Friday, July 6, 2012

Women in Medical Physics

Last week in this blog, I discussed the medical physicist Rosalyn Yalow, who was the second female to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (The first was biochemist Gerty Cori), and who developed, with Solomon Berson, the radioimmunoassay technique. Her story reminds us of the important contributions of females to medical physics. I am particularly interested in this topic because Oakland University recently was awarded an ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation, with the goal of increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers. I am on the leadership team of this project, and we are working hard to improve the environment for female STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) faculty.

Of course the real reason I support increasing opportunities for women in the sciences is that I am certain many of the readers of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology are female. Medical physics provides several role models for women. For instance, Aminollah Sabzevari published an article in the Science Creative Quarterly titled “Women in Medical Physics.” Sabzevari begins
Traditionally, physics has been a male-dominated occupation. However, throughout history there have been exceptional women who have risen above society’s restrictions and contributed greatly to the advancement of physics. Women have played an important role in the creation, advancement and application of medical physics. As a frontier science, medical physics is less likely to be bound by society’s norms and less subject to the inherent glass ceiling limiting female participation. Women such as Marie Curie, Harriet Brooks, and Rosalind Franklin helped break through that ceiling, and their contributions are worth observing.
Another notable female medical physicist is Edith Hinkley Quimby, who established the first measurements of safe levels of radiation. The American Association of Physicists in Medicine named the Edith H. Quimby Lifetime Achievement Award in her honor.

On a related note (though having little to do with medical or biological physics), I recently read a fascinating biography of Sophie Germain (1776–1831), who did fundamental work in number theory and elasticity.

Finally, in my mind the greatest female physicist of all time (yes, greater than Marie Curie) is Lise Meitner, who first discovered nuclear fission. A great place to learn more about her life and work is Richard Rhodes’ masterpiece The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

One characteristic these women have in common is that they overcame great obstacles in order to become scientists. Their tenacity and determination inspires us all.

1 comment:

  1. For the story of a modern female medical physicist, see