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STEM's Hidden Figures

By Clare Schinzel

We are all familiar with influential STEM figures: Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and countless others. However, within the competitive world of STEM, women can get overlooked. Despite the barrier, many women have been able to break that glass ceiling. Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, and others are among those names. But once again, another barrier to recognition exists. Some women of color, while making extreme contributions to STEM, are still overlooked. Tu Youyou, a Chinese Chemist, and Gladys West, an African American mathematician, are among this overlooked group.

Tu was born on December 30, 1930, in the Zhejiang province in China. Tu studied pharmaceutics at Beijing Medical College. After earning her degree in 1955, she decided to study traditional medicine at the Institute of Materia Medica. Traditional Chinese medicine sought to maintain the yin-yang balance for a healthy body. This is where practices such as acupuncture and herbs originate.

Tu Youyou, photo/ Encyclopedia Britannica

At the institute, Tu studied this type of medicine with a focus on its application to the West’s Medicine. In 1969, Tu was chosen to lead Project 523: a Chinese mission to find a better treatment for malaria. At the time, the Vietnam War was demanding a helpful drug for the catastrophic disease. Using Chinese folk mythology and stories, Tu’s team identified plants thought to be effective against the disease. After testing about two thousand remedies, Tu found an extract from a wormwood plant known as Artemisia annua that was effective in monkeys at killing the Plasmodium parasites that caused malaria. Tu’s team moved on to clinical studies where they observed lower fevers and a diminished number of parasites as a result of the drug. By 1972, Tu had managed to isolate artemisinin, the active compound in the extract. Tu found trouble publishing her team’s discoveries because of Chinese restrictions on publication (especially of scientific information). However, by the early 2000s, the World Health Organization had begun to advertise the use of artemisinin drugs as the first treatment for malaria. In 2015, Tu was awarded the Noble Prize for Medicine for her contributions to fighting malaria.

Like Tu, Gladys West is another exceptional woman who used her intelligence to make extraordinary accomplishments in STEM. West was born on October 27, 1930, to an African American farming family in Virginia. During that period, most young women of color couldn’t imagine a future outside of farming or working at a tobacco factory. However, West’s intelligence and merit allowed her to accomplish great things. West was the valedictorian of her graduating class which allowed her to get a scholarship to Virginia State University. Gladys earned a degree in mathematics and began teaching the subject during the segregation period of American history.

Gladys West, photo/ Encyclopedia Britannica

In 1956, Gladys was hired by the U.S. Naval Proving Ground where she was admired for being able to solve complex math equations on paper. Gladys’ extraordinary achievements began when she began moving this equation-solving process to a computer program. Her earliest achievement was the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator. This computer was designed to track the movements of Pluto using complex math equations. In 1978, West took the lead on Seasat: a project meant to use satellites to map oceanic features like wave height, temperature, icebergs, and many other factors. This project led to the creation of GEOSAT: a program that taught a computer about tides, gravity, and other landscapes to accurately map the paths of satellites. From this, the GPS program began to develop to make calculations anywhere on Earth. Even after retiring in 1998, West’s passion for learning never ceased. Remarkably, West earned a Ph.D. in public administration and policy affairs from a Virginia Polytech University when she was 70 years old. Unfortunately, West’s recognition came later in her life because of barriers of gender and race barring her from acceptance. In 2018, West was accredited with the creation and inspiration of the GPS by the Virginia General Assembly. Later that year, she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame and the British Broadcasting Corporation's 100 Women of 2018 to recognize her efforts.

Despite Tu and West’s remarkable accomplishments, many people are unaware of their efforts. Unfortunately, both women were vastly overlooked in their time due to race and gender discrimination. Luckily for women of today––while there are still many barriers in our way––Tu and West prove that hard work and determination can still inspire numerous inventions and discoveries. We have to thank Tu and West for being brave enough to break through the initial glass ceilings of prejudice to allow future generations to reach their full potential.


Matthias, M. (n.d.). Gladys West | Biography, Accomplishments, Hidden Figure, GPS,

Mathematician, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Rogers, K. (2015, October 7). Tu Youyou | Chinese scientist and phytochemist. Encyclopedia

The Nobel Prize. (2015). The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015.

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