A Look At TV’s Most Powerful Women In STEM
Not so hidden figures
Katherine Johnson spent more than 30 years working for NASA where, among her other achievements, she calculated the flight trajectories that allowed astronaut Alan Shepard to become the first American in space. In 2016, NASA announced a token of appreciation: a building, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, would be named in her honor. Johnson was 97. Her story was turned into a movie, Hidden Figures—with a screenplay by former NASA intern Allison Schroeder and based on the eponymous book by Margot Lee Shetterly—that stars Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer as three black female mathematicians serving as NASA’s famous “human computers” during an era where women were actively discouraged from pursuing STEM and the organization had segregated bathrooms. The movie reveals how even though STEM fields have been historically dominated by white men, women of all colors have been at the forefront of scientific advancements in spaceflight and other arenas without receiving their due credit. Johnson is one of many such women; others include Rosalind Franklin, a molecular biologist on the team that discovered the double helix structure of DNA, and Maryam Mirzakhani, who in 2014 became the first woman to win the Fields Medal since the prestigious mathematics prize was created in 1936. All have been hidden figures for too long.
Women currently make up half of U.S. workers but less than a quarter of the STEM workforce—which, not incidentally, offers higher earning potential for those women than do non-STEM fields. The issue isn’t competency. According to a study on open source software, code written by female computer programmers is better received by their peers than code written by men, but only in a gender-blind study. This proves women have to fight hidden biases like the persistent cultural narrative that science and tech are masculine fields.
Now there are several new initiatives stepping in to bridge the gender gap in technology and innovation. General Motors recently announced a partnership with the nonprofit Girls Who Code to make technology and mentorship more accessible for girls from underserved communities; GM anticipates that this could create a 200 percent increase in the number of women in computing in the next decade. In addition to exposure, women need—to borrow Laverne Cox’s term—"possibility models" that show them they can pursue careers in STEM. Research suggests the more girls see women kicking butt in STEM jobs on screen, the more they will be encouraged to join them IRL. To accelerate this, the National Academy of Engineering co-sponsored a competition, The Next MacGyver, to find the next great TV pitch with a female engineer as its lead. While we eagerly wait for those shows to get developed, we already have smart female characters on TV who have helped to challenge gender stereotypes by normalizing the presence of women in scientific and technical fields. Click through the slideshow below to see some of the most inspirational—albeit fictional—women in STEM on television. There’s a very good chance that seeing one of them create binary code or excel in robotics will inspire America’s next Katherine Johnson.
The X-Files: Dana Scully, doctor and FBI agent
During the series’ initial run in the late ’90s, Gillian Anderson’s loving portrayal of the highly intelligent and hyper-rational Agent Scully inspired a generation of women to pursue science—a phenomenon known as The Scully Effect. Scully reinterpreted Einstein for her undergraduate thesis, so it’s no surprise that when the powers that be went looking for a hard scientist to make sense of Fox Mulder’s ravings about extraterrestrial activity, she was the first pick. In the revival, Scully has returned to her roots as a medical doctor—she was recruited to the FBI straight out of medical school—at Our Lady of Sorrow Hospital where she treats sick children with rare conditions.
Black-ish: Rainbow Johnson, anesthesiologist
Bow powered through 12 years of education beginning as a pre-med undergrad at Brown University—the real-life alma mater of Tracee Ellis Ross, the Golden Globe-winning actress who plays her—to become an anesthesiologist. She loves her job. She also loves giving medical advice on eating healthier and teaches a family friend that germs are actually good for her newborn baby. Bow is also a mother to four very different kids who benefit from her medical expertise, like when she scores her eldest daughter an internship at her hospital or when they have questions about difficult subjects like death and sex.
Arrow: Felicity Smoak, computer scientist
Felicity worked her way up from IT girl in the first season to CEO of Palmer Technologies, Star City’s premiere research and development lab. She’s been building computers since the age of seven and regularly hacked government databases in her college years at MIT where she eventually earned her master’s degree in Cyber Security and Computer Science. While she could use her knowledge for evil—she once used her advanced understanding of probability theory to count cards at an underground casino—she prefers doing good. Her primary function is serving as Overwatch, the central tech hub that helps Team Arrow keep the city safe from petty thieves, super soldiers, and extinction-level events.
Bones: Dr.Temperance “Bones” Brennan, forensic anthropologist; Dr. Camille Saroyan, forensic pathologist; Angela Montenegro, digital forensics specialist
Dr. Brennan’s vast knowledge and laser eye for detail made her the world’s foremost forensic anthropologist. In addition to helping the FBI solve murder cases, she’s reconstructed victims of Hurricane Katrina and produced groundbreaking discoveries that recast human evolution. Angela, the lab’s resident non-genius, is ironically the first of the bunch to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—known colloquially as the “genius grant”—for her work with the Angelatron, a computer system she designed to streamline data retrieval and the facial reconstruction of murder victims. The Jeffersonian lab operates under the guidance of Dr. Saroyan, a cop-turned-pathologist who examines the flesh before Brennan digs into the bones. The three women are never pitted against one another. In fact, Brennan is the one who nominated Angela for the award. They each share the crown for Queen of the Lab.
Orphan Black: Cosima Niehaus, biologist
This BBC sci-fi thriller follows the lives of a sisterhood of Leda clones with very different personalities and skill sets. Cosima quickly emerged as a fan-favorite clone due to her spunk and intellect. She’s first introduced as a doctoral student in Experimental Evolutionary Developmental Biology. She uses her scientific background to help the clones by running tests on their blood and hair samples to determine what is causing the mysterious respiratory failure that is making them, and her, sick. She proudly calls herself a mad scientist and is willing to do whatever it takes to find a cure.
Mr. Robot: Darlene, computer programmer
Darlene is one of the leaders of fsociety, a hacker collective that wreaks havoc on New York’s financial market and runs circles around the FBI. The group is male-dominated but Darlene and a Muslim woman hacker, Shama Biswas (codename Trenton), are two of its strongest programmers. Darlene is fearless about her digital transgressions, hacking private companies and government databases with equal ease. She is a freedom of information loyalist who believes her hacktivism is exposing corporate greed and making the world a freer and, thus, better place.
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life: Paris Geller, doctor, entrepreneur
The Gilmore Girls revival finally answered the questions we were dying to know like what became of our favorite ambitious blonde, Paris. It turns out she has an M.D., a law degree, and became a certified dental technician. She puts the first two degrees to use by running her own fertility clinic, Dynasty Makers. In her own words, she’s “the Pablo Escobar of the fertility world” delivering quality product to celebrity clientele like Neil Patrick Harris. We’d expect nothing less of this overachiever who began volunteering at hospitals in fourth grade, double-majored in political science and biochemistry at Yale, and speaks fluent Portuguese.
The Simpsons: Lisa Simpson, mathematician
Although Lisa is technically—perpetually—a kid, the show explores her finesse for mathematical theory in several notable episodes that Cambridge-educated particle physicist Simon Singh takes note of in his book The Mathematical Secrets of the Simpsons. Lisa is the brainiest of the Simpsons and her favorite subject is math. In one episode, when a sexist outburst from Principal Skinner prompts Springfield’s math classes to be split by gender, Lisa goes undercover as “Jake” to get the rigorous education offered to the all-boys class and ultimately receives a math award in her boy identity. When she gets up on stage, she reveals she’s actually a girl who happens to be great at math. What awaits this girl wonder in her future? As per the divination of the episode “Future-Drama,” it’s either the White House or a world where algebra has been renamed “gal-gebra” and STEM jobs are lousy with talented women.
Masters of Sex: Virginia Johnson, sexologist
Virginia begins her career as a research assistant working under gynecologist William Masters in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis. Johnson brings a nuanced understanding of female sexuality to their psychosexual trials, eventually growing into a researcher whose competence rivals her instructor’s. Her curiosity and tenacity bring forth groundbreaking findings on sexual desires and dysfunctions that mirror those of the real Virginia Johnson whose life was chronicled in Thomas Maier's book, Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love.
Person of Interest: Root, computer scientist
The show’s main computer scientist created the world’s first artificial intelligence, a machine that keeps an eye on every American and can predict when someone is in danger. He is unrivaled until he meets Root, a hacker-for-hire whose latest project brings her to New York where she runs into Team Machine and learns about the AI. Root is enlisted to use her enviable skills—she’s hacked the FBI and created a virus that affected more than 5 million computers—to help protect citizens. While on assignment, she adopts aliases that pay homage to brilliant historical figures with ties to computation like Ada Lovelace, the British mathematician credited as the world’s first computer programmer.
The 100: Raven Reyes, mechanical engineer
Raven’s gift for engineering was first noticed by the primary doctor aboard their spaceship colony, the Ark. When some of the Ark’s inhabitants are forced to crash-land on a post-apocalyptic earth, Raven’s gift for tech comes in particularly handy. She fashions a radio out of scrap metal and becomes the first person to make contact with the Ark from earth in nearly 100 years. She also protects her people from enemies on the ground by making advanced weaponry—like a bomb made of gunpowder and rocket fuel—to up their defenses.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Jemma Simmons, biochemist
Jemma and her two Ph.D.s have done a lot of work for S.H.I.E.L.D, including inventing non-lethal tranquilizer guns, performing autopsies on inhumans, going undercover in a rival organization’s science lab, and MacGyvering her way to safety after getting marooned on an alien planet. When her lab partner, a genius mechanical engineer, is asked what one thing he would want if he were attempting to make his way off of a deserted island, he responds, “Simmons.”
Big Bang Theory: Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, neurobiologist; Dr. Bernadette Maryann Rostenkowski-Wolowitz, microbiologist
Mayim Bialik, the actress who brings Amy to life, has a Ph.D. in Neurobiology IRL. On the show, Amy works as a researcher at Caltech focusing on experiments like her fear response trial on monkeys. Bernadette was first introduced as a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory, putting herself through graduate school, but soon after she receives her Ph.D., she gets recruited to a glossy pharmaceutical company where she handles things like the Ebola virus and flesh-eating bacteria. As part of the show’s canon, Bernadette has a higher salary than her husband, who—aside from Penny—is famously the only member of the group that doesn’t have a Ph.D. Big Bang Theory is the most popular sitcom since Friends, which means tens of millions of eyeballs tune in and see Amy and Bernadette being capable women of science.
The Mindy Project: Mindy Lahiri, OB/GYN
Mindy may have a tumultuous dating life, but when it comes to her work, she is always focused. She will go the extra mile for her beloved patients even if it means cutting dates short to deliver babies or crashing a high school to talk to a teen patient about safe sex. Not satisfied with simply being a kick ass OB/GYN, Mindy opens up her own fertility practice and begins a lecture tour at college campuses to discuss reproductive options like freezing eggs with young women. She holds it down as a doctor, mother, and business owner.
Stitchers: Kirsten Clark, computer scientist
Kirsten is a Ph.D. student in computer science at Caltech who gets recruited into an off-the-books division of the NSA to investigate murders with technology that allows her to “stitch” or enter into the minds of the recently deceased. Alongside her roommate Camille, a gifted programmer who specializes in optogenetics that she met in her Ph.D. program, Kirsten solves crimes ranging from drug trafficking to weaponized nanotechnology. She’s also a gifted mathematician who creates formulas using advanced statistical theories to find her missing father.
Scorpion: Happy Quinn, mechanical engineer
Happy has a genius-level intellect, a sophisticated understanding of electrical equipment, and a photographic memory to boot. She once created a listening device out of duct tape, a speaker, and an umbrella she found in a trashcan. When she encountered a bomb she couldn’t defuse, she whipped up a solution that weakened its blast radius using salt packets and some janitorial supplies. The Scorpion team relies on her quick thinking and innovation to get it out of its toughest spots.
Supergirl: Dr. Eliza Danvers, bioengineer
Eliza is a bioengineer for the government’s secret Department of Extranormal Operations who works on projects that counter threats to the human race like when she synthesized a cure for an anti-alien virus that nearly killed millions of people. As if that wasn’t enough, she raised two daughters, one who followed in her footsteps and became a bioengineer and the other who spends her days fighting crime as the show’s titular Supergirl.
Halt and Catch Fire: Cameron Howe, computer programmer; Donna Clark, Engineer
Halt and Catch Fire begins in the tech boom of the 1980s where companies are competing for the smartest and quickest technology. Cameron is a brash and impulsive computer genius for whom code is a second tongue. One day when the machine Cameron’s company is working on short circuits, the storage disks full of her proprietary code are fried—until she meets Donna. Donna and her engineering degree from Berkeley singlehandedly restore the data while a stunned room of men looks on. From that point on, the two women lean on each other to succeed in the male-dominated world of tech.
The Flash: Caitlin Snow, bioengineer
At the start of the series, Caitlin is an employee at S.T.A.R. labs, Central City’s bastion of scientific discovery, working on a particle accelerator. But when that project implodes, she moves away from straight research and joins a crime fighting super team known as Team Flash that revolves around Barry Allen’s speed powers. She is constantly saving her teammates by monitoring the Flash’s physiological data in the super suit, and taking on the role of team doctor—she memorized the Hippocratic oath for fun as a kid—when anyone gets hurt fighting meta-humans. Caitlin also occasionally has fun with her scientific abilities. When Barry complains his regenerative powers make it impossible for him to get drunk, she accepts the challenge and concocts a whiskey solution strong enough to get the job done.
Grey’s Anatomy: Catherine Avery, urologist; Miranda Bailey, general surgeon; April Kepner, trauma surgeon; Meredith Grey, general surgeon; Arizona Robbins, pediatric and fetal surgeon; Amelia Shepherd, neurosurgeon; Callie Torres, orthopedic surgeon
Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital has a lot of intelligent female doctors, most of whom are the heads of their department. Miranda will do anything to help her patients including operating while a gunman is loose in the hospital, Amelia is renowned for removing impossible-to-remove brain tumors, and Callie’s unprecedented clinical trial for robotic prosthetic limbs offered hope to amputee veterans aspiring to walk again. These women honed their skills during plane crashes, blackouts, and bomb scares that only made them more determined to save lives.
Dragon Ball Z: Bulma, scientist
This popular Japanese manga turned anime series has the distinction of having a female scientist as one of its oldest original characters. Bulma is the daughter of Dr. Brief who ran Capsule Corporation, a scientific research facility. While the other characters rely on special inhuman powers to fight the series’ baddest villains, her intellect is the key to her survival. She has numerous scientific achievements under her belt including building a self-designed laser gun to defend herself, a geolocation device to find Dragon Balls called Dragon Radar, and a time machine.
Sense8: Nomi Marks, hacktivist; Kala Dandekar, pharmacist
Sense8 follows the lives of sensates (people who are telepathically linked to others) like Nomi and Kala. Nomi’sprimary occupation is political blogging but when a creepy doctor tries to lobotomize her for being a sensate she goes into full on investigator mode and focuses on protecting other sensates from their hunters by borrowing gadgets from a fellow hacktivist. Kala is a bright pharmacist from Mumbai whose quiet nature is deceptive—she once used her chemistry smarts to build a bomb out of curry powder and kitchen supplies. They both use their technical skills and empathic link to look out for other people.
Silicon Valley: Laurie Bream, venture capitalist
This MIT grad is a shrewd businesswoman—rumored to be based on Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer—who finessed her way up the corporate ladder to become managing partner at Raviga Capital where her hyper-competitiveness and unscrupulous nature give her the edge in the cut-throat dealings of the Valley. Laurie is socially awkward but she doesn’t let her personality hamper her work, she is driven by reason and ambition. When a male colleague threatens Pied Piper’s software and suggests Laurie has no power to stop him she maneuvers his firing and comes out on top like the true boss that she is.
Numb3rs: Amita Ramanujan, astrophysicist and mathematician
By the age of 13, Amita had already built her first computer. She goes on to earn two PhDs, one in computational mathematics and one in astrophysics. Amita applies her vast knowledge to her role as a consultant for the FBI alongside a math genius whose theories she translates into accessible computer code. Her gifts earn her the offer of professorship in mathematics at Harvard and she’s a wizard at chess.
NCIS: Abigail “Abby” Sciuto, forensic scientist
Abby is the Chief Forensic Scientist for a specialized naval task force. Like her character, actress Pauley Perrette also has a master’s degree in criminology. Abby conducts the bulk of the show’s lab analysis using deductive reasoning to piece together cause and time of death from clues in stomach content and blood work. Over fourteen seasons she’s helped solve hundreds of cases from her basement lab—which she decorated with X-rays of human organs—and once escaped a hostage situation by outsmarting her captors with basic chemistry. She’s the team’s ace in the hole on almost every assignment and she does it all while maintaining her signature goth-punk style, jet black pigtails, and Doc Martens.
Rizzoli & Isles: Dr. Maura Isles, medical examiner
This Boston-based procedural follows a tough cop and her unofficial partner, a know-it-all medical examiner who loves using her forensic skills to help give a voice to the dead. Maura is very awkward and unfiltered as demonstrated by a disastrous first date when she notices her date’s rough hands and diagnoses him with Marfan Syndrome. She has a tough time connecting with humans but thrives in the lab and as a mother to her pet geochelone sulcata, a tortoise named Bass. Her work preventing serial killers and crooked cops from getting away with unthinkable crimes earns her recognition and a title, the first forensic pathologist to become president of the New England Medical Officers.