When NASA's Perseverance rover landed successfully on Mars on February 18, 2021, calling it "one giant leap for mankind" – as Neil Armstrong said when he set foot on the moon in 1969 – would have been inaccurate. This year actually marked the fifth time the U.S. space agency has put a remote-controlled robotic exploration vehicle on the Red Planet. And it was a female engineer named Donna Shirley who broke new ground for women in science as the manager of both the Mars Exploration Program and the 30-person team that built Sojourner, the first rover to land on Mars on July 4, 1997.
For Shirley, the Mars Pathfinder mission was the climax of her 32-year career at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The Oklahoma-born scientist, who earned her Master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California, saw her profile skyrocket with media appearances from CNN to the New York Times, and her autobiography Managing Martians came out in 1998. Now 79 and living in a Tulsa retirement community, she still embraces her status as a female pioneer.
"Periodically, I'll hear somebody say they got into the space program because of me, and that makes me feel really good," Shirley told Leaps.org. "I look at the mission control area, and there are a lot of women in there. I'm quite pleased I was able to break the glass ceiling."
Her $25-million, 25-pound microrover – powered by solar energy and designed to get rock samples and test soil chemistry for evidence of life – was named after Sojourner Truth, a 19th-century Black abolitionist and women's rights activist. Unlike Mars Pathfinder, Shirley didn't have to travel more than 131 million miles to reach her goal, but her path to scientific fame as a woman sometimes resembled an asteroid field.
As a high-IQ tomboy growing up in Wynnewood, Oklahoma (pop. 2,300), Shirley yearned to escape. She decided to become an engineer at age 10 and took flying lessons at 15. Her extraterrestrial aspirations were fueled by Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Arthur C. Clarke's The Sands of Mars. Yet when she entered the University of Oklahoma (OU) in 1958, her freshman academic advisor initially told her: "Girls can't be engineers." She ignored him.
Years later, Shirley would combat such archaic thinking, succeeding at JPL with her creative, collaborative management style. "If you look at the literature, you'll find that teams that are either led by or heavily involved with women do better than strictly male teams," she noted.
However, her career trajectory stalled at OU. Burned out by her course load and distracted by a broken engagement to marry a fellow student, she switched her major to professional writing. After graduation, she applied her aeronautical background as a McDonnell Aircraft technical writer, but her boss, she says, harassed her and she faced gender-based hostility from male co-workers.
Returning to OU, Shirley finished off her engineering degree and became a JPL aerodynamist in 1966 after answering an ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. At first, she was the only female engineer among the research center's 2,000-odd engineers. She wore many hats, from designing planetary atmospheric entry vehicles to picking the launch date of November 4, 1973 for Mariner 10's mission to Venus and Mercury.
By the mid-1980's, she was managing teams that focused on robotics and Mars, delivering creative solutions when NASA budget cuts loomed. In 1989, the same year the Sojourner microrover concept was born, President George H.W. Bush announced his Space Exploration Initiative, including plans for a human mission to Mars by 2019.
That target, of course, wasn't attained, despite huge advances in technology and our understanding of the Martian environment. Today, Shirley believes humans could land on Mars by 2030. She became the founding director of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle in 2004 after leaving NASA, and to this day, she enjoys checking out pop culture portrayals of Mars landings – even if they're not always accurate.
After the novel The Martian was published in 2011, which later was adapted into the hit film starring Matt Damon, Shirley phoned author Andy Weir: "You've got a major mistake in here. It says there's a storm that tries to blow the rocket over. But actually, the Mars atmosphere is so thin, it would never blow a rocket over!"
Fearlessly speaking her mind and seeking the stars helped Donna Shirley make history. However, a 2019 Washington Post story noted: "Women make up only about a third of NASA's workforce. They comprise just 28 percent of senior executive leadership positions and are only 16 percent of senior scientific employees." Whether it's traveling to Mars or trending toward gender equality, we've still got a long way to go.
When Rita Levi-Montalcini decided to become a scientist, she was determined that nothing would stand in her way. And from the beginning, that determination was put to the test. Before Levi-Montalcini became a Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist, the first to discover and isolate a crucial chemical called Neural Growth Factor (NGF), she would have to battle both the sexism within her own family as well as the racism and fascism that was slowly engulfing her country
Levi-Montalcini was born to two loving parents in Turin, Italy at the turn of the 20th century. She and her twin sister, Paola, were the youngest of the family's four children, and Levi-Montalcini described her childhood as "filled with love and reciprocal devotion." But while her parents were loving, supportive and "highly cultured," her father refused to let his three daughters engage in any schooling beyond the basics. "He loved us and had a great respect for women," she later explained, "but he believed that a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother."
At age 20, Levi-Montalcini had finally had enough. "I realized that I could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by my father," she is quoted as saying, and asked his permission to finish high school and pursue a career in medicine. When her father reluctantly agreed, Levi-Montalcini was ecstatic: In just under a year, she managed to catch up on her mathematics, graduate high school, and enroll in medical school in Turin.
By 1936, Levi-Montalcini had graduated medical school at the top of her class and decided to stay on at the University of Turin as a research assistant for histologist and human anatomy professor Guiseppe Levi. Levi-Montalcini started studying nerve cells and nerve fibers – the tiny, slender tendrils that are threaded throughout our nerves and that determine what information each nerve can transmit. But it wasn't long before another enormous obstacle to her scientific career reared its head.
Science Under a Fascist Regime
Two years into her research assistant position, Levi-Montalcini was fired, along with every other "non-Aryan Italian" who held an academic or professional career, thanks to a series of antisemitic laws passed by Italy's then-leader Benito Mussolini. Forced out of her academic position, Levi-Montalcini went to Belgium for a fellowship at a neurological institute in Brussels – but then was forced back to Turin when the German army invaded.
Levi-Montalcini decided to keep researching. She and Guiseppe Levi built a makeshift lab in Levi-Montalcini's apartment, borrowing chicken eggs from local farmers and using sewing needles to dissect them. By dissecting the chicken embryos from her bedroom laboratory, she was able to see how nerve fibers formed and died. The two continued this research until they were interrupted again – this time, by British air raids. Levi-Montalcini fled to a country cottage to continue her research, and then two years later was forced into hiding when the German army invaded Italy. Levi-Montalcini and her family assumed different identities and lived with non-Jewish friends in Florence to survive the Holocaust. Despite all of this, Levi-Montalcini continued her work, dissecting chicken embryos from her hiding place until the end of the war.
"The discovery of NGF really changed the world in which we live, because now we knew that cells talk to other cells, and that they use soluble factors. It was hugely important."
A Post-War Discovery
Several years after the war, when Levi-Montalcini was once again working at the University of Turin, a German embryologist named Viktor Hamburger invited her to Washington University in St. Louis. Hamburger was impressed by Levi-Montalcini's research with her chicken embryos, and secured an opportunity for her to continue her work in America. The invitation would "change the course of my life," Levi-Montalcini would later recall.
During her fellowship, Montalcini grew tumors in mice and then transferred them to chick embryos in order to see how it would affect the chickens. To her surprise, she noticed that introducing the tumor samples would cause nerve fibers to grow rapidly. From this, Levi-Montalcini discovered and was able to isolate a protein that she determined was able to cause this rapid growth. She later named this Nerve Growth Factor, or NGF.
From there, Levi-Montalcini and her team launched new experiments to test NGF, injecting it and repressing it to see the effect it had in a test subject's body. When the team injected NGF into embryonic mice, they observed nerve growth, as well as the mouse pups developing faster – their eyes opening earlier and their teeth coming in sooner – than the untreated group. When the team purified the NGF extract, however, it had no effect, leading the team to believe that something else in the crude extract of NGF was influencing the growth of the newborn mice. Stanley Cohen, Levi-Montalcini's colleague, identified another growth factor called EGF – epidermal growth factor – that caused the mouse pups' eyes and teeth to grow so quickly.
Levi-Montalcini continued to experiment with NGF for the next several decades at Washington University, illuminating how NGF works in our body. When Levi-Montalcini injected newborn mice with an antiserum for NGF, for example, her team found that it "almost completely deprived the animals of a sympathetic nervous system." Other experiments done by Levi-Montalcini and her colleagues helped show the role that NGF plays in other important biological processes, such as the regulation of our immune system and ovulation.
"The discovery of NGF really changed the world in which we live, because now we knew that cells talk to other cells, and that they use soluble factors. It was hugely important," said Bill Mobley, Chair of the Department of Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
Her Lasting Legacy
After years of setbacks, Levi-Montalcini's groundbreaking work was recognized in 1986, when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her discovery of NGF (Cohen, her colleague who discovered EGF, shared the prize). Researchers continue to study NGF even to this day, and the continued research has been able to increase our understanding of diseases like HIV and Alzheimer's.
Levi-Montalcini never stopped researching either: In January 2012, at the age of 102, Levi-Montalcini published her last research paper in the journal PNAS, making her the oldest member of the National Academy of Science to do so. Before she died in December 2012, she encouraged other scientists who would suffer setbacks in their careers to keep pursuing their passions. "Don't fear the difficult moments," Levi-Montalcini is quoted as saying. "The best comes from them."
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
"President Kennedy was the first president to not wear a hat. Have you seen men wearing hats since then?" Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the world's few astrophysicists with a household name, asks on the phone from his car. Well, no. "If I wear some cowboy hats, it's because it's the outfit, it's not because that's my standard equipment when I leave the home."
"We have classes on 100 things and none of them are on the ability to distinguish what is true and what is not."
But Tyson, who speaks in methodically reasoned paragraphs with lots of semi-rhetorical questions to make sure we're all still listening, isn't really making a point about Mad Men-era men's clothing trends. "Should a president influence fashion?" he says. "I think people sometimes don't know the full power they have over other people. So, that's the first prong in this comment. My second prong is, why would anyone take medical advice from a politician?"
Days before our conversation, news broke that President Trump said he was taking hydroxychloroquine, which he had hyped for months as a surefire magical cure for COVID-19 — the science just hadn't caught up to his predictions. But the science never did catch up; instead, it went the opposite direction, showing that hydroxychloroquine, when used to treat COVID-19 patients, actually led to an increased risk of death.
Alarm spread swiftly around the globe as experts cast the president's professed self-medicating as illogical and dangerous. However, it was just one of a series of wild pieces of medical advice espoused by Trump from his mighty pulpit, like that, hey, maybe disinfectants could cure people when injected into their bodies. (That also leads to death.)
But people do take medical advice from politicians. An Arizona man afraid of COVID-19 died after consuming chloroquine phosphate, which he and his wife had sitting on the back of a shelf after using it to treat koi fish for parasites. The pandemic has exposed many weaknesses in the feedback loop of society, government, the media, and science, including the difficulty of seeding accurate medical information with the masses. Many on the left and right decry a broken political and news media system, but Tyson believes the problem isn't mega-influencers like Trump. Rather it's the general public's desire to take their advice on complex topics – like the science of virology – that such influencers know nothing about.
Tyson's not upset with the public, who follow Trump's advice. "As an educator, I can't get angry with you," he says. Or even Trump himself. "Trump was elected by 60 million people, right? So, you could say all you want about Trump, kick him out of office, whatever. [There's] still the 60 million fellow Americans who walk among us who voted for him. So, what are you going to do with them?"
Tyson also isn't upset with Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms that serve as today's biggest conduits for misinformation. After all, in the realm of modern media's history, these networks are tadpoles. "As an educator and as a scientist, I'm leaning towards, let's figure out a way to train people in school to not fall victim to false information, and how to judge what is likely to be false relative to what is likely to be true. And that's hard, but you and I have never had a class in that, have we? We've had biology classes, we've had English lit, we've had classes on Shakespeare — we have classes on 100 things and none of them are on the ability to distinguish what is true and what is not."
This is why Tyson himself doesn't engage in Trump bashing on his social feeds, but does try to get people to differentiate factual science from fake news. "I feel responsibility to participate in the enlightenment of culture and of civilization, because I have that access," says Tyson, who has 13.9M followers on Twitter, 1.2M on Instagram, and 4.2M on Facebook. He doesn't tell his followers not to inject themselves with Clorox ("no one likes being told what to do"), but tries to get them to visualize a pandemic's impact by comparing it to, say, a throng of rabbits.
"Left unchecked, 1,000 rabbits in 5 years, become 7-billion, the human population of the World. After 15 years, a 'land-ocean' of rabbits fills to one-kilometer depth across all of Earth's continents. Viruses can reproduce waaaay faster than Rabbits," he tweeted on April 6, after much of the nation had locked down to slow the pandemic's spread. For added viral impact, he attached a photo of an adorable, perhaps appropriately scared-looking, white bunny.
Of course, not all celebrities message responsibly.
Tyson is a rare scientist-turned-celebrity. His appeal isn't acting in movies or singing dance-pop anthems (if only). Rather, his life's work is making science fun and interesting to as many people as possible through his best-selling books on astrophysics and his directorship of the planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. His longstanding place in popular culture is an exception, not the rule.
And he believes his fellow celebrities, actors and pop music stars and internet influencers, should aid the public's quest for accurate scientific information. And in order to do that, they must point their followers to experts and organizations who know what they're talking about. "It could be to a website, it could be to a talk that was given. I would say that that's where the responsibility lies if you control the interests of a million people," he says.
One example of this is Lady Gaga's March 14 Instagram of herself on her couch with her three dogs with the caption, "So I talked to some doctors and scientists. It's not the easiest for everyone right now but the kindest/healthiest thing we can do is self-quarantine and not hang out with people over 65 and in large groups. I wish I could see my parents and grandmas right now but it's much safer to not so I don't get them sick in case I have it. I'm hanging at home with my dogs." (All the celebrities here in this article are my references, not Tyson's, who does not call out specific people.)
Of course, not all celebrities message responsibly. Jessica Biel and Jenny McCarthy have faced scorn for public stances against vaccines. Gwyneth Paltrow and her media brand GOOP have faced backlash for promoting homeopathic treatments with no basis in science.
"The New Age Movement is a cultural idea, it has nothing to do with religion, has nothing to do with politics, and it's people who were rejecting objectively established science in part or in total because they have a belief system that they want to attach to it, okay? This is how you get the homeopathic remedies," says Tyson. "That's why science exists, so that we don't have to base decisions on belief systems."
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]