Breakthrough: Portraits Of Women In Science

Explore our short film anthology that follows women working at the forefront of their fields.

This story is a part of Breakthrough, a short film anthology from Science Friday and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) that follows women working at the forefront of their fields. Learn more and watch the films on our Breakthrough spotlight.

“Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science” is a short film anthology from Science Friday and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) that follows women working at the forefront of their fields. Each episode blends deeply personal stories with innovative scientific research of women across STEM fields and takes viewers to places like the Arctic and to India’s space agency. By showing that challenges such as deeply-rooted cultural or institutional norms, grueling working conditions, or personal tragedy and sacrifice are not insurmountable obstacles to becoming a scientist or engineer, “Breakthrough” hopes to inspire a future generation of women to lead careers in STEM fields.

This March for Women’s History Month, Science Friday will host screenings of the complete series at select Alamo Drafthouse locations across the country. Sign up for our events newsletter to find out if we’ll be coming to a theater near you!

Breakthrough: Bitter Water

For Navajo hydrologist Karletta Chief, water is sacred. At the University of Arizona, Chief studies the flow of water through the crannies and channels in soil. And when a mine spill contaminated a vital river in the Navajo Nation, her work was put on the front lines. On August 5, 2015, three million gallons of acid mine drainage gushed into the reservation’s waterways after a plug was disturbed at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. Chief embarked on an investigation of the potential environmental and health impacts it had on her community.


Breakthrough: The Killer Snail Chemist

These tiny cone snails may boast delicate and gorgeous shells, but they pack a powerful—and lethal—punch. The snails’ venom can be fatal to various fish and even humans…but it could also offer a potential cure. Mandë Holfod, a biochemist at Hunter College and the American Museum of Natural History, works with a team to investigate the snails’ venom and look for compounds that could be used to treat pain and cancer. Ancient cultures have traditionally used their natural environment to look for cures for the things that ail them, she explains. Now, researchers are investigating how “nature’s deadliest cocktail” could create new pathways for treating old problems.


Breakthrough: Polar Bear Witness

For USGS wildlife biologist Karyn Rode, tracking and tranquilizing polar bears from a helicopter are the just the first thrilling steps in her research. After acquiring various samples from sleeping bears, Dr. Rode’s unique understanding of what they eat and how quickly they metabolize nutrients allows her to determine the condition of each bear. Working with a team of scientists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service for nearly a decade, Dr. Rode’s monitoring of polar bear health has helped reveal how well populations are adapting to the rapidly warming Arctic.


Breakthrough: Connecting the Drops

Bacteria and viruses hitch a ride inside droplets of all kinds—sneezes, raindrops, toilet splatter. By reviewing footage of different types of drops, applied mathematician Lydia Bourouiba records and measures where they disperse in order to better understand how diseases spread. Watch how Bourouiba designs tests—some inescapably humorous and awkward—to study infectious disease transmission.


Breakthrough: Snapshots from Afar

In the second episode of Science Friday and HHMI’s series “Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science,” three scientists share stories about India’s first interplanetary mission—a mission to Mars. With limited time and budget to design and launch the satellite—called MOM (for Mars Orbiter Mission)—Seetha Somasundaram, Nandini Harinath, and Minal Rohit spent long hours in the clean room, followed by tense and exciting moments tracking the satellite as it entered Mars’s orbit. Their efforts helped India become the first nation to successfully reach the Red Planet on its first attempt.


Breakthrough: A Re-sounding Remedy

In 2004, pediatric audiologist Allyson Sisler-Dinwiddie plunged into a world of silence after a car accident damaged her hearing. Under the care of hearing researcher Rene Gifford, she became one of the first test subjects of a new technique to improve cochlear implants, devices that use electrodes to stimulate cells in the inner ear. Since then, Sisler-Dinwiddie and Gifford have worked together to restore other patients’ hearing. Watch the pair and their team at Vanderbilt University as they develop a resounding remedy to help people hear again.