Women in Cell Biology and Biotechnology: Past, Present, and Future

Today at the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, more than 40 women from across the University of Washington are leading research labs focused on new ways to study and stop diseases impacting billions of people worldwide. In these labs, dozens of women cell biologists and engineers at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc levels are making their own contributions to medical science as students and trainees. Here, we honor just some of the women who helped to make this progress possible, often overcoming discrimination and lack of recognition to make discoveries that changed the course of science.

Women Who Paved the Way for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine

Photo of Nettie Stevens
Photo: Courtesy Bryn Mawr College Special Collections

Nettie Stevens (1861 – 1912)
Nettie Stevens was a biologist and geneticist whose landmark insect studies showed that the sex of organism is determined by the composition of inherited chromosomes and not on factors like temperature or nutrition. Born and raised in New England, Stevens was already 35 when she enrolled at Stanford, where she earned a degree in physiology before returning to the east coast to pursue her PhD at Bryn Mawr. Amid a worldwide resurgence of interest in Mendelian genetics, Stevens studied cell structure and regeneration in marine organisms and insects – contributing to research that would earn Thomas Hunt Morgan the Nobel Prize in 1933. During a postdoctoral appointment at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stevens discovered that mealworms fertilized by sperm with a smaller chromosome became male offspring, while those fertilized by sperm with a smaller chromosome became female. The finding, published in 1905, confirmed that sex was inherited and offered the most direct connection yet between observable differences in chromosomes and physical characteristics in organisms.

Photo of Alice BallAlice Augusta Ball (1892-1916)
Alice Augusta Ball was born in Seattle. She first made her mark as a chemistry student at the University of Washington, where she published a paper in the Journal of American Chemical Society, a notable achievement for a Black woman.  As a PhD student at the College of Hawaii, Ball studied the chemical make-up of native plants, an expertise she would use to develop a more effective treatment for leprosy. After Ball died, at the age of 24, the Dean of the Chemistry Department published her work in his name – an injustice that was not corrected until the 1970’s.


Photo of Barbara McClintock
Photo: Courtesy of the Barbara McClintock Papers, American Philosophical Society

Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992)
Barbara McClintock was the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology and the third to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Her landmark discovery that genes were capable of changing positions on a chromosome revolutionized the field of genetics and opened the door to new methods of genetic engineering. While pursuing a PhD in Botany at Cornell University, McClintock began investigating corn chromosomes – setting the stage for the research that would define her career. Over the following decades, McClintock identified two genes, which she called controlling elements, that have a startling ability to jump from region to another on chromosomes, influencing the expression of other genes that determine various physical characteristics and causing (or reversing) mutations. The discovery of transposition illustrated the central role of chromosomes in genetics and laid the groundwork for laboratory tools used in genetic research and genetic engineering.

Photo of Rita Levi-Montalcini
Photo credit: Bernard Becker Medical Library

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 – 2012)
Rita Levi-Montalcini was a neurologist who, with the biochemist Stanley Cohen, won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1968 for her discovery of the molecules that drive the development of nerve cells. Levi-Montalcini began her career researching neurobiology at the University of Turin. After WWII, she moved to Washington University in St. Louis, where she conducted the experiments that defined her legacy and revealed insights about the mechanisms of cell growth that advanced the study of neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. Working alongside the zoologist Viktor Hamburger, Levi-Montalcini observed that implanting a mouse tumor into chick embryos resulted in rapid nerve growth, a reaction the researchers attributed to a factor they named Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) – the first of many cell-growth factors described in animals. Levi-Montalcini would go on to purify NGF, describe the protein’s structure, and demonstrate its importance to the immune system. Later, she established the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome, was awarded the National Medal of Science, and published in autobiography, In Praise of Imperfection.

Photo of Mary Logan ReddickMary Logan Reddick (1914-1966)
Mary Logan Reddick was a neuroembryologist whose embryogenesis and neurodevelopment studies in chicks made important contributions to the practice of tissue transplant and cell differentiation. Among other findings, her research, which employed early time-lapse microscopy techniques, shed light on the degree to which environment affected developing brain tissues. Reddick earned a doctoral dissertation from Radcliffe College (at Harvard), became the first female biology instructor at Morehouse College, was the first Black woman to receive a prestigious Ford Foundation science fellowship – enabling her to study at Cambridge University – and rose to full professor and chair of the Biology Department at the University of Atlanta.


Photo of Gertrude Elion Gertrude Elion (1918 – 1999)
Gertrude B. Elion was a pharmacologist and biochemist whose rigorous approach to drug discovery reshaped the drug development process and led to treatments for multiple diseases, including leukemia and AIDS. In 1988, she shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with George H. Hitchings, her long-time collaborator, and Sir James W. Black for their contributions to medical research. Elion, who earned degrees in chemistry and science from Hunter College and NYU, found her calling in the pharmaceutical industry. It was in the labs of the corporate precursor to GlaxoSmithKline that Elion Hitchings broke from conventional trial-and-error methods to pioneer a philosophy known as rational drug design in which they disrupted unwanted cell growth using biochemical and physiological insights on the pathogens that caused conditions like leukemia, malaria, herpes and rejection of transplanted kidneys. Elion was also at the forefront of antiviral drug use and oversaw the development of AZT, the first drug to treat AIDS.


Photo of Rosalind FranklinRosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)
Rosalind Franklin was a chemist who used X-ray diffraction technology to reveal unknown details about the properties of DNA that preceded the discovery of the double-helix structure by James Watson and Francis Crick. Franklin studied physical chemistry at the University of Cambridge, where she pursued a PhD while serving the war effort through her research for the coal industry and as a London Air Raid Warden. Franklin’s landmark contribution to science came in 1953 when she bombarded strands of calf DNA with X-rays under a microscope. The image, taken by her student Raymond Gosling, and known as Photo 51, gave Watson and Crick a key insight in their Nobel Prize-winning effort to understand the structure of the self-replicating molecules that carry the genetic instructions for all life. Franklin later used X-ray crystallography to study RNA and RNA viruses. Her investigation into the structure of the polio virus was cut short by ovarian cancer, which took her life in 1958.

Photo of Marie DalyMarie Maynard Daly (1921-2003)
Marie Daly was the first Black American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry (awarded by Columbia University in 1947). As a Postdoc at the Rockefeller Institute, she studied the cell nucleus and its constituents and examined how proteins are constructed in the body, helping to the lay the groundwork for breakthroughs that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Daly developed methods for separating out the nuclei of tissues and measuring the base composition of nucleic compounds, investigated protein synthesis, and was cited by James Watson upon his acceptance of his Nobel Prize in 1962. As an investigator she conducted groundbreaking research on the relationship between cholesterol, hypertension, and cardiac health.


Photo of Esther Lederberg
Photo credit: Esther M Zimmer Lederberg Memorial website

Esther Lederberg (1922-2006)
Esther Lederberg was a microbiologist whose experiments in bacterial genetics helped shape the emerging fields of molecular biology and genetic engineering. After attending Hunter College in New York on a scholarship, the Bronx-born Lederberg earned a fellowship to Stanford, where she conducted much of the research for which George W Beadle, Edward Tatum, and her husband, Joshua Lederberg, would win the Nobel Prize in 1958. In her own seminal discovery, which came as a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, Lederberg showed that a virus, which she named Lamba Phage, was capable of integrating into the DNA of E-coli, a revelation in microbiology that would inspire new tools to help biologists explore the genetic mechanisms of bacteria and viruses. Among many other contributions to her field, Lederberg also developed a system known as replica plating a method that allowed researchers to  efficiently reproduce bacteria colonies.

Anne McLaren
Photo Credit: The Gurdon Institute

Anne McLaren (1927 – 2007)
Dame Anne McLaren was a geneticist who, with the biologist John Biggers, was a member of the first team to grow a viable mouse embryo in vitro, an achievement that advanced current understanding of reproductive biology, mammalian genetics, and embryology, and laid the groundwork for widely adopted assisted fertility treatments, including in vitro fertilization. Born in London, McLaren studied zoology at the University of Oxford before moving to the University College of London, where, in 1958, she and Biggers published a landmark paper in Nature detailing their successful effort to create an embryo in vitro by mixing mouse sperm and eggs outside of the womb, a procedure that was safely performed in humans twenty years later. In the 1980’s, McLaren helped shaped legislation governing the ethics of human fertilization.  In 1991, she became the first woman ever to hold office in the Royal Society, and in 1994 she was elected president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Anita Hendrickson (1936 – 2017)

Anita Hendrickson, PhD, was a Professor of Ophthalmology and Biological Structure at the University of Washington, where she published more than 150 scientific papers, earned international recognition for her expertise on primate retinal and visual development, and served as the chair of the Department of Biological Structure, becoming the first woman to chair a basic science department at the university. Over a long career, Hendrickson was named the Dolly Green Scholar of Research to Prevent Blindness and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She received both the Paul Kayser International Award of Merit in Retinal Research and the Proctor Medal of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology and is remembered each year by her former colleagues and proteges at her department retreat, where her name is honored by the guest speaker talk.

Women Leading at ISCRM Today

Grid of headshots of women faculty members The women playing leading roles at ISCRM today are unlocking secrets of human development, producing insights that alter our understanding of disease, designing breathtaking research technologies, and mentoring the rising generation of biologists and engineers who will take up the quest to alleviate human suffering. Heart disease, liver disease, Alzheimers, diabetes, and cancer are just some of the conditions these women are collaboratively confronting with ingenuity and determination.

Visit ISCRM’s news page to learn more about research driven by women staff and faculty members.

Emerging Leaders Making an Impact

headshots of five graduate students Here are some of the stories of ISCRM students, postdocs, research scientists, and instructors playing pivotal roles in breakthroughs and discoveries. Through their work in the lab, these women are bringing medical science closer to approaches that may someday help physicians in clinics treat COVID-19,  Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, and retinal diseases.

Silvia Marchiano, PhD, a Senior Research Fellow in the Murry Lab, spearheaded an investigation that revealed how the SARS-CoV-2 is capable of infecting heart cells directly, helping to explain why so many COVID-19 patients are experiencing serious cardiovascular complications.
Read the full story here.

Postdoc Swati Mishra PhD, and graduate student Allison Knupp, both researchers in the Young Lab, are co-authors of a paper that implicates a gene known as SORL-1 in some types of Alzheimer’s Disease and sheds new light on why many promising treatments have hit dead ends in clinical trials.
Read the full story here.

Claire Watson, PhD, an acting instructor in the Kwon Lab, is a key member of a research team investigating the genetic risk factors for osteoporosis using zebrafish and micro-CT 3D-imaging technology.
Read the full story here.

Akshaya Sridhar, PhD, a Research Scientist in the Reh Lab is the lead author of a study that used powerful RNA sequencing technology to determine how closely stem cell-derived retinal organoids model human development.
Read the full story here.

Living Women Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine

May-Britt Moser (with John O’Keefe and Edvard I. Moser) – 2014
For their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.
Learn more.

Carol W. Greider and Elizabth H. Blackburn (with Jack W. Szostak) – 2009For the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.
Learn more.

Francoise Barré-Sinoussi (with Harald zur Hausen and Luc Montagnier) – 2008
For their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus.
Learn more.

Linda B. Buck (with Richard Axel) – 2004
For their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system.
Learn more.

Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (with Edward Lewis and Eric F. Wieschaus) – 1995
For their discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development.
Learn more.

Living Nobel Laureates in Chemistry

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna – 2020
For the development of a method for genome editing
Learn more.

Frances H. Arnold – 2018
For the directed evolution of enzymes.
Learn more.

Ada E. Yonath (with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz) – 2009
For the directed evolution of enzymes
Learn more.

Women in Science – Additional Resources

Top Ten Women in Molecular Biology

Women in Biotechnology

Nettie Stevens:

Alice Augusta Ball
Jackson, M. (2007, September 20) Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/ball-alice-augusta-1892-1916/

Wermager, Paul; Carl Heltzel (February 2007). “Alice A. Augusta Ball” (PDF). ChemMatters. 25 (1): 16–19. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-07-13.

Barbara McClintock

Rita Levi- Montalcini

Mary  Logan Reddick
Nielsen, E. (2020, April 30) Mary Logan Reddick (1914-1966). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/mary-logan-reddick-1914-1966/

Radcliffe Women in the Sciences”. Harvard University Library. Harvard University.

Gertrude Elion

Rosalind Franklin

Marie Maynard Daly
Diaz, S. (2007, March 07) Marie Maynard Daly Clark (1921-2003). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/clark-marie-maynard-daly-1921-2003/

Watson, James. “James Watson – Nobel Lecture”. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media. Retrieved 7 November 2018.

Esther Lederberg

Anne McLaren
Source: https://www.newscientist.com/people/anne-mclaren/