The female perspective – women in math and informatics

8th of March 2019

Today is international women’s day, the perfect time to highlight the contribution of women to bioinformatics! Unfortunately, women are still underrepresented in mathematical sciences and informatics. Some people believe the reason for the low number of women choosing math and natural sciences, is a lack of female role models. Even though I believe it is more complex than that, I here want to highlight  some important contributions women have made to bioinformatics and alongside introduce you to exceptional early female researchers that have paved the way for women in sciences.

Ada Lovelace: From Algorithms to Programs

Ada Lovelace: Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace was the daughter of a poet and a mother that was interested in math. Her mother provided her with the possibility to get an education in natural sciences — something quite unusual and often impossible for women at the time. At the age of 17 Ada Lovelace got to know the mathematician Charles Babbage, who, at the time (mid-19th-century), was in the process to developed a mechanical calculation machine, the Analytical Engine. The machine was supposed to not only solve fixed calculations, but should be able to solve complex problems. A machine that could learn complex algorithms and that would run automatically. A machine that could be programmed — the very first computer.

Ada Lovelace was working with Charles Babbage over several years and translated a description of the analytical machine, that was written down by an italian mathematician but based on a presentation by Charles Babbage. But Ada Lovelace didn’t stop there. She added own comments and notes. She described the difference between a simple calculator and a machine that can be programmed (a computer). She went on to describe a machine and the algorithm that can be used to calculate Bernoulli numbers. The very first computer program. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to build the computer at the time, as the pieces needed, could not yet be constructed.

She could in addition probably be considered as one of the first bioinformaticians or biomathematicians, as she already thought about mathematical models of the nervous system and the brain.

Today several conferences, prizes and a programming language bear her name, not just because of her talent in mathematics, but also because she managed to do math and even publish under her name in a time when this had been extremely difficult for women.  I hadn’t been aware of her, before I read the German bioinformatics blog Bioinfowelten (http://bioinfowelten.uni-jena.de). Bioinfowelten is a  popular science blog by Franziska Hufsky that was recently nominated for a science communication prize and inspired me to write this little assay, which is a partial translation of her work modified by comments derived from my own experience.

But back to early female scientists in (bio)informatics. As Ada Lovelace was of course not the only woman making important contributions to math and informatics.

Grace Hopper: The interpreter

Grace Brewster Murray Hopper was an informatician and furthermore admiral in the US army. She studied in Yale and worked in Harvard. She was convinced that computers could be used for much more versatile tasks than they were at the time. But to achieve this, programming needed to be made accessible to more people. At the time programing was solely done using machine code, which is a binary code difficult to read for humans. Thus something was needed to translate a more human readable programming language into machine code — a compiler. Grace Hopper developed the first compiler and thus created programming as most of us know it today. She further contributed to the development of early computers like the first commercially available computer UNIVAC I.

Grace Hopper has received as many as 40 honorary doctoral degrees, and many awards that were given to a women for the first time.

Rózsa Péter: The mother of complexity theory

Rózsa Péter was the first woman in Hungary to receive a doctorate in mathematics — and did so with honors. She dealt with recursive functions and laid the groundwork for complexity theory, a central aspect of theoretical informatics. With her book “Playing with Infinity: Mathematical Explorations and Excursions”, she tried to make number theory and logic comprehensible for lay people.

Thelma Estrin: Pioneer of bioinformatics

Thelma Estrin was among the first to bring the power of informatics into biomedical research. She realized, just how important interdisciplinarity is for scientific progress. For many years she worked in neuroscience, investigating the activity of the neuronal systems and was — like Ada Lovelace before — interested in developing computational representation of the brain.

Welcome to the 21st Century — the century of gender equality?

Maybe we will achieve gender equality in informatics and mathematics at some point. Today women are free to study natural sciences, mathematics and informatics or whatever else they want. Still, at present only 20-25% of informaticians are female and lately the numbers have even been declining. Why is that? Because of missing role models? Or not well enough known role models?  Or is there something else that keeps women from studying math and informatics?

I personally started off doing lots of math during my school education, winning math competitions and being educated at a school with extended education in mathematics and natural sciences.  I liked to do math and thought it was fun to do some programming, but still decided to study biochemistry, not math or informatics. Why? Because for me, doing pure math or programming seemed boring and study programmes such as bioinformatics and biomathematics did not exist at the time. Thus, I decided to do something more applied and closer to real life, biochemistry, trying to understand the  molecular mechanisms of living systems. I did however continue to code whenever needed and still enjoyed doing some math once in a while. When I first came across large-scale datasets and and learned about mathematical models of living system, I was finally able to combine math, informatics and biochemistry; using the combined knowledge to make sense of the growing amount of data, using computers and maths to solve biological questions.

I think that women probably have a different perspective and thus a different approach to math and informatics and might need other incentives. Already in my kids I see that interests between my son and my daughter are clearly different. Whereas my son (8) has a lot of fun doing math and programming, my daughter (12) is much more interested in biological sciences and chemistry. Of course statistically speaking the number of my children is far too low to draw any general conclusion. But it is becoming more and more appreciated in general that girls and boys learn differently. Gender specific differences in interests and approaches to science should be taken into account in early math and informatics education to get more women to choose these subjects later on.

 

Ines Heiland

Professor for molecular biology and bioinformatics

UiT The Arctic University of Norway

 

Acknowledgement: I thank Roland Sauter for edits and comments, and for his help that made sure the text was finished in time!

The original article about women in math and informatics by Franziska Hufsky can be found here: http://bioinfowelten.uni-jena.de/2016/06/02/role-models-abseits-von-heidi-klum-co/

 

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