We have reached the final post of our Celebrating Women in Tech series in celebration of Women’s History Month and would be remiss if we ended this series without recognizing women who have had a major impact on our lives in the last three years during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We start off with the women who worked directly on the coronavirus and vaccines.
June Almeida (1930 – 2007) – Identification of the first human coronavirus
A brilliant mind, June Almeida came from very humble beginnings—so humble, in fact, that despite her academic excellence in high school, college was not an option. Instead, the Scotland native took a job at the age of 16 as a lab tech in histopathology at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, studying and diagnosing tissue disease. Shortly afterward, her family moved to London where she took the same job at a London hospital. Without a college degree, advancement wasn’t an option. Still, Almeida pressed on.
In 1954, Almeida moved to Canada, where she found many more career opportunities despite lacking a degree. Working in electron microscopy, Almeida built a reputation for being an expert in imaging and identifying viruses. She returned to London in 1967, where she perfected a process for virus detection called immune electron microscopy. It was there that a researcher working on the common cold sent Almeida a virus sample that he could not identify: B814. Not only did she create a clear, sharp image of the virus, she also noticed it was familiar to a virus she had imaged years earlier. It turned out that the B814 virus she imaged was the first identified human coronavirus, a term she coined because each piece of virus looked like a crown (corona is Latin for crown).
Almeida eventually obtained the college degrees she had always wanted, receiving a master’s degree in 1970 and a doctorate in 1971 for her many contributions throughout her career. Many virus images in textbooks today are images Almeida took. And when a new, unidentified virus first appeared in China in 2019, it was Almeida’s pioneering work and techniques that helped researchers identify it as a coronavirus.
Kati Karikó (1955 - ) – mRNA research leading to mRNA vaccines
Some people know from a very young age what they want to do with their lives; Katalin Karikó is one of those people. She knew she wanted to be a scientist and set her sights on doing just that by earning her PhD at a Hungarian university. Her research was always focused on mRNA (messenger RNA), which carries DNA instructions to each cell’s protein-making machinery. She faced numerous obstacles throughout her career: lack of collaborators, lack of funding, lack of programs, and so on. But finally, at the University of Pennsylvania in 1998, she met Dr. Drew Weissman, who likewise was fascinated with mRNA.
With a willing collaborator at long last, Karikó’s research broke ground. Seemingly no one was paying attention—no one except the two scientists that founded BioNTech. In 2013, Karikó also joined BioNTech, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was Karikó’s research on mRNA vaccines that proved to be the solution. When the Pfizer-BioNTech trials of an mRNA vaccine based on Karikó’s research proved successful, Karikó celebrated by eating an entire box of Goobers. She received the vaccine her work made possible on December 18, 2020.
We now turn to women whose innovations have helped protect us during the pandemic.
Letitia Geer – One-handed syringes
Receiving injections became a normal occurrence for millions of people and they can thank Letitia Geer for the ease of receiving the vaccine. In 1896, Letitia, a nurse, invented a one-handed syringe that allowed healthcare workers to draw medications into the syringe and then deliver them with one hand. Prior to her invention, syringes required two hands to operate. She received US Patent No. 622,848 in 1899. Modern day syringes use many of the same features as her original invention.
Dr. Casey Kerrigan – Reusable respirators
In 2020, Dr. Casey Kerrigan and her company, OESH, switched from making shoes to making reusable respirators. OESH used the same material they use to manufacture shoes and 3D printed the reusable respirators during the mask shortage in the early part of the pandemic. In addition, the reusable respirators work especially well for women, since standard respirators are often too big.
Dr. Anne McIntosh – the Safe ‘N’ Clear Communicator
Manufactured for several years before the pandemic, this mask with a clear panel to allow lip reading became critical as the need for masks skyrocketed during the pandemic. Dr. McIntosh is a communications expert and is herself deaf. Her idea resulted from her experience when she gave birth to her first child and had to have a C-section. In the operating room, everyone was masked so she could not read their lips. Luckily, all went well, but the experience motivated her to find a solution.
Thank you for reading this final installment of our Celebrating Women in Tech series in honor of Women’s History Month. We have covered a lot of ground in this series in addition to the coronavirus heroes in this post. We lifted off the series with Katherine Johnson’s mathematical acumen and contributions to NASA, then we showed off the golden ideas behind the golden era actor and “Mother of Wi-Fi” Heddy Lamarr. We also told the stories of pioneers in medicine who have made us healthier and inventors who have made us happier and safer.
We hope you enjoyed learning about these extraordinary women in technology and their important work and contributions to the industry. We are glad you joined us.