Female pioneers in our field

Science is a man’s world. My field is not the most macho, but still, it’s worth mentioning some unsung female pioneers. Working on our essay about simulation in social science, I learned about some I didn’t know of before:

  • Helen Hall Jennings—was behind both the methods and data collection of Jacob Moreno’s “sociograms.” Even though there is no continuity from Jennings and Moreno to today’s social network analysis, she was, of course, a forerunner, and Linton Freeman and others credit her, almost more than Moreno, for the birth of social network analysis. AFAIK Jennings and Moreno were the first to: (1) point out that network structure can explain the organization of a system and affect how things spread, (2) collect network data to understand a system, (3) measure structure relative to a random reference model, i.e., the first to construct a random network model.
  • Klara von Neumann—coded the first simulation program, codenamed Monte Carlo. It was the second major project to run on the first programmable computer ENIAC. It was the first program to (1) use function calls, (2) be loaded into the computer with the input data, (3) generate pseudorandom numbers. She had a famous husband, also working on the same project, but if it was a current science project, she’d probably be the first author of a paper. Read more here. I guess programming ENIAC wasn’t like “import numpy as np” either.
  • Mary Tsingou—was a part of the Fermi-Pasta-Ulam project (like the above, a post-Manhattan-project project, kicking off the field of nonlinear science, a precursor of complex systems). According to this paper, she deserved much more than being mentioned in the acknowledgment.
  • Helen Abbey—did the first computational epidemiology study as her Ph.D. thesis. It’s dated 1951 and was published ’52 as a journal paper. As far as I know, this is the first academic paper using computer simulations. (I’m not 100% sure—please tell me if you know some earlier.) It predates the Metropolis algorithm—often heralded as the birth of computational physics—by two years. I admire her advisor, too, letting a Ph.D. student go on such a risky project. Hmm, after reading her paper, I’m not sure if she used a computer after all. Maybe that was a too good story to be true? Anyway, she was a pioneer, and the paper is very readable. Doing computational epidemiology without a computer is of course impressive in itself.

These four had their career peaks well before I was born. There are, of course, more women the closer to now we get. Just to mention two still active that I believe deserve more attention:

  • Miriam Kretzschmar—who, as far as I know, made the first computational network theory paper. In the sense that you study how a dynamic system depends on the network structure by generating networks with a tunable structure and then simulating the dynamic system on these networks. This is one of the most common methods of mine (and many other network theorists). Once again, a little disclaimer about that paper being the first (please tell me if I’m wrong).
  • Fan Chung Graham—essentially, the little I know of extremal and random graph theory, I learned from her papers. With all due respect to the other luminaries and disciples of Erdős, it is easier to start with an FCG paper than a textbook in that field.

Honorable mention goes to my postdoc advisor Stephanie Forrest from whom I learned a lot (even though her pioneering scientific achievements are in a bit different direction than my current research focus).

3 thoughts on “Female pioneers in our field

    1. It’s on JSTOR. I read it just now (I thought I did before, but maybe not), and maybe she didn’t use a computer after all. Or maybe she did and didn’t want it to raise suspicion . . the thing is that I don’t remember where I read about her in the first place. It must be in the material I gathered for that essay on simulation in social science.


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