24 - The extraordinary story of Maria

Hi crew,

Today, 8th March, is the International Women Day and I feel like it's time to tell you a story.

Many are the women that in the past had an impact on Science and our lives and, of course, many are the women currently involved in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) related projects and that work for improving our quality of life and take care of our planet. From the past, I may mention a few Italians such as Rita Levi-Montalcini or Margherita Hack, or international ones as Rosalind Franklin, Gertrude Elion or Barbara McClintock (just to mention a few). Really, I would list them all, but probably the list would be just too long for this post.

However, today I would like to tell you the story of a woman. A story full of dreams, adventures, determination and, as in most of the best stories that I know, love.

The story that I am going to tell you today is the story of Maria Skłodowska-Curie.

Her story is really interesting. I learnt more about it during my recent travel to Warsaw as Poland is the homeland of my girlfriend. We spent there some holidays and we visited the museum dedicated to Maria. I found her story inspirational.
Also my scholarship is dedicated to this scientist, as TRUSS ITN is in fact a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action (MSCA) supported by the EU. So, why not? Why not to share with you guys the story of Maria?

Figure 1 - A picture of Maria working in the lab (picture taken from Google).

You may know that Maria was born in Warsaw in 1867. Yes, because although nowadays most of us know her as Marie she was actually Polish. At that time the current capital of Poland was under the domination of the Russian Empire. Times were really hard for Polish people that were coming from multiple wars and fights in name of freedom. Times were really hard for everyone but for women in particular. In fact, most of people at that time thought that women should stay just home taking care of their families. Women did not have the right to vote at political elections and just a few countries allowed women to have high education and go to university. Of course, these are different stories but it is important to give you some context and emphasize the extraordinariness of Maria's story.
Unfortunately, her mother died when she was just 10 years old and was her father, who was a professor, that raised her up and encouraged her to study, supporting her in pursuing her interests and feeding her curiosity. For this reason, after she finished the high schools (with the highest grades), Maria continued attending classes at the 'Flying University' that was a secret organisation that clandestinely offered education throughout the city with no fixed venue.
At the age of 24, Maria realized that her dream was actually to do something that could be useful for the society. For this reason, in 1891 she left Poland and, following her sister (Bronya), she arrived to Paris. Here she started her studies in physics and mathematics at the ‘Sorbonne’ University of Paris that is the third oldest University in Europe (after Oxford and Bologna) and that was allowing women to receive high education. It is actually here in Paris that Maria changed her name to 'Marie' but every Polish still knows her as Maria today.
In a couple of years, Maria gained first her bachelor degree in physics (1893) and a year later a second one in mathematics (1894). In particular, she graduated in chemistry as the best student of her class and as the second best student of her class in mathematics. A phenomenon.
In Paris, she met Pierre Curie, who was a famous physicist in France and they married a couple of years after her graduation. Pierre and Marie were a lovely couple bounded not just by love but also by the passion for their job. Their research on radioactivity (term that Maria herself invented) brought them to discover two new elements: polonium (in honour to Maria’s origins) and radium.
In 1903, thanks to her research work Maria gained her PhD in physics at the Sorbonne and, the same year, together with Pierre and Professor Henri Becquerel they have been awarded with the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of the phenomenon of radioactivity.
When she just thought to be at the peak of her career Maria experienced another tragedy by losing her husband Pierre who died in a road accident. In the following months, Maria was appointed Director of the Laboratory of Physics at the Sorbonne and a couple of years later she became the first woman Professor at the Sorbonne. An achievement that, for that time, was massively impressive for a woman. A real hero. Strong. A woman who never gave up.
Passionate of her work and convinced that she could still give new contributions to the scientific community she continued her work.  Thanks to her hard work in 1911 she managed to isolate the radium metal that granted her a second Nobel Prize (in chemistry this time). Currently, she is still the only scientist awarded with two Nobel Prizes and she got them in two different fields. Genius.

When the first World War began Maria was living in France. It was a really tough period for everybody. No body and no place was safe. But Maria, who already demonstrated in the past her braveness, couldn't sit back. She wanted to help.
How she did that?
Well, as usual she used her sharp critical thinking and curiosity to better understand the situation and find a solution. She saw that X-ray machines were already used for medical purposes and she took courses to understand how to use the machine. However, during a war hospitals are some of the first targets and doctors and nurses are constrained to operate directly in the field. Also, during a war there is basically no time for bringing any injured person to the hospital.
She had no practical experience but she took classes to learn how to use these machines. She talked with her wealthy colleagues and friends so that they could buy a few cars for her and with the help of a few mechanics she installed the X-ray machines on those. And yes, this is how she invented the first Mobile X-ray machine.
With a few of these, and followed by her daughter and a doctor, she decided to go to the battlefront and help the French Army. Outstanding. This way, this fantastic woman managed also to have her positive impact on the first World War helping doctors and nurses at the battlefront in saving lives.
Honestly, I do not have any more words for Maria. History talks for her (and Science of course).

Although her success in France, Maria never forgot her origins. For example, this is confirmed by the fact that she called the first element that she discovered 'polonium'. Also, she put all her efforts to create a new research institute in Poland: the Radium Institute, built on the model of the French one. A dream came true. And, of course, she brought her two daughters to visit Poland.

In the Summer of 1934, Maria died in a sanatorium in France due to leukemia caused by the many and many experiments that she carried out while being continuously exposed to radiations.
Today, in Warsaw you can visit the museum dedicated to her built on the 100th anniversary of her birthday by the Polish government in the place where she was born.

You understand at this point the importance of this woman, the importance of what this woman did for our society. One of the first women in STEM, one of the first women that fought for her right to study, for the right of making higher education accessible to everybody, and one of the first women that thanks to her sacrifice and determination managed to revolutionize science and the entire world.

This is why my scholarship is entitled to Maria Skłodowska-Curie (here you can find more information on this type of scholarships) and this is why Europe and the entire world will never thank this woman enough.

An inspiring story the one of Maria that I thought you should know of and that today I shared with you. A story that I hope will keep motivated and that perhaps will influence your career also. Remember, there is no limitation to our dreams. ;)

Again, thanks a lot for your attention and… stay tuned! Because a new post will be released here, on my blog, for you, very soon.

I wish to all women an happy International Women Day and a great career in Science. However, crew, please, remember to celebrate your women every day of your life and not just today! ;)




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