STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is one of many fields that reflects the global issue of gender inequality. While women have made countless contributions to STEM throughout history, only about 30% of the world’s researchers are women. The gender gap in science is roughly the same proportion globally, with some countries or regions having even lower percentages of women working in science.
Recognition of Women in STEM
Even when women do work as scientists, they are at a high risk of receiving lower pay than their male counterparts in similar positions. Female scientists may also have their work published less often than their male peers.
There is also a disturbing trend in terms of the recognition of women in STEM. Sometimes, their work goes completely unrecognized until the latter stages of their lives, or even posthumously.
This trend is exacerbated when the women come from diverse backgrounds in terms of categorizations that include but are not limited to ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status. There are numerous examples of women whose historic contributions to STEM are only recently gaining attention such as NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, early American female physicians Rebecca Cole and Elizabeth Blackwell, internet pioneer Radia Perlman, botanist Ana Roque de Duprey, early computer programmer Ada Lovelace, and geneticist Barbara McClintock.
The stories of these women are important because of their work, but also because they are women. Women face serious barriers to entry in STEM education and employment because of the trajectory of exclusionary gender roles and the ensuing lack of role models. The lack of role models is more so because of a lack of publicity regarding the accomplishments of women in STEM because evidence demonstrates that women have given us some of the most important discoveries, theories, technology, and information on modern history.
One glaring example of a public relations failure in touting the story of an important woman in scientific history is that of June Almeida. Almeida is now a “hot topic” in STEM publications and otherwise because she discovered coronaviruses. Now that COVID-19 has caused a global crisis, Almeida’s contributions are more widely discussed. However, June Almeida also contributed to important studies on HIV, Hepatitis B, diagnostic measures for viruses, and vaccine development. She also was a wife, a mother, and a yoga teacher.
Did you know? June Almeida is the woman who discovered the first human #coronavirus.— UN Women (@UN_Women) April 17, 2020
(#COVID19 is a new illness but it is caused by a coronavirus of the type first identified by Dr. Almeida in 1964)#WomenInScience via @BBC https://t.co/bwhJep4pni
The life of Virologist June Almeida
June Almeida was a world-renowned virologist. However, one of her most important contributions to science had largely gone unnoticed until the COVID-19 crisis. June Almeida is responsible for the discovery of coronaviruses. Since the crisis began, her name has begun to circulate in the scientific community once again.
Almeida, whose maiden name was Hart, came from very humble means. Born in Scotland in 1930, June was the daughter of a bus driver. She lived with her family in tenements and left school at the age of 16. Unfortunately, her family could not afford to send her to university, so she began working as a laboratory technician in histopathology. Histopathology is the examination and diagnosis of diseases under a microscope using tissues and cells.
June Almeida’s career as a Virologist
Almeida’s decision to work at Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary would eventually set her on the path to becoming a pioneer of science. She moved to London in hopes of furthering her career. There she would meet Enriques Almeida, an artist from Venezuela. The two married and had a daughter before moving their family to Canada.
In Canada, she found work at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto as an electron microscopist. Electron microscopes can help scientists see specimens with high magnification and high resolution using electron beams instead of light along with electron lenses.
Almeida’s work in Canada produced a new procedure for identifying viruses. Despite the improved imaging done with electron microscopes, it was still difficult for scientists at the time to differentiate between specimens. Their shapes and appearances did not make them easily identifiable. To remedy this, Almeida began introducing antibodies to the specimens. An antibody is drawn to its corresponding antigen. This movement allowed viruses to be identified when antibodies would crowd around them once introduced to a specimen. Thus, a new viral diagnosis technique was discovered.
With her new technique, Almeida went on to identify the virus for rubella. Her work gained a lot of recognition amongst virologists during her time, so much so that she was asked to move to London to work with prominent researcher Dr. David Tyrell at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. They worked in the common cold unit examining specimens.
Almeida worked with one specimen that turned out not to be influenza and published her findings. The virus had a crown-like halo around it and was the first discovery of a coronavirus. Her initial publishings were rejected as she was believed to be mistaken in the identification of this new virus. Almeida continued her career after this “misstep”. She would have her name included on the patents for several viruses and was awarded a doctoral degree at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London, where she also worked later in her career.
Almeida’s numerous contributions to virology, especially the discovery of several viruses via electron microscopes are, as of late, being recalled because of the COVID-19 crisis.
June Almeida spent her latter years as a yoga teacher, with the exception of being called back to work on studies involving HIV. She died in 2007 at the age of 77. Her life is a testament to the power of perseverance. Coming from the most unlikely of backgrounds, having little formal education, and working in a male-dominated field, Almeida succeeded against all odds. Not only was her success honored by the awarding of a doctoral degree, but her work is still used today.
Leading an exemplary life and leaving a legacy that should inspire all scientists, but especially women in STEM, Almeida’s name is one that we should say more often.