This Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating by introducing you to women who were first. Being first to do something takes drive, bravery, and vision.
Let’s celebrate women who were the first to discover new scientific theories and elements, women who were creators and dreamers. Let’s learn about the women who the first to reach the highest leadership positions at their workplaces and boards, positions that had previously only been held by men. And let’s applaud the women who were the first to be recognized with major awards and accolades, like Nobel Prizes and the U.S. Department of Energy’s top honors.
Evelyne Litz was the first woman to see metallic plutonium. Litz worked in health physics and as a librarian during the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. She didn’t know Los Alamos was working on an atomic bomb until the night before the bombing of Hiroshima.
Fourteen years after joining Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Theoretical Biology group in 1990, theoretical biologist Dr. Bette Korber became Los Alamos’ first female E. O. Lawrence Award winner for her studies delineating the genetic characteristics of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Several of her HIV vaccines are currently in human clinical trials. Dr. Korber, who is also a Laboratory Fellow, was named by R&D Magazine as Scientist of the Year in 2018, received the Richard Feynman Award for Innovation in 2018, and was awarded the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award in 2004. In 1997, Hillary Clinton presented Dr. Korber with an award for her work on pediatric AIDS research.
Betty Carrell was the first female mechanical engineer at Sandia National Laboratories in California. She was hired in 1959 and worked alongside 350 male peers to keep our Nation safe, and had been the only woman in her engineering program at Oregon State University.
Chemist Dr. Darleane Hoffman was the first woman to lead a scientific division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, landing the role in 1979. She joined the lab in 1953, and stayed on staff for 31 years. She trained generations of female scientists. Dr. Hoffman’s work impacted scientific methods used today in the national security community. She showed that the isotope fermium-257 could split spontaneously, and uncovered plutonium-244 in nature. In 1993, she helped confirm the existence of element 106, seaborgium. In 2014, she was honored with the Los Alamos Medal, the highest award given by the Laboratory.
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall’s career always stood out. In 1986, she and her brother were the first sibling team of Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University, and she was one of the first female Rhode Scholars. Sherwood-Randall went on to become the second female Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, serving under President Barack Obama in 2014-2017. She’s also held positions in the White House in defense policy and European affairs, and served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, and was the founding senior adviser of the preventative defense project at Stanford University.
In 1988, D.C. native Donna Fitzpatrick became the first woman to become Under Secretary of Energy, which is the number three leadership position at the Department. A lawyer with a J.D. from George Washington University, Fitzpatrick also worked for three years in energy conservation and renewable energy at the Energy Department before she became Under Secretary.
In 1992, Linda Stuntz became the first female deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy, under the President George H.W. Bush Administration, and she also worked at the Energy Department from 1989-1992 in senior policy positions. She earned a law degree from Harvard University, and worked in energy and environmental law from 1995-2018 at Stuntz, Davis & Staffier, P.C.
Dixy Lee Ray
Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, a marine biologist and nuclear power advocate, was the first woman appointed chair of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which she chaired from 1973-1975 during the President Richard Nixon Administration. Lee Ray went on to serve as the first female governor of Washington State for one term in 1976, and championed energy and environmental issues throughout her career. She has received the United Nations Peace Prize, and the National Freedom Foundation Award.
In 1993, during the President Bill Clinton Administration, Hazel O’Leary became the first female and the first African American to become Secretary of Energy. A lawyer and a former utility company executive, she had served as Assistant Administrator of the Federal Energy Administration in the mid-1970s and was head of the Energy Department's Economic Regulatory Administration from 1979 to 1981. She went on to serve as President of Fisk University from 2004 – 2013.
An Australia native, Dr. Jill Trewhella was named the first female Laboratory Fellow in 1999 after coming to Los Alamos in 1984 to launch a biological neutron-scattering program. Upon naming her leader of the Lab’s Bioscience Division in 2000, Lab Director John Browne said, “Jill is one of those unique scientists who come along only about once every decade, who combine their passion for science with their excellence in research and their leadership skills to make a true difference in an organization.” Dr. Trewhella personally advised President George W. Bush on detection of bio-threat agents.
Dr. Karissa Sanbonmatsu published some of the first structural studies of epigenetic long non-coding RNAs – investigating how DNA enables cells in human bodies to remember past events. She’s a principal investigator at Los Alamos National Laboratory. In 2005, Sanbonmatsu became the first woman at the Laboratory to receive the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering. She’s on the board of Equality New Mexico and the Gender Identity Center, and advocates for LGBTQ people in STEM.
Physicist Dr. Susan Seestrom joined Los Alamos National Lab in 1986 as a nuclear physicist and later became the first female leader of the Physics Division and the Weapons Physics Directorate. In 2013, she was the first woman to become a Senior Fellow at the Laboratory. Seestrom is also the first (and only) woman to chair the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee for both the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. Today, she is the Chief Research Officer and Associate Laboratories Director for Advanced Science and Technology at Sandia National Laboratories, a position she’s held since May 2017.
Lisa Gordon-Hagerty became the first female Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in 2018, and is responsible for the management and operations of NNSA, which oversees the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, reduces global danger from weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and powers the U.S. Navy nuclear propulsion. She’s worked on the Hill, at the National Security Council, and in business on combating WMD terrorism and in national security issues, and has Master of Public Health.
In 2019, Dr. Rita Baranwal became the first woman to hold the title of Assistant Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Energy, leading the Office of Nuclear Energy. After earning her bachelor’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in materials science and engineering and a master’s and Ph.D. in the same discipline from the University of Michigan, she worked in advanced nuclear fuels materials research at Bechtel Bettis, Inc. and in management positions for Westinghouse Electric Company. She’s an active voice for outreach for the nuclear sector, and directed the Idaho National Laboratory’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation.
There are, of course, hundreds more notable firsts and there will continue to be women who break barriers and make history at the Energy Department’s National Laboratories, NNSA, and program offices.
Visit energy.gov/women for more stories about women in energy and career profiles.
Jill Hruby is the former director of Sandia National Laboratories and president of Sandia Corporation. She was the first female to lead Sandia National Laboratories, the largest of the National Laboratory system. She had joined Sandia in 1983 doing research in thermal and fluid sciences, solar energy, and nuclear weapons components - just to name a few of the areas of her expertise. There's now a Jill Hruby Fellowship, one of the labs' most prestigious postdoctoral fellowships for women in engineering and science whoa are pursuing technical leadership careers in national security.