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 Books about Women in Science and Engineering 


For Women's History Month we bring you a collection of books for all ages that provide a well rounded introduction to the lives of women scientists and engineers. Click on the linked titles to buy the books from Amazon. Keep checking back; we'll be adding more throughout the month.

Books for Children

Beyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Astronomer Heidi Hammel, by Fred Bortz. (Illus.; from the Women's Adventures in Science Series.) DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2006.

Fred Bortz has captured some of the engaging qualities of Heidi Hammel's personality through extensive work with her and with the cooperation of her friends and family. A popular caricature of a scientist as a natural genius, or at least an overachiever, is challenged in this biography. College at MIT "was just an awful, awful experience for me," she is quoted on page 29. "You get to MIT and you work and work and work and then you fail," she relates. Of course, she persevered and went on to participate in some of the most exciting discoveries in planetary science, such as the observation of comet Shoemaker-Levy's collision with Jupiter, Voyager 2's discoveries made while the spacecraft flew by Neptune, and new findings about the moons of Mars. Planetary astronomy requires the cooperation of the weather, for telescopic observation, and the motion of the planets themselves, in terms of their visibility from Earth. Hammel's career, like that of all astronomers, requires patience and fortitude, which she handles with grace and enthusiasm. This book is well illustrated, but it assumes quite a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and planetary science by the reader. More explanations and diagrams could have been included for basic concepts and techniques, such as occultation. Some concepts are difficult to visualize without an already existing interest in, or knowledge of, astronomy. For readers of this book, I recommend supplementary material from a teacher or parent and perhaps some amateur observational astronomy with a small telescope or even binoculars, to illustrate a wonderful summary statement by Bortz: "The universe is full of opportunities, and every night it offers the possibility of discovering something that no one else has ever seen."(p. 85).

Bone Detective: The Story of Forensic Anthropologist Diane France by Lorraine Jean Hopping. (Illus.; from the Women's Adventures in Science Series.) DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2006. 

This is the 10th book in Women’s Adventures in Science, a series designed to encourage school-aged girls to pursue scientific careers. Diane France is highly accomplished and may be the bravest in her field for opening her life for examination in this intensely personal book. A chronological narrative begins with her early life and documents significant personal and professional milestones. We learn that her promising high school education was followed by flunking out of college, family disappointment with her, and her successful campaign to reenter college and then graduate school. The book describes her marriages and divorce, a battle with cancer, experiences with sexism on the job, working at the World Trade Center site, and how one must learn to put personal feelings “in a box” when working on forensic cases. Through this narrative and a discussion of France’s personal life events, Lorraine Jean Hopping clearly illustrates that life is a journey that brings both opportunities and challenges. France’s work is interwoven with her life story and includes historical cases involving a Confederate submarine crew, the Russian royal family of Czar Nicholas II, and modern cases worked with law enforcement. There is a glossary of scientific terms, a metric conversion chart, suggested readings, and interesting sidebar discussions of skeletal biology methods, such as stature estimation, locating hidden graves, and how to individuate skeletons from mass graves and mass disasters. Bone Detective would be an interesting addition to late elementary and middle school libraries.

Dignifying Science: Stories about Women Scientists, by Jim Ottaviani. (Illus.) Ann Arbor, MI G.T. Labs 2003.

This volume presents fictionalized stories of six women who overcame discouragement to become successful in the male-dominated scientific world of the 20th century. The usual suspects are here—Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McClintock, and Biruté Galdikas—and one unusual addition: Hedy Lamarr (yes, the actor; she patented an idea for a secure communications system during World War II). The book is also unusual in that the stories are presented in pen-and-ink graphic novel form, with each story illustrated in a different style.onelineThe six accounts are snapshot views of the women's struggles and successes, and they have been embellished for the sake of the story. The drawings and dialogues humanize the scientists in a way that words alone can't, but the young reader will not learn a lot about the person or her scientific work. For example, in the 10 pages on Barbara McClintock, her work is named rather than explained, and only a few main events of her life are covered. Fortunately, there a 17-page “Notes and References” section that fills in some gaps and guides the interested reader to books and Web sites to learn more about these dignified scientists. 

The Elephant Scientist, by Caitlin OcCOnnell and Donna M. Jackson. (from the Scientists in the Field series) Boston Houghton Mifflin: 2011

This book follows American scientist Caitlin O-Connell, who traveled to Namibia to study African elephants in their natural habitat, where she makes groundbreaking discoveries about elephant communication and the importance of the herd social structure in terms of elephant behavior. O’Connell did not start out to study elephants. In fact, she began her field studies as a biologist looking at plant hoppers. The book explores the connections that lead her to Africa and the study of elephants in a way that illustrates that most careers in science are not straight line paths.

Forecast Earth: The Story of Climate Scientist Inez Fung, by Renee Skelton, (Illus.; from the Women's Adventures in Science Series.) DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2006.

Every female student from middle school through college should read the Women’s Adventures in Science series. Unlike many other biographical series, this one chronicles the lives of contemporary working scientists. Forecast Earth: The Story of Climate Scientist Inez Fung is a fascinating look at the life of a successful, living female scientist. The book follows the life and times of Inez Fung from her birth in Hong Kong to her job as the first director of the Center for Atmospheric Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Forecast Earth is a beautifully written book that presents information and facts on greenhouse gases, models of climate, and the carbon cycle with words, diagrams, and graphs. It is also a compelling story of the striving of a young woman as she discovers her passion for mathematics and meteorology. The book reveals how mentors, friends, and colleagues can have a lasting, positive impact on an individual’s life. The volume reads like a private photo album, because it is filled with personal photographs and interviews. While every page contains science information, it is the story of Inez’s life that will captivate young people with the talent and energy to consider similar pursuits.onelineThe book contains a glossary, a bibliography, an extensive index, and a list of further resources. One of these resources, the Women’s Adventures in Science Web site, allows students to play games, enjoy comics, and practice being a scientist. On one level the book is a story about a climate scientist, but on another level it is the story of the exciting challenges of pursuing a career in science. This book should be in every school library. It could be read as a biography, used as a reference, or shared and discussed in small study groups.

Gene Hunter: The Story of Neuropsychologist Nancy Wexler, by Adele Glimm. (Illus.; from the Women's Adventures in Science Series.) DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2006.

Gene Hunter: The Story of Neuropsychologist Nancy Wexler is a fascinating book about Nancy Wexler and her quest to solve the mystery of the origins of Huntington’s disease. Wexler’s mother and uncles were afflicted with this debilitating and fatal disease, sparking her search for its cause and possible treatments. Rather than presenting a dry scientific text or a purely autobiographical story, author Adele Glimm deftly weaves descriptions of the personal life of Wexler together with her professional life. The book personalizes scientific research, providing an important reminder that ordinary people are behind important scientific discoveries. Another emphasis of the book is that Wexler has had many exciting and fruitful collaborations with people all around the world, including her father and older sister. Without these collaborations, she would not have been able to make such significant contributions to the field of Huntington’s disease research. Included are many photos and illustrations describing the scientific research process, as well as highlights of Wexler’s life.  Adding to the strength of the book is a glossary of terms used throughout and a list of resources, both print and Internet, for obtaining additional information. This book is appropriate for middle and high school audiences and would be instrumental in discussions of how people become involved in scientific research as well as of Huntington’s disease itself.

Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, by Catherine Thimmesh. San Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 2000.

In kitchens and living rooms, in garages and labs and basements, even in converted chicken coops, women and girls have come up with ingenious innovations that have made our lives simpler and better. Their creations are some of the most enduring (the windshield wiper) and best loved (the chocolate chip cookie). What inspired these women, and just how did they turn their ideas into realities? From Sybilla Masters, the first American woman with a documented invention (although the patent had to be in her husband's name), to twelve-year-old Becky Schroeder, who in 1974 became the youngest girl to receive a patent, Girls Think of Everything tells the stories of these women's obstacles and their remarkable victories. 

Gorilla Mountain: The Story of Wildlife Biologist Amy Vedder, by Rene Ebersole. (Illus.; from the Women's Adventures in Science Series.) DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2006.

This book, one in a series about the successful careers of contemporary women in science, is targeted toward young girls aspiring to careers in science. Gorilla Mountain follows the story of wildlife biologist Amy Vedder from childhood, through college, to her marriage to college classmate Bill Weber and a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in Zaire, where she became acquainted with mountain gorillas. Upon returning to the United States, both entered graduate school at the University of Wisconsin to study gorilla ecology. Introduced to Dian Fossey (Gorillas in the Mist, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1983) and supported by a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), they traveled to Fossey’s Karisoke research station in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda. For 18 months, Amy lived in a close relationship with a group of mountain gorillas to gather data on gorilla ecology. Bill studied the dynamics of the Rwandan gorilla population. Their work evolved into the successful Mountain Gorilla Project, an economic program involving tourism that rescued the gorillas from extinction. Their success led to directorships of WCS African programs. In the meantime, Amy gave birth to two sons. The book provides references, including Web sites, and a very helpful time line of Amy Vedder’s life. She is an excellent example of a woman who successfully combined adventure, a scientific career, and marriage and family life to achieve goals she set early in life. This well-designed, well-written, well-illustrated, engaging book reads like a true adventure story. It will appeal to all readers, not just young girls.

Mardy Murie Did! Gradmother of Conservation, by Jequita Potts McDaniel. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Book, 2010.

Margaret Thomas "Mardy" Murie (August 18, 1902 – October 19, 2003) was a naturalist, author, adventurer, and conservationist. Dubbed the "Grandmother of the Conservation Movement" by both the Sierra Club[and the Wilderness Society, she helped in the passage of the Wilderness Act, and was instrumental in creating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She was the recipient of the Audubon Medal, the John Muir Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor awarded by the United States. In this delightful children’s book young readers are introduced to this extraordinary woman through words and illustrations that make you feel as if you are walking alongside her as she visits her favorite things and places in the wilderness.

Marie Curie: The Woman Who Changed the Course of Science, by Phillip Steele (Illus.) Washington, DC National Geographic Society 2006.

In Marie Curie: The Woman Who Changed the Course of Science, Philip Steele goes to great lengths to sketch Marie Curie and her family and friends as full characters rather than solely scientific achievements. Excellent photos and illustrations fill the pages, working through her life in chronological order. Readers will learn about dances she attended as a child, about times in her life she suffered from depression, about her broken hearts and love affairs, and about Marie’s and Pierre’s difficulties in the social scene of the scientific community. Some chapters focus on the countries she lived in and her sisters, daughters, parents, and friends. Occasionally, one might desire more details about her scientific achievements, but the portrayal of Curie as a complete personality is sure to awaken the imagination of young readers. Her personal struggles also portray her winning two Nobel Prizes and her pioneer work in radiation therapy as amazing personal triumphs. Other chapters focus on the myths about, and valid uses of, radiation therapy. A colorful running time line at the bottom of the pages keeps readers aware of other important events happening in the world and in science during Curie’s life. The layout consisting of two-page chapters with pictures and extra text boxes is ideal for young readers. This is an inspirational book, especially for its target audience: young women interested in science. 

People Person: The Story of Sociologist Marta Tienda, by Diane O'Connell. (Illus.; from the Women's Adventures in Science Series.) DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2006.

As one volume in the Women's Adventures in Science series devoted to the lives of contemporary women scientists, this short biography of a Hispanic sociologist aims to inspire and encourage young people (especially minority youths) to undertake a scientific career. Born to an illegal Mexican immigrant and migrant laborers, Dr. Tienda was able to overcome the hardships of poverty, the death of her mother when she was seven years old, an abusive stepmother (this is a true Cinderella story!), some bad teachers, and a failed marriage. She is currently a professor working in academia and on Hispanic issues in a number of national organizations. The book is lavishly illustrated with many family photographs. It is also very readable. The book's message is that hard work and high motivation can overcome personal and societal obstacles if one values and pursues an education. What isn't adequately described is how determination is not enough without adequate opportunities and the support, both financial and psychological, of people in and out of academia who encourage, mentor, and foster talent. Unfortunately, without those supports, many young people with promise (most in minority groups) go unrecognized, and examples like Dr. Tienda are seen as rare and unique cases of little relevance to one’s own personal life.

Sally Ride: The First American Woman in Space, by Tom Riddolls.  NY Crabtree: 2010

Space exploration has always been a source of fascination for young readers, and this book  offers a very well written, excellent, and useful biography of the first American woman in space. After reading about this inspiring explorer, children will have even more reason to marvel at the wonders of space travel. Like most recollections of people’s lives, the biography illustrate the varied and seemingly unconnected (at the time) events that take place in someone’s life and that lead to an ultimate dream being fulfilled. The twists and turns of everyday life are woven into the tales of Ride’s experiences as an astronaut with great skill. The photos used in the book are of high quality and accompany the text most instructively. A good understanding of the training required, and results of, becoming an astronaut can be visually gleaned from reading this wonderful biography of Sally Ride because of their excellent use of quality illustrations.  Overall, the books is complete, fascinating, and quite detailed.  

Books for Adults and Teens

Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space, by Bettyann Kevles. The MIT Press: 2006.

There are so many women in the U.S. astronaut corps today that it is easy to forget how difficult it was for them to get there. Almost Heaven is a wonderful history of the U.S. space program, with special emphasis on, and stories about, the women who have had the courage to venture into space. Each one is special, the book reveals; yet they all share a spirit of adventure and a willingness to put up with hardship in order to fulfill their dream.onelineSome of the female astronauts discussed in this volume have names that are familiar to many who follow the space program: Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle mission; and, of course, the school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died, along with Judy Resnik, in the Challenger accident. The author also mentions the recent loss of the space shuttle Columbia, including the two women on its crew.onelineThis book will be enjoyed by all who read it and is most appropriate for older high school students, as well as young adults. While the work focuses on the stories of the women themselves, it also clearly discusses the scientific work they do in space, and the process of training to become an astronaut.onelineTwo other books have been recently published on a similar subject: Women Astronauts, by Laura Woodmansee, which contains short biographical sketches, and Promised the Moon, by Stephanie Nolen, which discusses in greater detail the women who never flew in space, but were the pioneers for the astronaut corps. These two books and Almost Heaven complement each other.

Sea Legs: Tales of a Woman Kathleen Crane.  (Illus.) Boulder, CO Westview 2003.

This volume is the autobiography of Kathleen Crane, a very talented and adventurous young woman who broke into the male dominated, highly competitive field of oceanography. (Oceanographic science involves cruises to collect data, and there has been resistance against allowing women on surface vessels and especially submarines.) Twenty nine years after she began her career, Crane is now a prominent member of the oceanographic community. Her initial interest had been the mapping of the ocean floor in order to locate the hydrothermal springs (black smokers) that occur along the East Pacific Rise and the Atlantic Midoceanic Ridge. Demonstrating that these hot springs provide the hitherto unexplained source of heat for the oceans was a major achievement for Crane. Later, her attention turned to the ecological study of the Arctic, especially with regard to nuclear waste from Russian activities there.onelineThere are nine maps and numerous photos in this volume (although a close up portrait of the author is lacking). To this reviewer, the most interesting sections concern the experimental operations during cruises, as well as the personnel, equipment, weather, and political difficulties that arose during these operations. But this volume is a personal as well as a professional diary. For example, the book describes how, shortly after Crane’s descent in the deep sea submersible Alvin and her subsequent return, she adopts a Russian orphan. This book is mildly recommended as a description of the operation of scientific oceanographic cruises and highly recommended as a diary of a remarkable woman.

Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, by Dale Peterson. (Illus.) Boston Houghton Mifflin 2006.

In this grand volume, Dale Peterson has written and compiled the authoritative and definitive biography of the amazing Jane Goodall. Produced with full access to Jane herself, as well as to her family, friends, coworkers, and associates (only the Gombe chimpanzees were left out), the book makes copious use of Jane’s correspondence, which substantiates the author’s examination of her life. And, indeed, the text is more of a minutely detailed examination than a critical analysis. The volume features a good bibliography, but a map of Gombe would have been a wonderful addition. Most suitable for “tweens” and older, the book clearly illustrates the influences that led Goodall to Gombe and transformed her into “Woman Standing Up and Leaping Forward with Courage and Determination on Behalf of the Natural World” (her Dakota Indian name). Her growth as a scientist, moving from the largely intuitive approach with which she began her chimpanzee studies to that of a more empirical scientist with hard data to support and substantiate her work is well documented. Her evolution from scientist to activist is also clearly elucidated. This is a complete portrait of a woman’s life—a real woman who struggles to balance her personal and professional lives as she fights to make us all better stewards of the world around us.

American Women Afield: Writing by Pioneering Women Naturalists, by Marcia Myers Bonta. College Station, TX Texas A&M 1995.

After a decade of research, Marcia Bonta, a Pennsylvania naturalist, wrote a fascinating book, Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists [Texas A&M Press, 1991). It was written after a surprising encounter in the library with a book written by Susan Fenimore Cooper in 1850, which stimulated Bonta's interest in historic writing by little-known women naturalists, botanists, entomologists, ornithologists, and ecologists. Her publication research project resulted in 25 biographical chapters detailing the scientific activities of her subjects. That work is extremely informative and interesting to readers who appreciate the careers of dedicated naturalists. American Women Afield, the follow-up volume, also includes the work of 25 women over a century with biographical sketches and reprints revealing their subjects and writing styles. Eighteen women are included in both volumes. In most instances, the writer's research is impressive in both technical substance and geographic location, but that is no surprise: These were vigorous, talented women living in a male-dominated society. Their unusual talent as a naturalist educated the public about nature's deserts, forests, beaches, and jungles. Numerous insights gained in their outstanding research are clearly reflected in both of Bonta's books, which describe the women's rigorous travel and residence settings, as well as their experimental projects and published educational reports. While everyone concerned with conservation of ecosystems is aware of the warnings of chemical damage highlighted in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), little is known about the work of other women who were dedicated to environmental issues in previous decades. The professional accomplishments by the individuals whose biographies are presented in Bonta's publications should stimulate further studies and interest in personal achievement by American youth--especially women.

American Women Inventors, by Carol Ann Camp. Berkeley Heights, NJ Enslow 2004.

One of the popular conceptions about Americans is that they have always been interested in technology, gadgets, and laborsaving devices. Americans are always trying to invent a "better way" to do things. Unfortunately, some of the names of the early American inventors have been lost, so there are no records of their achievements, and the U.S. Patent Office did not exist until 1790. Even after the establishment of the Patent Office, many patents were not filed because of cost factors. Women, who very often did not have money of their own, could not hire attorneys to apply for patents, and as a result, the history of women inventors is sketchy.  A new entry in the Collective Biographies series, American Women Inventors attempts to shed light on this interesting area of American history. Camp begins by providing a quick overview of the invention-patent process and then looks at early inventors like Hannah Slater (filed for patent in 1797 on a new way to spin thread) and Margaret Knight (invented a machine to make flat-bottom bags in 1867), about whom little is known. She then goes on to provide more in depth information (five to seven pages each) about ten 20th-century women from different backgrounds and different occupations who overcame substantial hardships and prejudices to make considerable contributions to their chosen fields. Included are women such as Madam C. J. Walker, who invented many creams, powders, and soaps for African American women; pioneer time- and motion-study expert Lillian Gilbreth (the mother in the book and film Cheaper by the Dozen), who in her spare time, also invented the step on lid-opening trash can; and Stephanie Louise Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar. These women are scientists, researchers, astronauts, microbiologists, and chemists. Their lives will inspire the reader to learn more about them. The book will serve as a source for reports and as a springboard to further research on female inventors and role models.

 Note: The annotations in this list are adapted from reviews published in SB&F.