Female scientists have been breaking glass ceilings for decades and inspiring young girls and women for just as long. March is Women’s History Month, which is the perfect time to acknowledge the female agriculture, food and nutrition scientists who have shaped these fields. In observance, IFIC would like to highlight a few notable women scientists who have had and are having powerful impacts on our food system and public health.
Marie Maynard Daly, PhD
Marie Maynard Daly was the first Black American woman to earn a PhD in chemistry. Daly grew up fascinated by science, deepening her curiosity through fervent reading and encouragement from peers and mentors through high school. In 1947, she earned her PhD after researching human digestive enzymes, which propelled her into a world of human nutrition science. Although immediately following her studies, Daly studied nucleic acids, which would later help with the discovery of DNA and RNA, she is best known for her research on the effects of cholesterol on the human body. Thanks to Daly’s research, we now know that excess cholesterol can clog arteries, contributing to hypertension and heart disease. Daly also helped to examine the detrimental effects that hypertension and aging have on a human’s heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Her excitement for chemistry advanced human nutrition to a new realm and her research now informs general diet and exercise practices as well as specific medical treatment of heart disease.
Temple Grandin, PhD
Animal scientists everywhere will recognize Temple Grandin’s name due to her contributions to the field, however the impact she has had on women and people living with autism is invaluable. Grandin holds a PhD in animal science and has written numerous scientific studies in the areas of animal behavior, animal handling and transport and humane treatment of livestock. She revolutionized cattle transport when she recognized that livestock have a hesitancy to move near unfamiliar shadows and objects, and she helped create serpentine chutes to lead cattle more easily through feedlots. Grandin attributes some of her natural inclination and connection with animals to her experience living with autism. In an interview, she relates herself to cattle in that both she and the animals “think in pictures.” Her ability to observe a feedlot from a similar perspective as cattle allowed her to better understand what they needed to feel comfortable and cared for; this understanding helped to guide her future recommendations for humane treatment of livestock. Temple Grandin had the deck stacked against her as a woman with autism in a male-dominated field, but her never-give-up attitude and hunger for knowledge propelled her to become a great innovator in animal welfare.
Evangelina Villegas, PhD
Evangelina Villegas is another notable scientist that should be acknowledged for her contributions to agriculture and food science. Between the time Temple Grandin and Marie Maynard Daly earned their PhDs, Villegas was working on her own, studying cereal chemistry and plant breeding. Her hard work paid off when, in 2000 Villegas was the first woman to be awarded the World Food Prize for development of a high-quality corn protein that is helping to reduce malnutrition risk worldwide. After earning her degree, Villegas partnered with Dr. Surinder Vasal on a major plant breeding project. Both researchers knew that many parts of the world, including Villegas’s native home of Mexico rely on maize (corn) as a staple crop. However, the maize traditionally grown and consumed did not have the right proportion of protein to support healthy growth and development of children or adults. This left many people in the world malnourished and at risk of varying diseases. To help combat this, Villegas and Vasal created a new plant that they called quality protein maize (QPM). QPM is richer in protein than traditional maize, which means it can provide better nutrition for what the body needs to function and consequently reduce malnutrition, particularly among children. Villegas truly paved the way in plant genetics, seeking a way to not only feed people more often, but to also feed them well.
Thanking These Changemakers
While science and technology were typically male-dominated spaces, many women have sought to level the playing field. Temple Grandin, Marie Maynard Daly, and Evangelina Villegas all stand out as trailblazers in animal science, plant science, and nutrition science, contributing to and shaping these fields for the betterment of food production practices and nutrition-linked health outcomes.
This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD.