5 unsung science heroes who inspired today’s breakthrough researchers

10 Jul 2019

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Five top researchers reveal who their unsung science heroes are and why they should be more well known.

Passion for science rarely exists in a vacuum. While some researchers stumble on a particular field almost by accident, many are inspired by others who came before them, and sometimes their inspiration isn’t well known. This is especially true in the case of women and minorities who haven’t always been recognised for their achievements.

To tell us about the unsung heroes who inspired them to become the researchers they are today, here are five researchers who have featured in our Science Uncovered series this year.

Sidney Harris

Hayley Hung, a research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, is leading a team to investigate air pollutants in the Arctic. She explains why Sidney Harris is her unsung hero of science.

My unsung hero of science is a science cartoonist called Sidney Harris. He has a profound understanding of science and wonderful imagination.

Many of his cartoons in the 1970s – which accompanied articles in the American Scientist – address the pollution problem. He is able to pull out the funny side of the issue and draw the attention of the general public to serious scientific problems, such as environmental pollution, in simple caricatures.

Although not a scientist himself, his work builds public awareness of science and environmental issues. I have learned a lot from his cartoons on how to communicate effectively. I often use them to communicate scientific messages in seminars and during my outreach activities. His works can be found in a book called What’s So Funny about Science?

Norman Heatley

NUI Galway’s James Blackwell is trying to develop ‘stiffness’ maps of the brain to reduce the need for surgeons to physically poke in people’s brains. His unsung hero built on the work of a well-known scientist.

We have all heard of Alexander Fleming and his discovery of penicillin, but very few people have heard about Norman Heatley.

After penicillin and its antimicrobial properties were discovered, science still faced a major problem in how to create useable amounts. Howard Walter Florey and Ernst Boris Chain worked on this problem at Oxford University in the 1940s. There, it was Heatley who created the extraction technique that meant penicillin could be created and purified in bulk.

Without his contribution there is the possibility that the functional use of penicillin would have been overlooked. The Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin was shared by Fleming, Florey and Chain. Because the prize may not be shared by more than three individuals and Heatley was the junior member of the team, his contribution was not fully recognised.

Kay McNulty

Dr Jenny Hanafin of the Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC) at NUI Galway is helping to develop a satellite data archive for all of Ireland to tap into. She discovered her unsung hero after joining ICHEC.

I had never heard of Kay McNulty until I joined ICHEC, but she was an amazing woman. She arrived in the US at the age of three speaking only Irish and was one of very few women who graduated college with a maths degree in the 1940s. She ended up teaching herself and a group of other women to use the world’s first general purpose computer and is even credited with inventing the subroutine, a very basic programming element.

The role that she and her female colleagues played in the war effort – calculating ballistics, trajectories and programming the first computers – was written out of history for many decades. She presented her own work as her husband’s until much later in her life and worked unpaid at home while raising seven children. She is finally being acknowledged for her work and her contributions to modern computing.

William Kamkwamba

Dr Rory Monaghan of NUI Galway and the EU GenComm project is hoping to use waste renewable energy electricity to create hydrogen fuel. His unsung hero is a self-taught Malawian engineer who built wind energy devices for his home and neighbourhood.

My unsung hero is an engineer named William Kamkwamba. As a boy growing up in poverty in rural Malawi, Kamkwamba had to drop out of secondary school as his family could not afford the annual tuition fees of around €60. Rather than foregoing his dreams of an education, he started borrowing books from a local library to teach himself about science and engineering.

When he was 14 years old, inspired by the photo on the cover of one of these books, Kamkwamba decided to build a wind turbine to light his family’s home, which relied on dirty and expensive kerosene lighting. Using old bicycle, tractor and car parts, he built a wind turbine that was able to charge a battery to illuminate the family home and charge mobile phones. Later, he built improved turbines to power and light all homes in the neighbourhood and pump water.

Word of the self-taught engineer spread and Kamkwamba used his platform to advocate for awareness of renewable energy and sustainable development. He graduated as an engineer from Dartmouth College in the US in 2014 and wrote a book about his experience called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which is also the title of a Netflix film about his story.

The Moving Windmills Project continues in Kamkwamba’s name to support Malawian-led rural economic development and education projects. I think it is hard to beat his ingenuity, determination and vision!

John Alcock

Wildlife biologist Philippe Thomas is travelling across rural Canada to track pollution. He told us of an unsung hero who helped make science accessible to a wider audience.

My unsung hero of science is an American scientist and author named Dr John Alcock. Alcock wrote the first – and only – textbook that I read from cover to cover called Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach. The lens through which he sees the natural world and his capacity at communicating complex concepts to a lay audience is fascinating.

Alcock was also one of the first scientists to volunteer his time for a programme called Ask a Biologist – a pre-kindergarten through high school programme dedicated to answering questions from students, their teachers and parents.

His efforts at making science accessible to a wider audience was inspiring and became a core pillar of my philosophy. Being able to nurture a sense of curiosity and inspire youth is extremely important. The science we do should not solely live in often hard-to-understand peer-reviewed manuscripts. It should be brought inside the classroom and used in everyday life.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.