Now more than ever, women are shaping the course of health and health care for the world’s population. Women comprise one-third of professionally active physicians in the United States and more than half of all new medical school graduates. They also make up 63% of physician assistants, 83% of nurses, and 88% of nurse practitioners.
More and more women are treating patients, staffing public health organizations, and engineering new ways to research and solve some of the greatest health issues of our time. These women are following in the footsteps of medical and scientific innovators like Florence Nightingale, Susie King Taylor, Rosalind Franklin, and Elizabeth Blackwell.
You don’t have to look only in the past to find women shattering glass ceilings. Here are just a few of the women making massive contributions to medicine and public health today.
Rachel Schneerson, The Hib Vaccine
Unlike Jonas Salk, Rachel Schneerson, MD, didn’t get widespread fame for her vaccine discovery—but that doesn’t make her work any less groundbreaking. Schneerson and her colleague, John Robbins, developed a vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae type b (more commonly referred to as Hib).
The bacterium used to cause about 20,000 cases a year in the United States, mostly in young children under 5 years old, and it was a primary cause of bacterial meningitis in kids. Despite antibiotics, the bacteria killed 3 to 6% of those infected—roughly 1,000 children a year. Of those with meningitis who survived, 15 to 30% had hearing or neurological damage as a result of the infection.
Schneerson’s vaccine changed all that. After its introduction in the 1980s, the number of cases of Hib has fallen by more than 99%. At the time, it was the first vaccine to use conjugates. This involves a process of developing vaccines to make them safer and more effective, especially for young children.
The same technology that Schneerson helped develop to combat Hib has since been used to create other vaccines, including those protecting against pneumococcus and meningococcal disease (both of which can also cause bacterial meningitis in young people).
Mary Guinan, Smallpox and AIDS
Mary Guinan, MD, Ph.D., has made so many contributions to public health, it’s hard to say what her biggest has been. She worked on the smallpox eradication campaign in India, was one of the first to sound the alarm over the AIDS epidemic, and she was the first woman to serve as a chief scientific advisor at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Guinan has spent her whole career pushing boundaries in medicine and epidemiological research, all while facing the myriad challenges often encountered by women working in a male-dominated field.
In her book, “Adventures of a Female Medical Detective,” Guinan is frank about what life was like working as a woman in medicine and epidemiology, especially in sexual health (a taboo subject for women to talk about at the time).
The challenges she faced didn’t stop her from pushing boundaries or dampen her enthusiasm. She’s still a fierce advocate for encouraging others to study epidemiology and make public health a priority.
Regina M. Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General
By the time Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA, was named the 18th Surgeon General of the United States, she already had an impressive resume: MacArthur fellow, Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights recipient, Woman of the Year by “CBS This Morning,” among many other notable achievements.
Before all that, however, Benjamin was a young physician just trying to bring medical care to rural Alabama. She set up the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, a health center that provided medical care to locals, regardless of whether they could pay.
When the clinic was destroyed by Hurricane Georges in 1998, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and a fire in 2006, Benjamin did everything she could to rebuild, reportedly even going so far as to mortgage her home to keep the clinic open. It was there that she learned that the health of her patients didn’t start and stop in the exam room—a realization she carried with her during her time as surgeon general.
Benjamin has spent her career advocating for policies and programs that not only treat diseases but protect and promote health, as well as addressing health disparities that hold communities back. “We can’t look at health in isolation,” she told the L.A. Times in 2011. “It’s got to be where we live, we work, we play, we pray.”
Julielynn Wong, 3D Printing
Julielynn Wong, MD, MPH, is by no means a typical doctor. She is a Harvard-educated physician-scientist who also happens to be an international expert in 3D printing, robotics, and telemedicine. She’s built her career in the intersection of medicine and engineering in order to make health care more accessible for the world’s most underserved communities.
Leveraging both her clinical expertise and technological training, she designed a solar-powered 3D printer system so small that it can fit in a carry-on bag. This made it possible for medical supplies to be printed in hard-to-reach areas around the globe or even in space.
Her passion drove her to found Medical Makers, a network of like-minded “makers” interested in learning how to build skills and use their creativity to combat humanitarian issues at home and abroad. When she isn’t busy with this, she’s working with 3D4MD, her company that makes easy-to-use 3D printable medical supplies.
Wong also presents at conferences, makes television appearances, and helps other medical organizations harness 21st-century tools to make the world a healthier place.
Maria Elena Bottazzi, Vaccines
Few medical innovations have done as much to protect the health of communities as vaccines. They save millions of lives every year and are the best defense we have against diseases like measles and influenza.
While mankind has created vaccines against roughly two dozen of the world’s most dangerous infections, however, there are still many fatal diseases that take the lives of many, especially among the world’s poorest populations.
Maria Elena Bottazzi, Ph.D., wants to change that. As a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, she’s working on vaccines for neglected tropical diseases such as Chagas disease, leishmaniasis, hookworm, schistosomiasis, and more. These diseases are often forgotten about in developed countries like the United States.
If successful, the vaccines Bottazzi is working on wouldn’t just prevent millions of deaths, they would also have the potential to protect the health and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Maimuna (Maia) Majumder, Health Data
Public health researchers use a lot of data, but few use it quite like Maimuna (Maia) Majumder, Ph.D. Traditionally, health information is gathered by health departments or through formal studies. The process takes time, and the delay can have a significant impact on how public health officials identify and respond to outbreaks.
With a Ph.D. in systems engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master of public health from Tufts University, Majumder likes exploring new ways to find, use, and visualize public health data. One way she’s done this is by using local media reports to follow disease outbreaks and estimate how vaccination rates might have impacted them.
Majumder is leading the way for an emerging public health field called digital disease detection, a method of using data from often non-traditional sources (like Google searches or social media posts) as a tool to identify health trends. The benefits of such strategies are huge. Being able to identify outbreaks early could allow health officials to respond earlier and potentially stop the next global pandemic before it even begins.
Amelia Burke-Garcia, Social Media
People rely on websites and social media to get information on a wide range of issues, and health is no exception. When people want to learn more about a given health topic, 8 in 10 of them will start their search online.
This is why Amelia Burke-Garcia, Ph.D., uses social media and other online tools to measure and influence health behaviors. As a digital health communicator and researcher, she taps into online influencers to see how they can (and do) affect real-world health decisions.
Her research has dug into novel questions like how open mommy bloggers are about sharing health information with their readers or how virtual support groups can shape how those with prostate cancer talk about their condition offline.
She doesn’t just research these questions. She also takes what she learns from her studies and surveys and helps public health groups communicate their messages more effectively in the digital age. After all, if social media sites can be used to sell sneakers or essential oils, why can’t public health professionals leverage them to steer people toward making healthier choices?
Beth Stevens, Brain Function
Neuroscientist and MacArthur Fellow Beth Stevens, Ph.D., is changing the way we think about the brain, specifically how a group of cells called microglia influence how our brains are hardwired. Researchers used to think the cells were connected to the body’s immune system—they protected the brain from invaders and tidied up areas after a disease.
Stevens had another idea. What if these cells were doing more than just cleaning up messes? What if they were also reprogramming the brain? Her research proved that microglia can prune synapses (the connections between neurons). This groundbreaking discovery opened the door to study just how much these cells shape the brain at critical moments, such as during early childhood, adolescent development, or later in adulthood.
Elaine Hsiao, Microbiome and Neurology
A statistic often cited in microbiology is that bacteria in our bodies outnumber human cells at a 10 to 1 ratio. While the exact ratio has been contested among scientists, there’s little doubt that microbial cells (germs like viruses and bacteria) make up a substantial portion of the human body, especially in the gut.
These germs might be an integral part of how our bodies develop and function, especially for the brain. This is where Elaine Hsiao, Ph.D., comes in.
Hsiao’s research suggests that this collection of germs inside our body (often called the microbiome) can impact the brain in surprising ways, including regulating things like anxiety, memory, appetite, and even mood. Her team found that tweaking these microbes could be the key to treating serious neurological issues.
When they introduced specific germs into previously germ-free mice, for example, it appeared to reduce depressive symptoms, prevent multiple sclerosis, and treat autism-like symptoms in the animals.
The implications for Hsiao’s research can’t be understated. If the results translate well to humans, her findings could help address complex neurological conditions, like depression, with easy-to-manipulate microbes instead of long-term treatment.
Nina Shah, CAR T-Cell Therapy
A lot of people want to cure cancer. Nina Shah, MD, is one of the few who might actually be getting close. As an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco Helen Diller Comprehensive Cancer Center, Shah studies CAR T-cell therapy, a relatively new way to treat cancer using the body’s own immune system.
The process uses T-cells, which are cells in the body responsible for flagging invaders and prompting an immune response. CAR T-cell therapy works by taking some of the T-cells from an individual with cancer and modifying them so that they have special receptors (chimeric antigen receptors or CARs) designed to target proteins found on specific cancer cells. When the modified T-cells are reintroduced into the person’s body, the cells multiply and kill cancer.
Not everyone with cancer is eligible to get CAR T-cell therapy. It’s limited to clinical trials and only a few products are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under fixed circumstances.
Shah is working on the next generation of CAR T-cell therapy to treat myeloma, a type of cancer in the blood that is tough to treat using more traditional cancer treatments. About half of people in the United States with myeloma (more than 30,000 annually) die within five years of their diagnosis.
So far, Shah’s early trials show promise, offering hope to those affected by myeloma that their cancer might soon be easier to treat and, someday, maybe even cure.
A Word From Get Meds Info
It’s important to note that this list is by no means exhaustive. It would be impossible to mention every female innovator currently working to shape the health space for the better. These individuals are just 10 out of the many women changing health as we know it.