Women in Science: Maria Goeppert-Mayer and the Nuclear Shell Model

In school Science lessons everyone will have heard about the electron shell model. It was introduced by Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist, at the beginning of the 1900s and explained that electrons move around the nucleus of an atom on distinct shells. Each shell corresponds to a specific electron energy level.

While every Secondary Science student knows about the electron shell model not everyone knows about the nuclear shell model. The latter attributes distinct energy levels to neutrons and protons inside the nucleus. Therefore, it is analogue to Bohr’s electron shell model.

One quarter of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of this model was awarded to a fascinating female scientist, Maria Goeppert-Mayer.

Maria Goeppert was born 1906 in Kattowitz which was then a part of Germany. (Today it is Kattowice in Poland.) Goeppert’s father was a university professor in the sixth generation. He was keen for Maria, his only child, to follow in his food steps and pursue an academic career despite her gender.

Goeppert’s family moved to Göttingen in central Germany in 1910 where her father secured a professorship in Pediatrics. She attended a series of public and private schools in this city. There was only one private school in Göttingen that prepared female students for the ”Abitur”, the exams necessary to attend university. In addition, girls could only take the exam in few places. In 1924 Goeppert passed the Abitur in the city of Hannover being supervised by teachers she had never met before.

At first Goeppert enrolled at the University of Göttingen to study Math. However, she was soon more attracted to Physics and changed her main subject. She would later say about her decision: ”Mathematics began to seem too much like puzzle solving. Physics is puzzle solving, too, but of puzzles created by nature, not by the mind of man.” Goeppert later went on to pursue a PhD in Theoretical Physics in Göttingen, which she was awarded in 1930.

Another big event took place in Goeppert’s life in 1930. She married the American scientist Joseph Mayer whom she accompanied to the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA.

American universities at the time would never dream of employing the wife of a scientist. Nevertheless, having access to research laboratories, Goeppert-Mayer continued to carry out experiments in Physics voluntarily in her own time ”just for fun” over the next nine years.

In 1939 Goeppert-Mayer moved to Columbia University along with her husband where she worked on new methods to separate uranium isotopes for the atomic bomb project. When it came to the Manhattan project Goeppert-Mayer was torn. By this time she had become a US citizen and she was against Hitler. However, she knew that the weapon could be used against German family and friends at some point.

The Goeppert-Mayer and her husband moved to Chicago in 1946 where she received her first real research position. It was here, at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, where she worked on the nuclear shell model that would gain her the Nobel Prize. In 1959, the University of Chicago finally made her a full professor in its Physics Department.

Only a year layer, 1960, Goeppert-Mayer as well as her husband were both offered full professorships at the University in California in La Jolla, they accepted. In 1963, Goeppert-Mayer was awarded part of the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the nuclear shell model.

Goeppert-Mayer died 1972 in San Diego, California.

Women in Science: Frances Arnold and the Directed Evolution of Enzymes

Image: Nobel Prize Portrait by A. Mahmoud, Nobel Media AB, 2018.

Evolution and Mutations

In 2018, Frances Arnold received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with George Smith and Gregory Winter for the ”directed evolution of enzymes”.

When I first read this term ”directed evolution”, it sounded odd to me. Let me explain why.

The theory of evolution explains how species have developed and changed over billions of years on Earth. Evolution is caused by mutations, which are changes in the genetic code. Mutations are random and unpredictable, but they can provide individuals of a species with beneficial features to adapt better to their environment. For example, a mutations that changes the fur colour of a rabbit to white, benefits rabbits in a snowy environment.

Most of the time mutations have no effect at all or they can even be negative. However, the few lucky individuals with advantageous mutations will reproduce more and pass their features on to the next generation like the white rabbits in a snowy environment.

Due to the randomness of the mutations that drive evolution, the term ”directed evolution” sounds a bit odd. However, what Arnolds did to the enzymes in her research, can be called ”evolution”, and is quite genius. We will find out more about this later.

Frances Arnold – Life and Career

Frances Arnold was born in July 1956 in Pittsburgh, USA. She graduated from High School in 1974 and went on to study Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University. Her time as a student and her research later where significantly driven by the development of renewable and sustainable energy sources.

After graduating from Princeton in 1979, Arnold worked as an engineer in South Korea, Brazil and for the Solar Energy Research Institute in Colorado. Later, she enrolled for graduate research studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was awarded a PhD in Chemical Engineering in 1985.

In 1986, Arnold joined the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) at first as a Post Doctoral researcher. She was made a full professor there in 1996 and has stayed there ever since.

Directed Evolution of Enzymes

Arnold first became interested in using enzymes due to their potential in the production of renewable fuels for cars and other vehicles. Enzymes are biological molecules that speed up chemical reactions inside living creatures. They are also often called ”biological catalysts”. (Catalysts are any substances that speed up chemical reactions.)

There are, for example, many different enzymes inside our digestive system that break down food into smaller molecules. So, enzymes can be used to break down substances, but also to make new substances. There are lots of enzymes that carry out tasks in our bodies or other organism like plants.

The problem is to get enzymes to make or break down the substances we want them to when making new materials like – let us say – a fuel for cars.

To solve this problem, Arnold and her research team work with bacteria that produce enzymes they are interested in. In the first step, a lot of mutations are induced. Despite the unpredictability, it is possible to bring about many mutations at once with radiation or certain chemicals.

As we saw earlier, mutations are very random. you get the good, the bad and the unhelpful without any effect. So, Arnold’s team has to analyse how the enzymes work after the first round of mutations and sieve out the bacteria with ”good” mutations that do what the researchers intent.

After the good bacteria are isolated, a second round of mutations is induced. Again, the results are analysed and the good bacteria, producing the wanted enzymes separated. These steps of mutation, analysis and isolation are then repeated until the bacteria produce the exact enzyme desired for a specific chemical reaction.

This process of ”directed evolution of enzymes” is very versatile and can be used to produce many different materials. For example, enzymes have been designed to produce renewable fuels for cars and less harmful substitutes for pesticides. In addition, enzymes have been developed with this technique that synthesize medical drugs more sustainably.

Women in Science: Marie Curie, the Grand Dame of Science

When I started this series, I knew that at some point I would want to tell this story. The story of the Grand Dame of Science, Marie Curie. This story is especially important to me because reading about her life has inspired me to study Chemistry and pursue a PhD.

Marie Curie’s life was full of firsts. She was the first female professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, the first female Nobel Prize winner and the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice. So great were her achievements, that she is often considered the first female research scientist, although some others came before her.

Maria Sklodowska was born 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, which was then a part of the Russian empire. Her father was a teacher in Mathematics and Physics. He provided her with some scientific training additionally to the general education Maria received in local schools.

Maria’s family was too poor to support her through a university education. Therefore, she struck a deal with her sister, Bronislawa. At first, Bronislawa studied Medicine in Paris while Maria stayed behind in Poland to work as a tutor and governess supporting her financially. The plan was that later her sister would support Maria to get a higher education. During this time, Maria continued to read and study in her own time quenching her thirst for knowledge.

In 1891, Maria could finally move to Paris and continue her studies at Sorbonne University, where she started using the name Marie. She graduated with a degree in Physics 1893 and one in Mathematics 1894. Throughout her studies in Paris and even later, Marie had to carry on working as a tutor and teacher to earn her keep.

In 1894, Marie met Pierre Curie, a professor at the School of Physics in Paris, whom she married one year later. Their marriage marked the beginning of a great partnership that would lead to a number of significant scientific discoveries.

The Curies research built on work of Becquerel, who had observed the first evidence of radioactivity in 1896. They continued Becquerel’s studies and called the phenomenon ”radioactivity”. Together with Becquerel, they received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for the ”discovery of radioactivity”.

While working with the ore pitchblende, which contains the element radioactive uranium, Marie found that the radioactivity of the mineral was higher than that of pure uranium. This led her and Pierre to believe that there must be another, more radioactive element hidden inside the ore. After years of hard work processing tons of pitchblende, they were finally able to extract two new elements, radium and polonium in 1898. The latter was named after Marie’s home nation.

The Curies had been right about the high radioactivity of the new elements. In fact, radium gives off so much radiation, that it glows in its pure state. Marie Curie would later receive a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, for the discovery of radium and polonium.

Pierre Curie died suddenly in an accident in April 1906 leaving behind his wife and their two young daughters, Irene and Eve. This was a huge blow to Marie who from now on proceeded with their work alone. In May, she was appointed to the professorship that had been left vacant by her husband’s death and became the first female professor at Sorbonne University.

Soon after Marie received her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911second Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911, Sorbonne University built their first Radium Institute which included two labs. One was devoted to the study of radioactivity and directed by Marie, the other was tasked with investigating the use of radioactivity to treat cancer.

During World War I, Marie and her daughter Irene developed mobile x-ray units to treat soldiers. She equipped ambulances with them and drove them herself at the front lines.

In the later part of her life, Marie devoted most of her research at the Radium Institute to medical applications of radioactivity like the treatment of cancer. She died 1934 due to leukaemia which was caused by the years she spent investigating and handling radioactive substances. Famously, her cook book and chair are still slightly radioactive today.

Her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie would go on to win her own Nobel Prize together with her husband Frederic Joliot for the ”discovery of artificial radioactivity”. But this is another story.

 

 

 

Women in Science: Mae Jemison, the First Black Woman in Space

Image credit: NASA.

When I started this series, my goal was to further diversity in Science and to raise aspirations among girls to choose a career in Science.

Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, I have realized that the scope of this series has remained somewhat limited. Being a white woman myself, I have so far mainly focused on white female scientists.

However, I cannot truly further diversity in Science and raise aspirations of non-white girls if I do not write about non-white women as well. Therefore, I have chosen to tell the story of a black female scientist this time. Her name is Mae Jemison.

Mae Jemison is mainly known for being the first black woman in space. In 1992, she spent eight days orbiting Earth in the space shuttle Endeavour. Nevertheless, she has had a very diverse career in many different areas and it would be wrong to reduce it to only one space flight.

Jemison was born 1956 in Alabama, USA, but her family moved to Chicago when she was only three. From an early age on, she was interested in Science, especially in Astronomy. The girl’s fascination with space was additionally fueled television series like Star Trek and the appearance of Lieutenant Uhura, a black female character.

Jemison’s parents, a maintenance worker and an elementary school teacher, supported her interest in Science. However, she did not feel like she received much support from her teachers in school over the choice of her future career due to her gender and skin colour.

In 1973, aged only 16, Jemison started studying Chemical Engineering as well as African and Afro-American studies at Stanford University where she graduated in 1977. The young woman then continued on to Cornell University where she received a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1981. While at Stanford, she continued to experience discrimination from her teachers due to her skin colour.

After a short time practicing medicine in Los Angeles, Jemison volunteered for the Peace Corps as a medical officer in West Africa. In this role, she was involved in several projects to improve public health, for example the development of a vaccine for hepatitis B. Jemison returned to Los Angeles as a Medical Doctor in 1985.

Jemison was encouraged by the fact that Sally Ride became the first American woman in space during the early 1980s. So, she applied to join NASA’s astronaut corps and was selected for training in 1987.

12 September 1992 was the big day. Jemison launched into space together with six other astronauts on board the space shuttle Endeavour. They orbited Earth 126 times in eight days. On this flight, Jemison was involved in two experiments that investigated bone cells.

Mae Jemison left NASA in 1993 and started her own technology research company, the Jemison Group, Inc. Its goals are, among others, to improve health care and advance technologies in developing countries. The former astronaut remains a strong advocate for science education. For example, she has founded an international science camp for high school students.

 

 

Women in Science: Barbara McClintock and the Discovery of Jumping Genes

Image: Barbara McClintock in her laboratory in 1947. Credit: Smithsonian Institution.

Barbara McClintock was born 118 years ago, 16 June 1902, in Hartford, Connecticut (US). The girl showed great interest in science and research already from a young age. However, her family had little money and was skeptical. They thought that it was better for her to marry and be financially secure.

Nevertheless, her father, a physician, supported her wishes in the end and in 1919, McClintock started a degree in Biology at Cornell University, New York (US). Six years later, she received her Master’s degree and in 1927 her PhD in genetics and zoology.

During her PhD studies, McClintock started the research that would shape her entire career. She began investigating the DNA of corn. For this work, microscopes and colouring techniques were used to identify and analyse individual corn chromosomes. (= long strands of DNA found in each living cell). In 1933, McClintock and her colleague, Harriet Creighton, published important results showing that chromosomes are the basis of genetics.

We need to keep in mind that McClintock conducted these experiments long before the structure of DNA was even discovered in 1952. This gives us an idea about how difficult and sophisticated her work must have been.

After a spell at the University of Missouri (1936-1941), McClintock moved to Long Island, New York to work at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. She would stay for the rest of her professional life and conduct her most important research here.

In the 1940s and 50s, McClintock experimented with the colours of kernels on corn. This work led to the discovery that genetic information is not fixed. McClintock isolated two genes (= short sections of DNA) that controlled kernel colour and showed that they could move along a chromosome to different places. She also proved that these changes could affect neighbouring genes on the chromosome.

In 1983, McClintock received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine ”for her discovery of mobile genetic elements”. Popular science would come to call these moving genetic elements ”jumping genes”.

Barbara McClintock died 2 September 1992 in Huntington, New York (US).

Women in Science: Dorothy Hodgkin

Yesterday, 12 May, Dorothy Hodgkin would have celebrated her 110th birthday. She was a remarkable scientist who discovered the structures of important biological substances, like insulin. In 1964 she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for uncovering the structures of penicillin and vitamin B12.

Dorothy was born in Cairo where her father, John Crowfoot, worked for the Egyptian Education Service. During World War I, Dorothy was sent to live with her grandparents in England. The girl then spent most of her childhood apart from her parents. Nevertheless, they were very involved in Dorothy’s education and her mother, Grace Crowfoot, encouraged her interest for science.

Dorothy first became fascinated with crystals and chemistry at the age of 10. She and another girl, Norah Pusey, had to fight to be allowed to study chemistry together with the boys at her small, state-funded secondary school. After successfully finishing school, Dorothy started a degree in Chemistry at the University of Oxford in 1928.

Most of us may only have heard about X-rays in relation to broken bones or luggage security checks at airports. However, they are also used in a technique called X-ray crystallography to investigate the atomic structure of materials. In the 1930s X-ray crystallography had just recently been invented and was a very new method. During her final-year project in 1932, Dorothy became one of the first scientists to study organic compounds with this technique in Herbert Powell‘s brand new X-ray laboratory.

After graduating Dorothy moved to the University of Cambridge to carry out research for a PhD with John Desmond Bernal. She continued to study biological molecules using X-ray crystallography. For example, she investigated the structure of pepsin, an enzyme in our digestive system that breaks down proteins into their building blocks called amino acids.

In 1934, Dorothy returned to the University of Oxford where she established her on X-ray laboratory. She almost immediately started to work on the structure of insulin, the hormone that controls the sugar concentration in our blood. This project would take 35 years of work until its completion. In 1969 the structure of insulin was finally published leading to improved treatments for type I diabetes.

During World War II, Dorothy uncovered the structure of penicillin, an antibiotic drug that kills bacteria. Her publication of vitamin B12’s structure followed in 1954. These two discoveries would lead to the award of the Novel Prize in Chemistry 1964.

Apart from her amazing scientific discoveries, things were also happening in Dorothy’s private life. In 1937 Dorothy married the historian Thomas Hodgkin  with whom she had three children born between 1938 and 1946. Dorothy died July 29, 1994.

 

 

Women in Science: Hypatia of Alexandria, Ancient Astronomer

Image Credit: J.M. Gaspard, 1908.

Hypatia of Alexandria is a most fascinating historic figure. Born around the year 355 AD, she is the earliest female scientist of whom we have detailed knowledge. She was also thought to be the world’s leading astronomer and mathematician while she was alive. Until today this cannot be said about any other woman.

Unfortunately, none of Hypatia’s own writings have survived till today but some works of her colleagues and students did. They give us an impression about why she was such a famous scientist. The letters of one student, Synesius, talk about her lectures including the design of an astrolabe, a kind of astronomic calculator that was used until the 19th century. Hypatia also developed other scientific instruments and wrote mathematical textbooks.

Hypatia was born in Alexandria as the daughter of Theon of Alexandria who was a mathematician himself and a member of the Alexandrian Museum. The Museum of Alexandria was a research institute and school, similar to today’s universities. You could say that Theon was a professor there.

Theon taught Hypatia himself and when she reached adulthood she was better than her father in mathematics and philosophy. From around 380 Hypatia became a teacher in the Alexandrian Museum herself and in the year 400 AD she took over her father’s position as the Head of the Platonic School in Alexandria.

Many of Hypatia’s students would go on to become important figures in the Roman Empire. Her student Synesius, for example, would later become the bishop of Ptolemais. She was also very well respected by the government in Alexandria who would often look to her for advice. This gave Hypatia a lot of political power.

During Hypatias’s time Alexandria was an centre for learning and part of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, the city was also in turmoil due to conflicts between Christians, Jews and Pagans. Hypatia herself would have been considered a Pagan but her Neoplatonic philosophy was compatible with Christian and Jewish views. In fact, many of her students were Christian.

Christianity had only recently become the Roman Empire’s state religion. Alexandria’s archbishop, Cyril, steadily gained political power commanding a group of fanatical, violent monks that destroyed pagan temples and harassed the Jewish population. This lead to conflicts with the Roman governor Orestes who was a moderate Christian himself.

Being friends with Hypatia, Orestes turned to her for advice in this situation. However, Cyril accused Hypatia of witchcraft trying to turn Orestes against Christianity. In March 415 when Hypatia was out travelling in the city, a mob of Cyril’s militant monks brutally murdered her.

Today, Hypatia is mainly remembered for her violent death. In my opinion, we should remember her more for being the world’s first leading female scientist instead. This would do her much more justice.

 

 

Women in Science: Mary Anning, Pioneering Paleontologist

Image credit ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996)

Mary Anning came from quite disadvantaged beginnings, being born into a poor English family in 1799. Out of 10 children only she and her older brother survived into adulthood. Her father was a cabinet maker by profession and a keen fossil hunter on the side. He took Mary along for his collection trips and taught her how to clean and look after the fossils which he would often sell in his shop. When her father died of tuberculosis in 1810, Mary, still a child at the time, was encouraged by her mother to help the family financially by selling her fossils.

As a child Mary received very little formal education due to the lack of money in her family. She could read, but had to teach herself geology and anatomy.

Together with her brother, Mary discovered the first Ichthyosaur fossil (the remains of a marine reptile) when she was only 12 years old. After she had uncovered the 5.2 m long skeleton, scientists initially thought it was a crocodile. They debated the find for years.

You need to remember that at this time, the idea of extinction had just recently been introduced by Georges Cuvier. In addition, Charles Darwin did not publish his theory about evolution for another 48 years. People’s views on the creation of species was still largely based on the accounts of the Bible.

In 1823, still only aged 14, Mary was the first to discover a complete skeleton of a Plesiosaur (a ”sea dragon”), another marine reptile and even more controversial find. The fossil looked so strange and unlike any living animals, that it was rumoured to be a fake. Five years later followed the discovery of Pterodactylus, the remains of the first winged dinosaur found in Britain. In addition to uncovering many skeletons, Mary pioneered the study of coprolites, which is fossilized poo.

Mary was extremely proficient in uncovering, cleaning and identifying fossils. She continued to unearth countless remains. Many were sold to male scientists who profited from her work. Nevertheless, she was never recognized for it. Mary was not even mentioned in the papers about her groundbreaking Ichthyosaur find.

Mary died of breast cancer in 1847, aged only 47. Although she was never acknowledged formally for her discoveries, she left a great legacy of scientific discoveries. There are scientists who believe that her findings have in part contributed to the theory of evolution introduced by Charles Darwin over ten years after her death.

 

 

 

 

Women in Science: Rosalind Franklin and the DNA Structure

Image credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular BiologyFrom the personal collection of Jenifer Glynn. 1955. CC BY-SA 4.0.

One of the most important researchers involved in discovering the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) would have celebrated their 99th birthday on July 25 this year. No – it is not James Watson or Francis Crick. It is Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant chemist, whose contribution to the discovery of DNA’s structure has gone largely unrecognized.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born 1920 in London. Aged only 15 she decided she wanted to be a scientist. Her father discouraged her scientific interest knowing that at the time such a career choice would be very difficult for women. Nevertheless, in 1938 Franklin enrolled at the University of Cambridge to study Chemistry.

After graduating in 1941 Franklin was awarded a research scholarship to complete a PhD. However, this work was cut short by the start of World War II. The young researcher gave up her scholarship in order to work for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she investigated ways to use coal and carbon in the war effort. Fortunately, she could adopt this research into her doctoral thesis and received a PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1945.

In 1947 Franklin went to Paris, where she worked with Jacque Méring, an expert in X-ray crystallography. X-ray crystallography or X-ray diffraction is a technique that uses X-rays to determine the arrangement of atoms in a material. It is still widely used today in scientific research.

Her time in France not only taught Franklin the technique of X-ray crystallography, but also how to tackle scientific challenges. She would later need both skills to discover the structure of DNA.

So, why did people bother to figure out the structure of DNA? DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid is the genetic material inside your cells. DNA is like a blueprint or building plan for your body. It basically tells the cells of your body what to do. Almost all organisms store this building plan as DNA in their cells.

In 1951 Rosalind Franklin returned to Britain joining King’s College in London. There she started applying her knowledge about X-ray crystallography to study DNA. Franklin’s biggest contributions in the hunt for the DNA structure was finding the density of DNA and the insight that DNA forms a helix. A helix is a structure that looks like a cork screw or a wound staircase.

Franklin did not know that she was in a race with two other scientists from the University of Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick. Even worse was that Franklin’s colleague at King’s College Maurice Wilkins had developed a friendship with Watson and Crick. Without Franklin’s knowledge or permission Wilkins passed on her results to Watson and Crick.

Finally, Watson and Crick combined Franklin’s findings and her X-ray diffraction images of DNA with their own research. Again, this was all done with neither Franklin’s knowledge nor her permission. In April 1953, together with Wilkins, they announced that the structure of DNA was a double helix, or in other words a wound ladder. The race was over.

Soon after Franklin took a position at Birkbeck College, London, where she continued to work on coal and DNA. In addition, she started to determine the structure of viruses, which Franklin herself saw as her biggest success. Rosalind Franklin died of cancer in April 1958, aged only 37. She never knew of the contribution she had made to discover the structure of DNA.

James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel prize in Medicine for the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1962.

When discussing why Franklin did not receive the Nobel prize, the first argument is always that she died it was awarded in 1962. It is true that the Nobel prize is only awarded to people who are alive. However, in my opinion it is very unlikely that Franklin would have received the prize even if she had been alive in 1962.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that Watson, Crick and Wilkins never mentioned Franklin’s results in their publications despite having used them for their own work. In fact, Franklin never knew herself how much she had contributed to their model.

The second is that at the time women were just not well regarded in Science. When Franklin died in 1962 only three women had ever won the Nobel prize, Marie Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie and Gerty Cori. In addition, she had to battle the sexism in Science in her everyday life by protesting her lower pay and lack of promotion compared to her male colleagues.

Women in Science: Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space

Image Credit: NASA

Most people know that 1961 Yuri Gargarin was the first man in space. Most people also know that 1969 Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon. However, few people know when the first woman went to space.

The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 – only two years after Gargarin’s tour. This is an incredibly short time considering how long it took the Americans to send their first woman to space. Sally Ride launched with the space shuttle Challenger in June 1983 – 22 years after the first American, Alan Shepard, went to space.

Having left education early, Valentina worked at a textile factory in a small village in Russia. Many might consider this early career unlikely for a future cosmonaut. However, Valentina was a passionate parachutist. This hobby later qualified her to join the cosmonaut training program. Recruitng parachutists to the space program was not uncommon at the time because early cosmonauts and astronauts had to parachute out of their space craft when landing back on Earth.

After winning the race of putting the first man into space, Soviet leadership was determined to also win the race of launching the first woman. Therefore, they sent out incognito spotters to parachuting clubs to find women suited for the cosmonaut training program.

After further tests, Valentina was selected for training along with four other women. Three of them had university degrees in technology and engineering. So, why was Valentina chosen before them? Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev got the final pick and he chose Valentina mainly because she was the best fit for party propaganda. Her father had died as a soldier during World War II and she was clearly of the working class.

Valentina launched into space aboard Vostok 6 on 16 June 1963 and orbited the Earth 48 times. After three days she landed in the Altay region in Kazakhstan.

After her return, Valentina was greatly celebrated by the Soviet leadership and became an important propaganda figure. However, she never flew in space again.

Author’s Comment

Despite being chosen as the first woman in space partly for propaganda reasons, I believe, we can learn something important from Valentina Tereshkova’s career.

Valentina left school early and worked in a textile factory, but managed to join the astronaut program. She pulled off a major career change. This means it is never too late to learn something new, change your career or apply for that training program or course you always wanted to do.

Teenagers today are often told that they need to figure out exactly what they want to do with their lives by the ages of 15 or 16. After that that’s it. You are stuck with your choice. Valentina’s story shows that this is not true. You can start out as a textile worker and end up going to space.