea that we do have the ability to pursue our careers.  Listening to how others overcame adversity and made the decision that science was a passion worth pursuing is so important.  The best part about this is being able to have these stories resonate with each successive generation and figure out where we still have to go.


I end with a short anecdote about how a strong role model can have a profound influence very early on in life.   The greatest proof of this took place at my kindergarten graduation where all the children got up and said what they wanted to be when they grew up.  After a “ballerina” and “fireman” before me, I boldly stood up and announced that I wanted to be, “an engineer”!  Now, there was no way I had any clue what I was saying but I knew that was what my mom did and I wanted to be just like her.  Funny how those things don’t really change.


With that, I just want to say that I am looking forward to all the future events and outreach efforts our group has planned.  With the participation of folks in the UW community and beyond we can keep the dialogue about women in the sciences going!


Thank you for your interest and participation!


Sarah Vorpahl


Women in Chemical Sciences at University of Washington