8 Female Inventors Of Color Whose Innovations Are Shaping The Future Of Science And Health
The problem with being an inventor? For most of history, if you were a woman — and particularly, a woman of color — you had as much chance of designing an invention and seeing it produced as you did riding a unicorn. It wasn't until groundbreakers like Madame C.J. Walker (who invented a range of haircare products and became a millionaire) came along that women of color began to break into the invention domain. But even now, the word "inventor" makes people think predominantly of Alexander Graham Bell or the Wright Brothers. Very inventive white dudes, but white dudes nonetheless.
Luckily, the atmosphere is changing. Many inventions taken for granted today were originally patented by women — did you know that a Shaker named Tabitha Babbitt probably invented the circular saw? — and women of color are almost in a league of their own, creating new inventions in pursuit of a better human life. Sometimes they're small, like Indian inventor Damini Kumar's spill-proof teapot, and sometimes they're very big indeed, like NASA scientist Valerie Thomas's patenting of 3D illusion to represent data. And, startlingly, some of the women on this list aren't even 20 years old.
Some of these inventions are just beginning to make their mark, while others have firmly established themselves as meaningful contributions to human progress. One thing's for sure, though: these are eight women are seriously badass.
1. Patricia Bath's Laserphaco Probe
Dr. Bath was the first African-American woman in history to receive a patent for a medical invention, in 1988 — and the invention itself was no slouch, either. Bath is an ophthalmologist who specializes in cataract treatment, and her invention, the Laserphaco Probe, was a revolutionary method of treating them using lasers. It made eye surgery more accurate and has probably saved the sight of many, many people.
2. Azza Abdel Hamid Faiad's Plastic-To-Biofuel Transformation
Prepare to feel inadequate: Azza Abdel Hamid Faiad is 19 years old, and the Egyptian's life-changing invention first occurred to her when she was 16. It's a fantastic idea, too. Faiad developed a method to transform plastic into biofuel, for countries which produce a lot of plastic waste. Her invention is low-cost and eco-friendly, but it might take a while to make its way onto the market — but it's not like she doesn't have time.
3. Flossie Wong-Staal's HIV Test And Molecular Knife
The list of patents held by Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal goes on for three pages. And they highlight something you may not know about inventions: they're not all about moving parts or mass production. Inventions can be tiny — in Wong-Staal's case, molecular. She's a specialist in virology, particularly HIV/AIDS (she and her colleagues discovered it in 1983), and has invented many protocols and tests surrounding the virus, including an invention that led to the world's first HIV test. She also developed an enzyme-based "molecular knife" that can cut up genetic information in AIDS patients.
4. Seema Prakash's Plant Tissue Culture
In 2003, Dr. Seema Prakash drew international headlines when her invention of cheap plant cloning won her a Global Female Inventor award — and the discovery more than lives up to the hype. Genetically modified food may be a touchy issue, but Prakash believes that it's the future of crops and the solution to world hunger. The process, called glass bead liquid culture technology, is also seriously cost-effective: it claims to allow farmers to propagate cloned plants with a 100 percent survival rate and at 98 percent of the usual cost.
5. Angela Zhang's Cancer Treatment
In 2012, Angela Zhang — then 17, and at high school in Cupertino — won the Siemens science contest (and $100,000) with her invention, which is nothing less than world-changing for cancer sufferers. By embedding cancer medication in a polymer that would "stick" to cancer cells, allowing them to be tracked by infrared light, she's found a way of tracking how medication works in a cancer patient's body — and how to time when it's released. The polymer can be "dissolved" to let the medication enter the cell, meaning that doctors can see exactly how and where cancer's being tackled. Genius.
6. Shirley Jackson's Fiber Optic Cables
Dr. Shirley Jackson's inventions are behind quite a lot of modern technology. The first African American woman to graduate with a doctorate in particle physics, she went on to work for Bell Telephones, and helped to invent a whole host of developments that revolutionized the way we communicate, from touch-tone dialing to call-waiting. One contribution, however, looms bigger than most: the invention of fiber-optic cables that link the world's communication systems.
7. María del Socorro Flores González's Diagnosis System
Dr. González is a Mexican medical practitioner whose big contribution to the history of invention is likely to save thousands of lives. In 2006, she patented a way to diagnose invasive amebiasis, a seriously horrific parasitic disease that often leads to death and is common in areas with poor sanitation. The new, sensitive test's greater accuracy means that people can be given help faster — and González is hopeful that soon they will be able to produce a vaccine.
8. Deepika Kurup's Water Purification Patent
Deepika Kurup, currently 17, was part of Forbes's 2015 30 Under 30 energy influencers, but she's already been working on her invention for a few years: it won her a major award back in 2012. It's a solar-powered water purification system using photocatalytic composites that aims to provide clean, fresh water worldwide, particularly in underprivileged areas. Water purity is a massive factor in stopping the spread of disease, so Kurup is literally saving the world before she can even make a toast about it.
Images: Getty, National Cancer Institute, Wikimedia Commons, Dr Maria Gonzalez, TED, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Green Prophet