Ten Women in STEM I’d like to see in the next series of Doctor Who

If you’re reading this around the time of publication, then you’ll surely be aware that the latest series of Doctor Who has just finished, and now the long wait for a new special or series begins again. If you also happen to be reading this on the day of publication itself, then today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, a day for celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world.

A personal highlight for me in Series 12 was the appearance of Ada Lovelace in Spyfall: Part Two, marking not only a rare positive portrayal of a mathematical figure within the show (certainly in comparison to the likes of Adric, the Sylvest twins and the Logopolitans), but also the first female historical STEM figure (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to feature in the TV show. Interestingly, Lovelace has already made an appearance within a Big Finish audio play, The Enchantress of Numbers (which I wholeheartedly recommend to you), alongside Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor.

Alongside the other appearances of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, it’s been a good year for STEM figures in the show and I hope Chibnall will continue this trend during his time as showrunner and executive producer. Should he happen to stumble upon this blog post, then perhaps he can use this as a starting point for finding other female STEM figures to include in a future episode of Doctor Who. Here are ten possible suggestions:

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

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Born as Maria Sklodawska, Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the only woman to have won two Nobel prizes to date (which were Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911). A Polish chemist and physicist, she conducted pioneering work into the subject of radiation and radioactivity alongside her husband Pierre Curie, who was a French physicist. Curie also named two radioactive elements that she discovered: radium and polonium (which is named after her home country of Poland). She is undoubtably one of the most well-known female scientists in history. Perhaps we could have an episode where the Doctor is facing some sort of radioactive extra-terrestrial and she needs some expertise to help save the Earth?

Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

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Why stop at Ada Lovelace when you can have another outstanding computer programmer? Born Grace Brewster Murray in 1906, Hopper (nicknamed “Amazing Grace”) invented the first compiler for a computer programming language as well as popularising the idea of machine-independent computer languages (“They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”). She has a PhD in mathematics from Yale, served as an Admiral in the US Navy and helped to popularise the term ‘debugging’ after removing a moth that had got stuck in a Mark II computer running at Harvard. Maybe she could help the Doctor out if she ever has a rematch with Daniel Barton, the CEO of VOR, a company more powerful than most nations, in the Series 12 opener Spyfall.

Rachel Carson (1907-1967)

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Carson was an American biologist, conservationist and author of a trilogy books based around marine life. Her incredible work helped raised awareness of serious environmental problems, such as those caused by artificial pesticides, and inspired the global conservation movement. This eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in America and President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. An appearance from her would not only continue post-2005 Who’s love of visiting historical authors, but also follow up the environmental themes seen in episodes like Orphan 55 and Praxeus.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

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A prominent British Jewish chemist, Franklin is best known for her work on X-ray crystallography that has helped us understand and identify the structures of deoxyribonucleic acid (or DNA). Tragically, her contributions to science were only truly recognised after her premature death at age 37, caused by ovarian cancer. Her work led to the discovery of the double helix structure we all associate with DNA now but   she was sadly not recognised for this contribution by the Nobel Committee. An episode featuring her would certainly help draw more attention to her scientific contributions.

Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017)

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Mirzakhani was the first Iranian and the first woman to be awarded the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize within the field of mathematics (it is awarded once every four years and only to people under 40). Her specialist region of research was on the symmetry of curved surfaces, an area of maths that blends dynamics with geometry. Tragically, she died aged 40 from breast cancer but her legacy has been profound: her birthday May 12th is now recognised as International Women In Mathematics Day, her international fame has significantly progressed the societal representation of Iranian mothers in her home country, and students at the University of Oxford set up a society in her name for women and non-binary students who study mathematics there. An ideal episode would not only recognise her excellent mathematical ability but also the social and cultural progress that she has inspired.

Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848)

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Herschel is most notable for being the first woman ever to discover a comet. A German astronomer, she worked alongside her brother William and took meticulous notes and records of her observations. She was also the first woman to be salaried as a scientist and the first woman in England to hold a position in government. Doctor Who has rarely seen older female scientists represented (such as Professor Rumford in The Stones of Blood) but Herschel would most definitely be a great choice to include in the TV show.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

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Arguably one of the more well-known figures on this list, Nightingale is perhaps best regarded as a social reformer and founder of modern nursing, becoming an icon within Victorian culture known as “The Lady of the Lamp”. But what is perhaps less celebrated is her aptitude for mathematics. She was a trailblazer in the art of data visualisation (indeed, she popularised the use of the pie chart) and used graphical representations of data to convince others of her observations. Her meticulous and comprehensive study of sanitation of hospitals during the Crimean War enabled her to effectively lobby the British Government for improved sanitation through the Public Health Acts of 1874-75. It is perhaps one of the earliest instances of evidence-based policy in the history of British Government. She truly was a badass statistician.

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921-2011)

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Yalow was the second woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize and the first in Medicine, for which she developed the technique of radioimmunoassay, which allows scientists to trace substances in the bloodstream. Despite its commercial potential, Yalow refused to patent the method. This kind of scientific innovation could certainly work in a story about alien infection, and would most definitely bring her work to the attention of a much wider audience. 

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943-)

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The first person to discover (the first four) pulsars, highly magnetized rotating neutron stars that emit regular pulses, Bell Burnell was denied the honour of a Nobel Prize for Physics years later on the grounds that she was a postgraduate student (She even went on record to say she believed such a recognition would demean the prize itself). Her discovery is regarded as “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th Century” and she is the only person on this list who is still alive. She has since held distinguished positions such as president of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics.

Marie-Sophie Germain (1776-1831)

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Germain was a French mathematician, physicist and philosopher who persevered through considerable opposition (including her parents, male mathematical peers and just the patriarchal nature of society in general) to become one of the most influential polymaths of recent centuries. She would smuggle candles to her bedroom to allow herself to study through the night, and submitted academic work under the nom de plume Monsieur Le Blanc so that her male mathematical peers would take her seriously, yet despite recognition from distinguished figures like Lagrange and Gauss she was sadly unable to make a true career out of mathematics. She was a true pioneer in the fields of elasticity theory and number theory, and the French Academy of Sciences now has an annual mathematics prize named in her honour. Her final works, which were published posthumously, were on philosophy and she passionately argued that there were no differences between the humanities and the sciences. Put simply, she was brilliant.

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