Our list of influential women in biology includes those who have made notable discoveries, those whose works have influenced positive change in environmental policy, and those whose research has led to important health innovations. Biology is a broad science that includes many subfields, such as microbiology, marine biology, evolutionary biology, botany, and zoology. Included here are influencers who have made a positive impact in each of these areas.
The biologists on our list have had a major influence in areas such as cellular biology, plant and animal sciences, and evolutionary science. Also included in our list are microbiologists, those who study the structures of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. This particular subfield of biology has played a significant role during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other notable subfields include wildlife biologists, who study animals and ecosystems, as well as evolutionary biologists, who study evolutionary processes and biodiversity.
Biology intersects with almost every aspect of life, which gives students pursuing a degree in this field a unique opportunity to follow their individual interests within the discipline. Students who are curious about animals can enter into zoology or marine biology programs, while those who want to study microorganisms or biochemistry may find their home in a microbiology or molecular biology program. While entry-level positions are available for those with an undergraduate degree in biology, many people in the field choose to pursue advanced degrees. Those who wish to conduct research or teach at the post-secondary level will usually earn their doctorate in biology or a related field.
Women in biology can collaborate, network, and support other women in the field through a number of professional organizations. For instance, Women in Bio is an organization of professionals committed to promoting careers, leadership, and entrepreneurship for all women in the life sciences.” This organization emphasizes the importance of woman-to-woman peer networking and promotes a program “aimed to inspire a love of science in middle- and high-school girls.
This list of the most influential women in biology highlights the achievements of women in various subfields and showcases the advancements women have made in the field. Among the notable influencers on our list, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard is the only German woman to have earned a Nobel Prize in the sciences for her work in developing a detailed understanding of how an embryo’s shape is determined by genes. Masayo Takahashi was named by the British science journal Nature as one of “five to watch” global scientists for her groundbreaking work in regenerative medicine. Sandra Ciesek, professor of medical virology at the Goethe University Frankfurt, has been more recently recognized for her research on drugs used to treat patients with COVID-19. Antje Boetius received the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize in March 2009 for her study of sea bed microorganisms and their effect on global climate. Today, these notable women, along with the others included on this list, continue to have a profound influence on the field of biology, and the world at large.
Influential Women in Biology From the Last 10 Years
1968 - Present (54 years)
Areas of Specialization: Microbiology, Genetics Emmanuelle Charpentier is the Founding and Acting Director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens and an Honorary Professor at Humboldt University of Berlin. She completed her undergraduate studies at the Pierre and Marie Curie University, which is now known as the Faculty of Science at Sorbonne University. She went on to earn a research doctorate from the Institut Pasteur.
Charpentier is well known for her collaboration with Jennifer Doudna on decoding the molecular mechanisms of the CRISPR/Cas9 bacterial immune system. Her work on CRISPR has enabled scientists to edit the genome using Cas9.
For her work on CRISPR, she has received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award, the Gruber Foundation International Prize in Genetics, the Leibniz Prize, the Kavli Prize and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Novozymes Prize, the Bijvoet Medal of the Bijvoet Center for Biomolecular Research at Utrecht University, and most recently, the Scheele Award of the Swedish Pharmaceutical Society.
Areas of Specialization: Biochemistry, Molecular Biology Jennifer Doudna is a Li Ka Shing Chancellor Chair Professor for the Department of Chemistry and Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, she has been a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes. She earned a B.A. in biochemistry from Pomona College and a Ph.D. in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology from Harvard Medical School.
She is best known for her work with CRISPR. She, along with her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, were the first to suggest that genes could be edited or reprogrammed, now considered one of the most impactful discoveries ever made in the field of biology.
For her work in gene editing, she has received numerous prestigious awards, including the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Gruber Prize in Genetics, the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience and in 2016, she was runner-up for the Time magazine Person of the Year, alongside her fellow CRISPR colleagues.
Elizabeth Blackburn is a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, studying the impacts of stress on telomerase and telomeres. She is the former president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the first Australian woman to win a Nobel prize. She earned a bachelor of science and a master of science from the University of Melbourne. She went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. She is best known for her co-discovery of the telomerase, which is the enzyme that replenishes telomere. She and colleagues Carol W. Greider and Jack Szostak were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for this work. Her research on telomerase has explored ways that mental health can impact physical health, investigating the impacts of meditation and social bonds.
She has received numerous awards for her work, including the Eli Lilly Research Award for Microbiology and Immunology, California Scientist of the Year for 1999, an American Cancer Society Medal of Honor, Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, and the Royal Medal of the Royal Society.
Carolyn Widney Greider is an American molecular biologist and Nobel laureate. She joined the University of California, Santa Cruz as a Distinguished Professor in the department of molecular, cell, and developmental biology in October 2020.
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard is a German developmental biologist and a 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine laureate. She is the only woman from Germany to have received a Nobel Prize in the sciences.
May-Britt Moser is a Norwegian psychologist and neuroscientist, who is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology . She and her then-husband, Edvard Moser, shared half of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded for work concerning the grid cells in the entorhinal cortex, as well as several additional space-representing cell types in the same circuit that make up the positioning system in the brain. Together with Edvard Moser she established the Moser research environment at NTNU, which they lead. Since 2012 she has heade...
Nieng Yan or Yan Ning is a structural biologist and the Shirley M. Tilghman Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University. Her laboratory currently studies the structural and chemical basis for membrane transport and lipid metabolism.
Margarita Salas Falgueras, 1st Marchioness of Canero was a Spanish scientist, medical researcher, and author in the fields of biochemistry and molecular genetics. She started developing molecular biology in Spain and also worked as an honorary associate professor of CSIC, at the Severo Ochoa Biology Center . In 2016 she became the first women ever to receive the Echegaray medal, that was given to her by the Royal Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences .
Areas of Specialization: Crystallography Yonath is Director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly of the Weizmann Institute of Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Chemistry from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1962, her master's in biochemistry in 1964, and her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1968.
Yonath is a crystallographer, a branch of chemistry that studies the arrangement of atoms in crystalline solids. Yonath has applied crystallographic techniques to the study of the ribosome, which has resulted in pioneering research in that area. In 2009, Yonath won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on the structure and function of the ribosome (along with two colleagues). She became the first Israeli woman ever to win the Nobel Prize as well as the first woman in 45 years to win in the Chemistry field.
Masayo Takahashi is a Japanese medical physician, ophthalmologist and stem cell researcher. Takahashi serves as a project research leader at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe focusing on the clinical application of iPS Cell technology on macular degeneration. In 2014 Takahashi was named by British science journal Nature as one of “five to watch” global scientists for her groundbreaking work in regenerative medicine.
Ruth Fowler Edwards, Lady Edwards was a British geneticist and the long-time wife and collaborator of Robert G. Edwards, the “father” of in vitro fertilization. Life Ruth was descended from a line of distinguished scientists. According to Martin Johnson, She was the granddaughter of Ernest Rutherford, who himself won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1908, ‘for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances’ . Her father was Sir Ralph Fowler FRS , who was Plummer Professor of Mathematical Physics in Cambridge from 1932 to 1944.Her mothe...
Cornelia Isabella “Cori” Bargmann is an American neurobiologist. She is known for her work on the genetic and neural circuit mechanisms of behavior using C. elegans, particularly the mechanisms of olfaction in the worm. She has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and had been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at UCSF and then Rockefeller University from 1995 to 2016. Since 2016 she is Head of Science at the Chan Zuckerberg initiative. In 2012 she was awarded the $1 million Kavli Prize, and in 2013 the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
Linda Brown Buck is an American biologist best known for her work on the olfactory system. She was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Richard Axel, for their work on olfactory receptors. She is currently on the faculty of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Sandra Ciesek is a German physician and virologist. She is the director of the Institute of Medical Virology at the Universitätsklinikum Frankfurt and professor of medical virology at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Her main areas of research include new forms of therapy for hepatitis C and, more recently, the search for drugs against COVID-19.
May Roberta Berenbaum is an American entomologist whose research focuses on the chemical interactions between herbivorous insects and their host plants, and the implications of these interactions on the organization of natural communities and the evolution of species. She is particularly interested in nectar, plant phytochemicals, honey and bees, and her research has important implications for beekeeping.
Elena Cattaneo is an Italian pharmacologist and co-founding director of the University of Milan’s Center for Stem Cell Research. She is an internationally prominent Huntington’s disease researcher and stem cell research advocate. She is internationally recognised for her major commitment to research ethics and research policy, and for increasing knowledge and engagement in research among the general public.
Lucy Shapiro is an American developmental biologist. She is a professor of Developmental Biology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. She is the Ludwig Professor of Cancer Research and the director of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine. She founded a new field in developmental biology, using microorganisms to examine fundamental questions in developmental biology. Her work has furthered understanding of the basis of stem cell function and the generation of biological diversity. Her ideas have revolutionized understanding of bacterial genetic networks and hel...
Shi Zhengli is a Chinese virologist who researches SARS-like coronaviruses of bat origin. Shi directs the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Wuhan Institute of Virology . In 2017, Shi and her colleague Cui Jie discovered that the SARS coronavirus likely originated in a population of cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in Xiyang Yi Ethnic Township, Yunnan. She came to prominence in the popular press as “Batwoman” during the COVID-19 pandemic for her work with bat coronaviruses. Shi was included in Times 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
Anne Hope Jahren is an American geochemist and geobiologist at the University of Oslo in Norway, known for her work using stable isotope analysis to analyze fossil forests dating to the Eocene. She has won many prestigious awards in the field, including the James B. Macelwane Medal of the American Geophysical Union.
Mary Higby Schweitzer is an American paleontologist at North Carolina State University, who led the groups that discovered the remains of blood cells in dinosaur fossils and later discovered soft tissue remains in the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen MOR 1125, as well as evidence that the specimen was a pregnant female when she died.
Antje Boetius is a German marine biologist. She is a professor of geomicrobiology at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, University of Bremen. Boetius received the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, with 2.5 million euros in funding, in March 2009 for her study of sea bed microorganisms that affect the global climate. She is also the director of Germany’s polar research hub, the Alfred Wegener Institute.
Cynthia Jane Kenyon is an American molecular biologist and biogerontologist known for her genetic dissection of aging in a widely used model organism, the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. She is the vice president of aging research at Calico Research Labs, and emeritus professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco .
Brenda Milner is a British-Canadian neuropsychologist who has contributed extensively to the research literature on various topics in the field of clinical neuropsychology. Milner is a professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University and a professor of Psychology at the Montreal Neurological Institute. , she holds more than 20 honorary degrees and continues to work in her nineties. Her current work covers many aspects of neuropsychology including her lifelong interest in the involvement of the temporal lobes in episodic memory. She is sometimes referred to as “...
Susan Lee Lindquist, ForMemRS was an American professor of biology at MIT specializing in molecular biology, particularly the protein folding problem within a family of molecules known as heat-shock proteins, and prions. Lindquist was a member and former director of the Whitehead Institute and was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2010.
Edith Heard is a British-French researcher in epigenetics and since January 2019 has been the Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory . She is also Professor at the Collège de France, holding the Chair of Epigenetics and Cellular Memory. From 2010 to 2018, Heard was the Director of the Genetics and Developmental Biology department at the Curie Institute , France. Heard is noted for her studies of X-chromosome-inactivation.