Writer’s pick: The heroines of STEM – Five films about women in science to watch right now


Illustration by Pamela Garcia.

Elijah Uche, Reporter

Although the field of science has historically been male-dominated, women have led to major contributions. Women in science, such as Jane Goodall and Rosalind Franklin, made their marks on society by advancing basic human understanding of the world.

Here are five films about the heroines of science to watch right now.

“Hidden Figures”
In 1962, astronaut John Glenn was sent into orbit around the earth, restoring U.S. confidence during the Cold War and the Space Race with the Soviet Union. The minds behind this operation were three Black female mathematicians: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. “Hidden Figures” covers the three women and their time at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where their unit was segregated by race. The film also shows the threat of an electronic computer that has the ability to replace humans, essentially threatening Johnson’s career.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote that “‘Hidden Figures’ effectively conveys the poisonous normalcy of white supremacy, and the main characters’ determination to pursue their ambitions in spite of it and to live normal lives in its shadow.”

“NOVA: DNA – Secret of Photo 51”
Rosalind Franklin was a British scientist responsible for photographing “Photo 51,” the X-ray image that identified the double helix structure of DNA. Her student, Raymond Gosling, took the picture under Franklin’s supervision. Franklin’s work on DNA went largely unrecognized during her time despite how critical her discoveries were to the basic understanding of how life is passed down from generation to generation. She was overshadowed by male colleagues Maurice Wilkins, James Watson and Francis Crick – all three of whom received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work on the DNA model. Franklin tragically died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at the early age of 37.

Her legacy is secured thanks to the documentary “NOVA: DNA – Secret of Photo 51.” A somewhat bittersweet film, it recognizes Franklin’s significant contributions to understanding the DNA structure model. It features a controversial interview with Wilkins where he admits to showing “Photo 51” to Watson and Crick without Franklin’s knowledge.

Nevertheless, the documentary explains that without Franklin’s data to base their research on, the three men would not have been able to develop the DNA model accurately.

TV Guide wrote, “Now, the episode of the popular PBS series Nova, entitled DNA – Secret of Photo 51, revisits Franklin’s contributions and reveals, for the first time, just how dramatic and impacting they were. The program includes interviews with … Nobel Prize winner Sir Aaron Klug, who delves into Franklin’s journals for a revelation of just how close she herself came to making the Watson-Crick breakthrough.”

“Jane” features Jane Goodall, the English ethologist known for studying chimpanzees. While observing chimps up close in the jungle, she discovered that they could make and use tools, hunt for meat and were capable of the practice of war. Thanks to her research, the scientific community now has a basic understanding of chimpanzees, our closest relative in the animal kingdom, learning that their behaviors and emotions are not so far off from those of humans.

This biographical documentary covers Goodall’s research, including her relationship with one female chimpanzee nicknamed Flo. “Jane” also features Goodall’s ex-husband, Hugo van Lawick, a wildlife photographer and filmmaker who was with Goodall while researching chimpanzees in Tanzania.

One aspect of the film to note is the colorful personalities of the chimpanzees Goodall observes.

“Annotated by Goodall’s voiceover comments, the footage of the apes she named and followed for the rest of their lives is engrossing, full of personality and drama … We feel her shock when a power shift in the tribe leads to a kind of open warfare, upending her notion that the species ‘were like us but nicer — I had no idea of the brutality they could show,’” wrote Dennis Harvey of Variety.

Marie Curie was a Polish and naturalized-French chemist whose research furthered the understanding of radioactivity. According to NobelPrize.org, Curie discovered the two radioactive elements polonium and radium and also found that radiation in an atom is not dependent on its organization at the molecular level. She became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in 1903, which she only got after her husband and collaborator Pierre Curie insisted that she receive the prize with him. To this day, she remains the only woman to receive the prize twice.

Later on, Curie and her husband discovered that radium could be used to get rid of tumors, as it destroyed diseased cells faster than healthy ones. Curie was also a pioneer in the use of X-rays to find fractures and bullets in wounded soldiers during World War I. She and her daughter Irene developed radiological cars during the war to allow battle surgeons to X-ray soldiers and operate accurately in the field.

“Radioactive” focuses on Curie’s research in radioactivity, her relationship with her family, and the misogyny she had to endure in the male-dominated science world. The film also shows the impact Curie’s discoveries had on future events such as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Chernobyl disaster, as well as the development of external beam radiation therapy.

Cristine Russell of Scientific American wrote that, “While the new film Radioactive rightly celebrates Madame Curie’s brilliance, it also reveals her courage as a female scientist struggling with the male-dominated scientific community. She had to fight for even the most rudimentary of laboratory space and face-down those who stood in her way.”

“Mercury 13”
The Mercury 13 refers to 13 female pilots tested and screened for spaceflight. These tests were the same the astronauts from Project Mercury underwent. According to Space.com, the test initially began with 25 women, with 13 passing and moving on to the next level of testing. Some of these scores were better than those of the men from Project Mercury. Despite these impressive scores, the women never reached space as a group, as the tests were unofficial, separate from NASA.

The Mercury 13’s willingness to undergo rigorous and uncomfortable tests showed that women were very much willing to go into space and were also capable of doing so. “Mercury 13” tells the story of these aspiring astronauts and demonstrates the prejudice against them.

“Beyond the film’s technical expertise and the political issues that it raises, Mercury 13 works best simply as a tribute to a group of talented and courageous women who missed out on opportunities that might have benefited us all,” wrote Stephen Farber of The Hollywood Reporter.