Anna Frebel on women in science who paved the way

As a young girl growing up in Germany, I always felt drawn to the idea of discovery. Noticing my expanding interest in science, my mother cultivated my curiosity about the world and our place in the universe. She repeatedly gifted me biographies of women scientists who defied the odds to pioneer discoveries in their respective fields. Indeed, these stories of accomplishment and determination greatly fueled my desire to become an astronomer.

As I spent countless hours reading and exploring on my own, I would find myself alone but never lonely in my educational pursuits. Little did I know, this form of self-reliance would serve me well as I completed my advanced degrees and research into finding ancient stars to learn about the cosmic origin of the chemical elements — published in my book Searching for the Oldest Stars: Ancient Relics from the Early Universe.

These days, I fly to Chile to use large telescopes once or twice per year. This work means long hours spent in solitude carrying out our observations. It is usually then that I most strongly feel it again: a sense of fulfillment and pride in this discovery work which I was lucky to gain a long time ago by reading the life stories of women in science.

I fondly remember learning about the thrill of traveling across continents with inspiring naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) as she was researching and illustrating caterpillars and insects and their various life stages in the most detailed of ways. I met fierce and gifted mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) who was the first woman in math to obtain a PhD (coincidentally from the university in my hometown) and who later became the first woman math professor in Sweden. One of the most profound role models remains two time Nobel prize winner Marie Curie (1867-1934), a remarkably persistent physicist and chemist who discovered radioactivity and new chemical elements. Reading about her years of long work in the lab to eventually isolate 1/10th of a gram of radium, I too could imagine becoming a scientists. Curie’s immense dedication to science and humanity encapsulated everything I wanted to do with my life. Finally, atomic physicist Lise Meitner (1878-1968) showed me how groundbreaking discoveries can be made when daring to invoke unconventional ideas to explain experimental results. She realized that atoms cannot be arbitrarily large. If too heavy, they fission, break apart, and thus produce various heavy elements from the bottom half of the periodic table.

Throughout the years, these stories have stayed with me. Their impact and insight gave me comfort and guidance during the many phases of my academic and professional life. It was more than a question of gender. It was the confidence in knowing the women who came before me had created a path for the next generation to travel, myself included.

Some of these books have traveled with me as I moved from Germany to Australia to the US for my career and my path to professorship. In many ways, I’ve incorporated central aspects from the lives and research of these giants in science into my own work. Hence, these women remain in my heart and soul – and by knowing their stories, I never feel alone. From my perspective, reading biographies thus remains one of the most important forms of personal and professional mentorship and growth.

Recently, through a collaboration with STEM on Stage, I became a science adviser to the living history film “Humanity Needs Dreamers: A Visit With Marie Curie”. I also rekindled my love for these ladies and their stories by crafting a short play in which I portray Lise Meitner as she recalls her discovery of nuclear fission in 1938/39. The play “Pursuit of Discovery” is followed by a slide presentation about my research and how Meitner’s work provided the theoretical framework for my current studies into the formation of the heaviest elements in the periodic table.

I’m often asked about the challenges facing women in science. Although we have made significant progress, one of the main challenges is providing mentorship and role models. In astronomy, the number of senior level women remains small compared to our male counterparts. To help change this ratio, I’ve devoted time to help mentor undergraduate and graduate women in physics and astronomy.

Whether reading biographies of women in science, mentoring, or becoming Meitner on stage, it is important to give credit to those who paved the way for the next generation, and to highlight the amazing and inspiring accomplishments of women in science. As I write in my book, “we stand on the shoulders of giants.” And by knowing their stories, we can better know ourselves.

Anna Frebel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has received numerous international honors and awards for her discoveries and analyses of the oldest stars. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.