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International Day of Women and Girls in Science

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A young black researcher looking through microscope.

Photo: Edinburgh Napier University

To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2024, we’re looking at the stories of four women who have made incredible contributions in their areas of scientific endeavour.

Two are historical figures and two are current leaders in their fields who are celebrated in the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s inspiring online exhibition of female scientists in Scotland.

Mary Somerville - mathematician

Mary Somerville was born in Jedburgh and was mainly self-taught, staying up late into the night to study mathematics and algebra. In Edinburgh, she was encouraged by John Playfair, one of the leading figures in the Scottish Enlightenment and a professor of natural philosophy (science) at the University of Edinburgh.

She moved to London in 1812 and became the private tutor to Ada Lovelace . Mary Somerville wrote five books, the first of which was published when she was in her early fifties. Her writing demonstrated the incredible scope of her knowledge covering astronomy, physics, geography, meteorology and molecular science.

As well as having an Oxford College named after her, Mary Somerville is also commemorated in the name ‘scientist’ which was coined especially for her as a gender-neutral alternative to ‘man of science’.

Professor Ineke De Moortel - mathematician

Ineke De Moortel is a Professor of applied mathematics (Solar Physics) in the School of Mathematics and Statistics and AVP Dean of Science at the University of St Andrews.

Her research focuses on understanding the extremely high temperatures in the sun’s outer atmosphere through the development of computational models.

Ineke was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) in 2015, and previously co-chaired its affiliate society, the RSE Young Academy of Scotland from 2012 to 2014. She was President of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society from 2017 to 2019.

In 2021 Professor De Moortel was presented with the Royal Astronomical Society Chapman medal for her seminal work on the nature of waves in the solar atmosphere. The award cited her unique contributions to the topic of coronal waves and her theoretical and observational expertise.

Williamina Fleming - astronomer

Williamina Fleming was the daughter of a Dundee carver and gilder and left school at fourteen. After emigrating to the USA and being left by her husband with a child to support she found work as a maid in the home of the director of Harvard College Observatory. She was eventually employed in the observatory analysing the properties of stars on photographic plates.

Handling over 200,000 images in her career, she recorded information from even the faintest and most distant stars, helping to design a classification system for stella spectra and discovering the Horsehead Nebula. Williamina Fleming is also credited with the discovery of the first white dwarf stars.

Professor Catherine Heymans - astronomer

Professor Catherine Heymans is Scotland’s Astronomer Royal and a world-leading cosmologist. Her research focusses on understanding the secrets of the dark universe, which she describes as ‘the stuff that we can’t see or touch but that we know is there because of the effects it has on the stars and the galaxies that we can see.’

Throughout her career, Professor Heymans has held positions at many prestigious institutions. She secured fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, the University of British Columbia, the Institut d’astrophysique de Paris, and the University of Edinburgh. In 2028 she was awarded the Max Planck-Humboldt Research Award, accompanied by a research grant of €1.5 million.

As well as working as a professor of astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh she is also director of the German Centre for Cosmological Lensing at Ruhr-University Bochum.

As Astronomer Royal, Professor Heymans is committed to making astronomy exciting and engaging and works hard to promote public understanding of her research. You can follow her posts on Bluesky.

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