Our list of influential women in physics from the past 10 years highlights the major contributions that women have made to this fascinating field. Physicists study a wide range of topics including gravity, planetary movement, and atomic structures. Understanding how these these forces are affected by space and time requires diving deep into the past, all the way back to the big bang, as well as projecting accurately what will occur in years to come.
Physics is one of the oldest scientific disciplines, tracing its roots back to ancient astronomy and geometry. Aristotle is credited with first using the word “physics” to describe the subject in the fourth century BC. The field grew throughout the centuries and became associated with famous names such as a Galileo and Newton.
Modern physics began to take shape with the advancements made by Max Planck and Albert Einstein in the early 20th century. Women began taking active roles in physics around this time, with Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize-winning work on radioactivity in 1903. It wasn’t until 1945 however that Kathleen Lonsdale became the first woman inducted into the Royal Society of London, one of the leading scientific organizations in the world. Progress remained even slower for African American women. Shirley Jackson was the first African American woman to receive a PhD from MIT, a feat not accomplished until 1973.
The women on our list have made progress toward making the field more equitable and diverse, while also conducting cutting-edge research. #7 Priyamvada Natarajan has contributed to the understanding of dark matter, gravitational lensing, and supermassive black holes. #11 Claudia de Rham studies the intersection between gravity, cosmology, and particle physics, winning the Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists in 2020. Jennifer Wiseman is currently the Senior Project Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. The progress made by the women on our list shows how important the work of physicists can be to gaining a better understanding of the world around us.
Influential Women in Physics From the Last 10 Years
1960 - Present (63 years)
Fabiola Gianotti is an Italian experimental particle physicist who is the current and first woman Director-General at CERN in Switzerland. Her first mandate began on 1 January 2016 and ran for a period of five years. At its 195th Session in 2019, the CERN Council selected Gianotti for a second term as Director-General. Her second five-year term began on 1 January 2021 and goes on until 2025. This is the first time in CERN’s history that a Director-General has been appointed for a full second term.
Burnell is quite famous for discovering the first radio pulsars while still a graduate student in 1967. While Burnell’s name was included among the five authors of the paper that won the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics, Bell did not receive a prize or recognition from the committee; this has been a point of controversy, though Burnell does not herself seem to take issue with it. Given her presence at so many major institutions, both inside and outside of academia, Burnell’s influence in astrophysics is a fundamental one. Her role in advancing our knowledge of pulsars, as well as the application of radio telescopes, has guided the field into the twenty-first century.
Janna J. Levin is an American theoretical cosmologist and a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College. She earned a Bachelor of Science in astronomy and physics with a concentration in philosophy at Barnard College in 1988 and a PhD in theoretical physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993. Much of her work deals with looking for evidence to support the proposal that our universe might be finite in size due to its having a nontrivial topology. Other work includes black holes and chaos theory. She joined the faculty at Barnard College in January 2004 and is curre...
Areas of Specialization: Intense Laser-Matter Interactions, Nonlinear Optics, Chirped Pulse Amplification Donna Theo Strickland was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. She is currently a Professor of Physics at the University of Waterloo. She is the first woman to hold this position at the University.
She obtained her bachelor’s degree in engineering physics in 1981 from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. At McMaster, she specialized in lasers and electro-optics. She then received her PhD in physics in 1989 from University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, where she worked at the Institute of Optics and the Institute for Laser Optics. She wrote her dissertation under the supervision of Gérard Mourou.
In 1985, Strickland and Mourou published the technique they had developed known as chirped pulse amplification (CPA), a method for amplifying ultrashort laser pulses to a very-high intensity (petawatt level).Afterwards, CPA was developed by others as the basis for the widespread use of small high-power laboratory laser systems, known as “table-top terawatt lasers.”
Areas of Specialization: Theorectical Physics, Quantum Gravity Sabine Hossenfelder is currently a Research Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, and heads the Analog Systems for Gravity Duals group. She was previously a professor at Nordita in Stockholm, Sweden, and has held fellowships at University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Arizona. Hossenfelder completed her BS in mathematics at Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany in 1997, and stayed there for her MS and PhD studies in theoretical physics, completed in 2003.
Hossenfelder is well known as a prominent figure in popular science, especially in regards to theoretical physics and her primary research interest of quantum gravity. She has published books such as Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray and pieces in magazines including Forbes, Quanta Magazine, and New Scientist, and is involved with the annual Experimental Search for Quantum Gravity conference series.
Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski is an American theoretical physicist from Chicago who studies high energy physics. She describes herself as “a proud first-generation Cuban-American and Chicago Public Schools alumna”. She completed her undergraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , earned her PhD from Harvard University and is a PCTS Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton University. According to Google Trends, Pasterski was the #3 Trending Scientist for all of 2017. In 2015, she was named to the Forbes 30 under 30 Science list, named a Forbes 30 under 30 All Star in 2017, and retu...
Priyamvada Natarajan is a professor in the departments of astronomy and physics at Yale University. She is noted for her work in mapping dark matter and dark energy, particularly with her work in gravitational lensing, and in models describing the assembly and accretion histories of supermassive black holes. She authored the book Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos.
Nergis Mavalvala is a Pakistani-American astrophysicist. She is the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , where she is also the Dean of the university’s School of Science. She was previously the Associate Head of the university’s Department of Physics. Mavalvala is best known for her work on the detection of gravitational waves in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory project, and for the exploration and experimental demonstration of macroscopic quantum effects such as squeezing in optomechanics. She was awarded ...
Sandra Moore Faber is an American astrophysicist known for her research on the evolution of galaxies. She is the University Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and works at the Lick Observatory. She has made discoveries linking the brightness of galaxies to the speed of stars within them and was the co-discoverer of the Faber–Jackson relation. Faber was also instrumental in designing the Keck telescopes in Hawaii.
Claudia de Rham is a Swiss theoretical physicist working at the interface of gravity, cosmology and particle physics. She is based at Imperial College London. She was one of the UK finalists in the Physical Sciences and Engineering category of the Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists in 2018 for revitalizing the theory of massive gravity, and won the award in 2020.
Eva Silverstein is an American theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and string theorist. She is a professor of physics at Stanford University and director of the Modern Inflationary Cosmology collaboration within the Simons Foundation Origins of the Universe initiative.
Jill Cornell Tarter is an American astronomer best known for her work on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence . Tarter is the former director of the Center for SETI Research, holding the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute. In 2002, Discover magazine recognized her as one of the 50 most important women in science.
Margaret J. Geller is an American astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics Harvard & Smithsonian. Her work has included pioneering maps of the nearby universe, studies of the relationship between galaxies and their environment, and the development and application of methods for measuring the distribution of matter in the universe.
Sara Seager is a Canadian-American astronomer and planetary scientist. She is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is known for her work on extrasolar planets and their atmospheres. She is the author of two textbooks on these topics, and has been recognized for her research by Popular Science, Discover Magazine, Nature, and TIME Magazine. Seager was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013 citing her theoretical work on detecting chemical signatures on exoplanet atmospheres and developing low-cost space observatories to observe planetary transits.
Yan Zhu is a security engineer, open web standards author, technology speaker, and open source contributor. In 2015 she was recognized as one of Forbes 30 Under 30. Education Yan Zhu is a high school dropout who earned a B.S. in physics at MIT. She enrolled as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Stanford University in experimental cosmology but dropped out after four months.
Lucinda “Lucie” May Green is a British science communicator and solar physicist. Green is a Professor of Physics and a Royal Society University Research Fellow at Mullard Space Science Laboratory of the University College London . Green runs MSSL’s public engagement programme and sits on the board of the European Solar Physics Division of the European Physical Society and the advisory board of the Science Museum.
Jennifer J. Wiseman is Senior Project Scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope, and an American astronomer, born in Mountain Home, Arkansas. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT and a Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard University in 1995. Wiseman discovered periodic comet 114P/Wiseman-Skiff while working as an undergraduate search assistant in 1987. Wiseman is a senior astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where she serves as the Senior Project Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. She previously headed the Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics. ...
Helen Czerski is a British physicist and oceanographer and television presenter. She is a research fellow in the department of mechanical engineering at University College London. She was previously at the Institute for Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton.
Hiranya Vajramani Peiris is a British astrophysicist at University College London and Stockholm University, best known for her work on the cosmic microwave background radiation. She was one of 27 scientists who received the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2018 for their “detailed maps of the early universe.”
Helen Rhoda Arnold Quinn is an Australian-born particle physicist and educator who has made major contributions to both fields. Her contributions to theoretical physics include the Peccei–Quinn theory which implies a corresponding symmetry of nature and contributions to the search for a unified theory for the three types of particle interactions . As Chair of the Board on Science Education of the National Academy of Sciences, Quinn led the effort that produced A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas—the basis for the Next Generation Science St...
Elizabeth MacDonald is a space weather scientist who works at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She is a co-investigator on the Helium, Oxygen, Proton, and Electron Spectrometer on the NASA Radiation Belts Storm Probe mission.
Xiaowei Zhuang is a Chinese-American biophysicist who is the David B. Arnold Jr. Professor of Science, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and Professor of Physics at Harvard University, and an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She is best known for her work in the development of Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy , a super-resolution fluorescence microscopy method, and the discoveries of novel cellular structures using STORM. She received a 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for developing super-resolution imaging techniques that get past the diffr...
Persis S. Drell is an American physicist best known for her expertise in the field of particle physics. She was the director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory from 2007 to 2012. She was dean of the Stanford University School of Engineering from 2014 until 2017. Drell became the Provost of Stanford University on February 1, 2017.
Mikaela Irene Dimaano Fudolig is a Filipino physicist and former child prodigy. She is known for earning her undergraduate degree at the age of 16. Life and career Fudolig was a sophomore at Quezon City Science High School before being pulled into the experimental Early College Placement Program . At the age of 11, she began her university education at the University of the Philippines Diliman . She was admitted without a high school diploma and without taking the UP College Admission Test .