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Meet Six Incredible Women from UT Austin Science History

Meet Six Incredible Women from UT Austin Science History

Today is the 103rd anniversary of the birth of Lorene Rogers, a notable alumna and scientist who also was the first woman ever to lead a major U.S. university (which just happened to be The University of Texas at Austin)! In honor of her and our year-long campaign celebrating women in science, we are telling the stories of six incredible women scientists and mathematicians with a history right here on the Forty Acres. 

From the first woman mathematician inducted into the National Academy of Science to an astronomer who helped us understand how galaxies evolve, the women of the Texas Science community have helped change the world—and our understanding of the universe.

Cecile DeWitt-Morette, Professor emerita in physics

Born in France in 1922, Cécile DeWitt-Morette received her formal education during the turbulent years of WWII, pursuing her science even amid the oppressiveness of German occupation. She completed her Licence dés Sciences in 1943 in mathematics, physics and chemistry at the University of Caen in Normandy before studying quantum mechanics at the University of Paris, where she received her Doctorat d'État in 1947. She completed her post-doctoral work under notable scientists of the day, such as Iréne & Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Paul Dirac, Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer.

After the war, DeWitt-Morette established in the French Alps L'École de Physique des Houches, a summer school to revitalize physics in post-World War II Europe. The school has had more than twenty students go on to win the Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal. For her efforts in establishing L'École de Physique des Houches, DeWitt-Morette was received into the French Legion of Honor in 2007 and promoted to the rank of Officer in 2011.

DeWitt-Morette joined UT Austin in 1972 in the Department of Astronomy. She, along with her husband Bryce DeWitt, led a team of UT Austin physicists to Mauritania in 1973 to observe a solar eclipse and test Einstein's prediction that light passing through a gravitational field would be deflected more than was accounted for by Newtonian physics, confirming the prediction. In 1983, DeWitt-Morette moved to the Department of Physics, and she is the Jane and Roland Blumberg Centennial Professor Emerita in Physics. In 2000, the International Center for Relativistic Astrophysics awarded Bryce and Cécile DeWitt-Morette its highest honor, the Marcel Grossman Award, putting them in the company of luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and John Wheeler.

Elise Harmon, Biology alum

Elise Harmon, who earned her BS in chemistry from the University of North Texas in 1931, followed by her MS in biology at UT Austin, would play an influential role in World War II and in the miniaturization of computers.

During WWII, Harmon worked at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in the Aircraft and Electrical Division. Her work on carbon brushes permitted American airplanes to fly as high as Germany's planes, allowing them to counter the formidable enemy.

In 1953, Harmon devised and co-patented a novel method of creating printed circuits by using a hot die to stamp and infuse silver conductors onto thermoplastics. She was the chief research engineer for printed circuits at Aerovax corporation at the time, where she directed research and development and established plant procedures for this new method of printing circuitry.

Harmon's creation helped open the way for miniaturization of computers, space vehicles, aircraft electrical equipment and more. In 1956, she received the Achievement Award of the Society of Women Engineers for her contribution to printed circuitry.

Lorene Rogers, Chemistry alum and former president

A chemistry and biochemistry alumna, Lorene Rogers (MA 1946, PhD 1948) is best known for serving as President of UT Austin from 1975 to 1979—the only woman to have held this position at the University and the first to be president at any major research university.

Rogers began her career at UT in 1950 as a research scientist and eventually served as assistant director of UT's Biochemical Institute from 1957-1964. In 1962, she sought and was denied an appointment as a professor in chemistry—reportedly because she was a woman. She became instead a professor of nutrition and, two years later, associate dean of the Graduate School, a position she held until 1971, when she became a University vice-president. In 1974, Rogers became interim president and the following year president of UT Austin.

Rogers retired from the presidency in 1979. Named a professor emerita in 1980, she received numerous other awards, including distinguished alumni recognition from both the University and the College of Natural Sciences, where she was inducted into the Hall of Honor.

Mary Ellen Rudin, Mathematics alum

Mary Ellen Estill Rudin was a noted mathematician who received both her BA (1944) and her PhD (1949) in math from UT Austin. She was best known in the field of topology, the mathematical study of shapes and spaces, an area where UT Austin still ranks among the top ten in the nation.

Rudin had a knack for creating counter-examples to well-known conjectures. Notably, in 1971 Rudin became the first person to construct a Dowker space, 20 years after C.H. Dowker speculated it was impossible — a conjecture that had driven topological research for two decades. Fifteen years later she proved the first Morita conjecture and a restricted version of the second.

For her, math wasn't a career, it was a passion. Rudin once said, "I did lots of mathematics, but I did it because I wanted to do it and enjoyed doing it, not because it would further my career."

The title of Rudin's dissertation, "Concerning abstract spaces: an abstract of a dissertation," betrayed a sense of humor about her chosen field.

Her ease with the subject is evident in a talk she gave at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Beatrice Tinsley, Astronomy alum

Beatrice Tinsley graduated with her PhD from UT Austin in December of 1966. Despite a lengthy commute from Dallas to Austin, she earned her PhD in a record-setting two and a half years.

Tinsley's dissertation described how galaxies and the stars within evolve over time, providing the first convincing evidence that galaxies were not static systems, but were in flux. Her work would have far-reaching effects on cosmology and astronomy.

In 1974 Tinsley received the Annie J. Cannon Award in Astronomy from the American Astronomical Society for "outstanding research and promise for future research by a postdoctoral woman researcher" in recognition of her work on galaxy evolution.

In 1978, Tinsley became Yale's first female Full Professor in Astronomy. That same year she was diagnosed with a melanoma. Surgery and chemotherapy failed and Tinsley died in 1981 at the age of 40, working in the field she loved all the way to the end.

Tinsley's impact on astronomy has inspired many tributes, including an asteroid and a New Zealand mountain named in her honor. UT Austin created the Beatrice M. Tinsley Centennial Visiting Professorship in Astronomy and the Tinsley Scholars — awards that allow younger researchers to briefly visit UT Austin. The American Astronomical Society established the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize, which recognizes "an outstanding research contribution to astronomy or astrophysics, of an exceptionally creative or innovative character."

Karen Uhlenbeck, Professor emerita in math

Before Karen Uhlenbeck came to UT Austin as Sid W. Richardson Foundation Regents Chair in Mathematics in 1987, she already was a leading expert in geometry and partial differential equations, equations used to describe physical phenomena, such as electromagnetism, sound, fluid flow and quantum mechanics. By 2000, when she received the National Medal of Science from President Bill Clinton, she was described by the administration as having "made pioneering contributions to global analysis and gauge theory that resulted in advances in mathematical physics and the theory of partial differential equations" and "a founder of geometry based on analytical methods."

Uhlenbeck's work throughout the years has earned her many prestigious awards, beginning with when she pursued her PhD at Brandeis University in the 1960s with a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship. Fifteen years later, Uhlenbeck was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship—what the media call a "genius grant." She was the first female mathematician elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1986. In 2001, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2007 she received the American Mathematical Society's Steele Prize for Seminal Contribution to Research "for her foundational contributions in analytic aspects of mathematical gauge theory."

Uhlenbeck's work has been described as some of the most important in 20th century mathematics, constituting revolutionary advances in geometry. Gauge fields originated in the study of particles in physics and have proven to be of central importance in topology and algebraic geometry.

Outreach and mentoring have also been a passion for Uhlenbeck, who says, "Seeing the success of students is its own reward." She helped create the Park City Mathematics Institute, held each summer at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). There, students are encouraged to come up with their own ideas and investigate how math applies to other scientific fields. She also cofounded the Mentoring Program for Women in Mathematics at the IAS. Held each spring, it offers opportunities and a support network for women in math. Here at UT Austin, Uhlenbeck helped create the Saturday Morning Math Group, where graduate students teach junior high and high school students about math, and she helped establish the Distinguished Women in Mathematics (DWM) Lecture Series to bring leading women mathematicians to campus every year.

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