Gone in 2021: Reflecting on 18 Noted Women in STEM
As a new year begins, it is time to reflect on notable lives we lost in 2021. These 18 women who died in the preceding 12 months will be remembered for their marked improvements to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and related disciplines; for their advocacy of diverse voices in these realms; and in some cases for passionate dedication to fields they left far too soon.
A longtime aerospace engineer, Mary Baker was most recently the technical director and board chair of ATA Engineering, a firm she co-founded. Baker’s work was highly influential in the design and development of numerous Mars rovers, including Curiosity and Perseverance, and in the design of the International Space Station. She died on Sept. 7 at age 77.
Sharon Brackett was a leading systems engineer with experience in developing a variety of technologies, from computer components to scientific instruments to 3D-printing machinery. She was also a noted transgender rights advocate and member of the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee. She died on May 24 at 59 of cardiac arrest.
A pioneering sleep researcher known to colleagues as the “Queen of Dreams,” Rosalind Cartwright died in January at age 98. Her work — which included studies on dreaming, sleep, and sleep apnea — broke ground in multiple areas, especially her work concluding that dreaming is highly important for mental health.
Erica Chang, a newly minted engineer and rising star in the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers (SASE), died of Covid-19 on April 6 at age 24. She had recently earned a dual degree in biomedicine and engineering, and was focusing her work on health care systems improvements at the time of her death. She had also taken on leadership positions with SASE, most recently as national conference chair.
Nadia Chaudhri was a neuroscientist at Concordia University who studied the development of drug and alcohol addiction. After she was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, she shared her story on social media and gained a large following for her frank discussion of her disease and her support of underrepresented scientists. Chaudhri died on Oct. 5 at age 43.
Michele Evans, an aeronautics engineer and executive at Lockheed Martin, died on Jan. 1, 2021 at age 55. She had most recently served as executive vice president of Lockheed Martin’s aeronautics division and was highly involved in diversity initiatives, both at Lockheed Martin and as a board member of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and Girls Inc.
Helen Murray Free
Helen Murray Free was a pioneering chemist who co-developed the dip-and-read diabetes test, a revolutionary paper strip, still used in labs around the world, that vastly simplified the testing of blood glucose. For her many contributions to self-testing systems, she was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation and elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She died on May 1 at 98.
Millie Hughes-Fulford, the first female NASA payload specialist and a biologist who studied the effects of weightlessness on the human body, died on Feb. 2 at age 75. Following her one spaceflight, as part of STS-40 in 1991, Hughes Fulford spent the rest of her career at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, where she published some 120 papers.
Mary Jeanne Kreek
Mary Jeanne Kreek, an influential physician-neurobiologist at the Rockefeller University, died on March 27 at age 87. Her research into the biology of addiction was important both clinically and socially, as she helped establish that addiction is a disease that can be treated. She is especially noted for developing methadone as a treatment for heroin addiction.
Jean Langenheim was a highly respected plant ecologist and trailblazer for women in the plant sciences. For more than 40 years, she studied plant resins and amber, becoming an authority on their chemistry, biology, and ecology. An emerita faculty member at the University of California at Santa Cruz, she died on March 28 at age 95.
Muriel Lezak, a neuropsychologist widely known for her research on brain injuries, died on Oct. 6 at age 94. Her 1974 book on methods for assessing brain damage and dysfunction became a standard in the field. She was also well known for her work on traumatic brain injuries suffered by athletes.
Shirley McBay began her career as a mathematician with an interest in chemistry, but made an especially important mark in the 1980s at MIT, where she was dean of student affairs and a pioneer in helping to improve the climate for students from underrepresented and underserved communities. She subsequently led the Quality Education for Minorities Network to advocate for students of color. McBay died Nov. 27 at age 86.
Barbara Murphy was a nephrologist whose research led to new ways of predicting outcomes of kidney transplants. In 2012, she became the first woman to head a department of medicine at an academic New York City medical center when she was appointed chair of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. She died there on June 30 of brain cancer at age 56.
ChoKyun Rha, a biomaterials scientist and engineer, died March 2 at age 87. Rha taught at MIT for more than four decades, publishing some 200 papers and earning more than 20 patents. The first woman of Asian descent to receive tenure at MIT, she explored the science of biomaterials and their medical applications, and her work led to the development of several biotech firms and food science organizations.
Myriam Sarachik was a professor of physics at the City College of New York for over half a century before her death on Oct. 7 at age 88. A leading expert in the electronic and magnetic properties of materials and a former president of the American Physical Society, Sarachik was perhaps best known for her experiment confirming the Kondo effect, a phenomenon marked by unusual behavior in the electrical resistance of some metals.
Carolyn Shoemaker was a noted astronomer who, despite being a latecomer to the field, discovered more than 30 comets and 500 asteroids. She is perhaps best known as the co-discoverer and namesake (with her husband Eugene Shoemaker and colleague David H. Levy) of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9, which slammed into Jupiter in 1994. Shoemaker died on Aug. 13 at age 92.
Louise Slade, a highly respected biochemist and food scientist, died Oct. 7 at age 74. With her longtime research and life partner Harry Levine, Slade co-developed the subfield known as food polymer science, which seeks to understand food at the molecular level. With 260 papers and 47 patents to her name, she gave commercial cookies, crackers, chips, and soft ice cream their most appealing properties.
Neuroscientist Swati Tyagi died suddenly on June 23 when she was struck by a car while riding a bicycle in La Jolla, California. She was 34. A postdoctoral research associate at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Tyagi had been studying aging and neurodegenerative diseases, and was considered a rising star in her field.