Vassar Celebrates Women in Science
In observance of Women’s History Month, we pay tribute to some Vassar alums who have made groundbreaking achievements in science.
Ellen Swallow Richards, Class of 1870, Environmental Science
Entering Vassar at the age of 26, Ellen Swallow Richards studied under the guidance of Professor of Chemistry Charles Farrar and renowned Professor of Astronomy Maria Mitchell. Mitchell, an activist for the advancement of women’s work in science, saw in Swallow a potential for scientific innovation. Swallow soon validated her professor’s belief. After graduating from Vassar, she taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she opened a laboratory for women dedicated to the study of “sanitary chemistry,” which ultimately became known as ecology.
Grace Hopper ’28, Computer Science
A Vassar faculty member and one of the world’s first computer programmers, Grace Hopper was part of a team of Navy scientists who worked on Howard Aiken’s Mark 1 calculating machine, a precursor of the modern computer, during World War II. She later became one of the few women ever to earn the rank of Rear Admiral. In 1952, she invented a compiler that translated English into computer code, paving the way for the creation of programming languages Fortran (Formula Translator) and COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), and making it possible for generations of non-experts to do their own programming. Hopper died in 1992, and 24 years later, President Barack Obama awarded her a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Two displays honoring Hopper’s life and achievements hang in the halls of Sanders Physics. One depicts her alongside one of her famous sayings: “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’”
June Jackson Christmas ’45–4, Psychology
After being among the first to break Vassar’s color barrier, June Jackson Christmas broke new ground in the field of child psychiatry. After earning her MD in psychiatry from Boston University School of Medicine, she opened her own practice and worked as a psychiatrist for the Riverdale Children’s Association in New York City. She later worked as principal investigator for research projects for the National Institute of Mental Health and Retardation Services and taught at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and CUNY Medical School. In 1976, she won the Award for Excellence in the Field of Domestic Health from the American Public Health Association.
Sau Lan Wu ’65, Particle Physicist
Born in the slums of Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation during World War II, Sau Lan Wu earned a full scholarship to Vassar in 1961. She received her PhD in physics from Harvard University and later became the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin. In that capacity, she led a team of physicists at CERN in Switzerland who discovered several key building blocks of the universe, including the “charm quark,” the gluon, and the Higgs boson. In recognition of her lifetime of work, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) named a minor planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter “Saulanwu.”
Anne Young ’69, Neurology
Anne Buckingham Young ’69 has conducted groundbreaking research that has led to new discoveries in addressing several neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. After graduating from Vassar, she received her MD-PhD from Johns Hopkins University. She is chief of the neurology service at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. In 2001, Young founded the MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases. In 2010 she won the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC) Distinguished Achievement Award.
Michelle Monje-Deisseroth ’98, Pediatric Oncology
Michele Monje-Deisseroth ’98 is a neuroscientist and neuro-oncologist who won a 2021 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for her breakthrough research in the study of brain tumors at her lab at Stanford University. Discarding much of what she had learned about the treatment of cancer, Monje-Deisseroth discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in the growth of some cancerous cells. Her research led to a greater understanding of how cancer cells disrupt other cell types in the brain. She says she fell in love with neuroscience as a student of Vassar Professor of Biology Kathleen Susman.