Women in STEM sustainable development innovations

8 Sustainable Development Innovations by Women in STEM

When it comes to tackling the world’s most pressing challenges, women in STEM fields have been at the forefront of driving innovations and scientific breakthroughs. From developing life-saving vaccines to uncovering the root causes of environmental crises, these trailblazing women have shattered glass ceilings and paved the way for a more resilient, inclusive future. 

Despite their groundbreaking contributions, women constitute only 29.2% of the STEM workforce, highlighting a disparity that underscores the need for greater inclusivity.

The path is steep for women in the field. They navigate a minefield of barriers, from deeply ingrained gender stereotypes that deter young girls from exploring these fields to a conspicuous lack of female role models. The journey is further marred by persistent gender discrimination, workplace bias, unequal pay, limited advancement opportunities, and sexual and verbal harassment. These systemic obstacles not only discourage entry into STEM but also drive a concerning attrition rate among women who do venture into these careers.

These challenging conditions not only impede women’s professional growth but also test their personal resolve, creating an atmosphere in which their choices and contributions are constantly under scrutiny.

“Ma’am kababae mong tao bakit ka nag ganitong trabaho? Di po ba mas masarap kung nasa bahay ka nalang, nag-aalaga ng bata, nagluluto?” Chona Abeledo, a molecular biologist, recounted one of the friendly, but misguided inquiries she received as she conducted fieldwork.

[Ma’am, you’re a woman, why did you end up choosing this job? Isn’t it better to be at home, taking care of the children and cooking?]

There’s a misconception that STEM is a monolithic field best suited for men. The reality is scientific inquiry and innovation demands a multidisciplinary, multi-perspective approach. The inclusion of women in STEM is not just about filling quotas or diversity targets — it’s about harnessing the full range of human potential to develop effective, equitable solutions that account for all segments of society.

“What’s amazing about women is that when we lead, we have a tendency to bring up the people who are often disenfranchised and ignored by majority of society. And so a lot of the innovations that women create, results to equity, results to better opportunities for everyone, not just themselves. And that’s why I think we need more women in STEM,” Abeledo shared.

By bringing more women into the forefront of scientific inquiry and technological development, the sector paves way for breakthroughs that are as inclusive as they are revolutionary. Here are impact-driven innovations by women in STEM that have not only advanced their respective field, but also championed environmental preservation and societal progress.

1. COVID-19 Vaccine Development

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett emerged as a key figure in the race to develop a vaccine during the COVID-19 health crisis.

From the onset of the pandemic, Dr. Corbett and her team at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center worked tirelessly to understand the novel coronavirus and develop a vaccine in record time. Their efforts, combined with unprecedented collaboration, funding, and thousands of volunteers, resulted in the fastest vaccine development in history – a mere four months from the identification of the virus to the first human trials.

Dr. Corbett’s work led to the creation of Moderna, one of the first mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, boasting over 90% effectiveness. This vaccine’s rapid development and subsequent deployment have been instrumental in mitigating the pandemic’s impact, highlighting the significance of scientific advancement and collaboration in crisis management. 

2. Discovery of Antarctic Ozone Hole Culprit

Dr. Susan Solomon’s groundbreaking research has had a profound impact on environmental policies worldwide. 

In the 1980s, her team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) free radical reaction mechanism as the culprit behind the Antarctic ozone hole. Leading the National Ozone Expedition to McMurdo Sound, Solomon and her team discovered chlorine oxide levels in the atmosphere that were a hundred times higher than anticipated, a consequence of CFC decomposition under ultraviolet radiation. 

Solomon’s findings formed the basis of the United Nations Montreal Protocol, an international agreement regulating damaging chemicals to protect the ozone layer. Her work not only reshaped global environmental policy but also demonstrated the ozone layer’s resilience, inspiring ongoing efforts to mend the planet’s atmospheric shield.

3. Literature That Ignited The Environmental Movement

Long before the terms “sustainability” and “climate change” entered the public lexicon, one woman’s voice sparked a global awakening about the planet’s fragility.

Rachel Carson’s seminal work in 1962, “Silent Spring,” is widely credited with igniting the modern environmental movement. Through her poignant writing, Carson exposed the detrimental effects of pesticides, particularly DDT, on the environment and human health. Her unwavering opposition to the indiscriminate use of chemicals led to a nationwide ban on DDT and inspired a paradigm shift in how we approach environmental protection. 

A marine biologist by profession, her sea trilogy – “The Sea Around Us,” “The Edge of the Sea,” and “Under the Sea Wind” – further inspired generations to appreciate and safeguard the wonders of the ocean.

4. Mangrove Crab Species Identification App

Dr. Chona Abeledo’s research enabled sustainable aquaculture practices in the Philippines.

In the late 2010s, the CrabTECH team at De La Salle University, which she leads, developed a mobile app called Crabifier to identify juvenile mangrove crab species. This allowed farmers to selectively culture the fast-growing, marketable Scylla serrata crabs while avoiding overharvesting slower species. It also prevented the clearing of mangrove forests for bigger ponds systems.

Previously, farmers overstocked ponds to compensate for losses from indiscriminately mixing multiple crab species. Crabifier’s image analysis prevented this wasteful practice, increasing yields by 15-25% while reducing operating costs 10-30%, according to interviews with users.

5. Malaria-Fighting Compound

Tu Youyou’s pioneering discoveries impacted global health and saved millions from malaria.

In the effort to subdue one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, Tu looked to the ancient wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine. Her meticulous research on sweet wormwood led to the isolation of artemisinin, a compound that essentially inhibits the malaria parasite. 

Her work ushered in a new era of antimalarial drugs, offering hope to regions devastated by the disease. Tu’s impact has reverberated across South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and her native South China. Her work exemplifies the power of interdisciplinary approaches, seamlessly blending modern science with centuries-old herbal remedies to forge life-saving solutions.

6. Sustainable Materials From Waste

Dr. Ashani Savinda Ranathunga made strides in converting Sri Lanka’s industrial and agricultural waste into raw, value-added materials for greener construction and development projects. 

She uses byproducts such as fly ash, calcium carbide residue, paddy husk, and corn cob ash to stabilize soft soil, making it possible to create durable infrastructure. With the same waste products, Ranathunga also rehabilitates soil in abandoned mines.

As a lecturer at the University of Moratuwa, she inspires young women in science and engineering, advocating for a greener future through waste recycling.

7. Propulsion System That Keep Satellites in Orbit

Engineer and scientist Yvonne Brill developed a groundbreaking propulsion system vital for maintaining satellites in orbit.

Her invention, which has become a staple in satellite technology, allows for precise adjustments to a satellite’s trajectory, ensuring its operational longevity and reliability. Brill’s work enables consistent observation of Earth’s weather and climate, providing highly-important data for environmental study and disaster preparedness efforts.

8. Food Innovations for the People

Virginia H. Holsinger’s contributions have made dairy products accessible to millions worldwide. 

She aided in the development of Beano and Lactaid, milk alternatives for people with lactose intolerance. As a pioneering scientist, Holsinger played a crucial role in developing lactose-free dehydrated milk. She also made reduced-fat mozzarella cheese used in the United States Department of Agriculture National School Lunch Program and formulated food for emergency relief efforts. 

Holsinger’s impact extends beyond her scientific achievements, as her dedication to improving nutrition and food security has left an indelible mark on global public health.

Women in STEM Can Do It Too

These women scientists and engineers have not only advanced their respective fields through innovation and discovery but have also set a precedent for future generations. Their work highlights the profound impact that thoughtful, innovative research can have on global environmental policies, technology, and sustainable development. As the world faces increasingly complex challenges, the contributions of women in STEM serve as beacons of hope, demonstrating the power of scientific ingenuity and diverse perspectives in shaping a better world for all.

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