Female Heroes in STEM: Emmy Noether and Martine Rothblatt
Female leaders in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are few and far between, and Jewish female role models in those fields are even harder to find. Enter Emmy Noether, a 19th-century mathematician ahead of her time not only because of the concepts that she studied, but also because as a woman, she was studying them at all. Known today as one of the most influential mathematicians ever to have lived, Noether overcame disrespect and disbelief from her male colleagues, as well as undercompensation to become the “mother of modern algebra.” Born into a time much more accepting of female scientists than Noether’s era, Martine Rothblatt founded her own biotech company to spearhead research that, among other incredible feats, helped save her daughter’s life. With determination as their power and pencils as their tools, Noether and Rothblatt are superheros whose hard work and intellect propelled them to defy the odds and make contributions to the world that will outlive them.
Albert Einstein said it best: Emmy Noether was “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.” Constantly underpaid and underrecognized, Noether defied the odds for Jewish women in early 20th-century Germany and pioneered the development of modern abstract algebra.
Born in Erlangen, Germany in 1882, Noether followed her brother and her father into the world of mathematics at the University of Erlangen. One of two women at a school with over 900 students, Noether was only permitted to audit classes instead of fully participate because of her gender. In 1907, she earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from Erlangen, and for the next seven years, she taught at the school but was not compensated for her work.
In 1915, Noether moved to the University of Göttingen where she worked and lectured as an “assistant” under the name of male colleague David Hilbert. She received no salary until 1923. During her time at Göttingen, Noether proved a theorem, now known simply as “Noether’s theorem,” that has been called one of the most important theorems in the development of modern physics.
While her theorem about conservation laws and symmetry bears her name, Noether is best known among mathematicians for her work in developing abstract algebra. Noether’s influence on her students was palpable; much of her work was disseminated via the renowned text Moderne Algebra by student B.L. Van der Waerden. Many members of the famed Bourbaki group were also influenced by Noether’s lectures.
Noether was forced out of her job at Göttingen during Hitler’s rise in 1933 as she was not only Jewish, but also female with left-leaning politics. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, Noether moved to the United States and found a position at Bryn Mawr College teaching young female mathematicians. She also lectured once a week at Princeton University.
Although Emmy Noether spent the majority of her life being pushed behind male colleagues, her work transcended every career obstacle that she faced. Her name has become an adjective, adorning concepts like Noetherian groups, Noetherian rings, and Noetherian modules. And even though her brother was also a mathematician, Emmy Noether was so distinguished that she became known as “der Noether,” “the Noether.”
A woman in STEM and law, a CEO, an entrepreneur, a grandmother, an activist, and even the pioneer of her own religious movement, Martine Rothblatt does it all. But beyond the endless list of her accomplishments lies Rothblatt’s unique defining characteristic: she has what Google’s Ray Kurzweil described as “a perfect track record in making [her] visions real.”
Before founding United Therapeutics (U.T.), the medical biotechnology company that she currently runs, Rothblatt graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles. She created the GPS-based navigation system GeoStar, the satellite radio company Worldspace, and Sirius Satellite Radio, all before the age of 40. But it was her role as a mother that led Rothblatt to her next endeavor.
In 1990, Rothblatt’s daughter Jenesis was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a rare and life-threatening disease. Determined to help her daughter, Rothblatt founded United Therapeutics in 1996. Like Emmy Noether, Rothblatt didn’t let anything come between her and her goal, not even her lack of a background in biology. Before long, Rothblatt went back to school to earn her Ph.D. in bioethics from University of London, and just a few years later, her company developed a new FDA-approved pill to treat PAH.
Rothblatt’s work at U.T. changed the fate of PAH patients all over the country. Today, U.T. is one of many large biotech companies selling medications to treat PAH. There are more than 10,000 doctors who now treat the condition in the United States, a drastic increase from the mere 75 who treated PAH in 1990 when Jenesis was diagnosed. Today, U.T. is researching advances in lung transplantation, a procedure that PAH patients are likely to need.
In all aspects of her life, Rothblatt forges her own path and refuses to take no for an answer. In 2002 she founded the Terasem Movement, a movement that draws on her experiences in Judaism and technology alike. Additionally, a transgender woman herself, Rothblatt is an active and ardent supporter of the LGBT+ rights movement. Her drive combined with her authentic desire to affect positive change in the world would surely make Emmy Noether proud.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Minsk, Shira. "Female Heroes in STEM: Emmy Noether and Martine Rothblatt." 22 January 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 14, 2019) <https://qa.jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/female-heroes-in-stem-emmy-noether-and-martine-rothblatt>.