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June 2, 2011

Without the work of such pioneers as Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Emmy Noether and Rosalind Franklin, the body of scientific knowledge would be much diminished.

Their research in fields ranging from nuclear physics to mathematics to DNA was the springboard for an impassioned call to arms for women in science on the Stellar Four blog. "The situation for women in scientific fields is disheartening," writes Sara N, one of several contributors to the blog, which focuses on "the girlie side of science". "Too few women are earning PhDs in science and mathematics, and high-school students tend to undervalue the expertise of their female science instructors. In addition, the contributions of talented female scientists are unsung."

The blog reproduces a cartoon strip titled Zombie Marie Curie by Randall Monroe, in which an undead Curie encourages young women not to be held back by gender bias or stereotypes. It details the breakthroughs made by women scientists and how they coped with sexism.

Sara N also highlights a posting on the Krulwich Wonders blog, which says that when Curie won her second Nobel prize - in a different field to her first - the judges were reluctant for her to pick it up in person, fearing they would be sullied by a scandal over her decision to take a new lover. The fact that her husband, to whom she had been devoted, had died was overlooked.

Urging more young women to consider a career in science, Sara N writes: "Don't let a lack of high-profile female scientists in history books, popular culture and the media keep you out of biology and physics and engineering...We need you. We need you to work in the medical research labs and design the energy-efficient buildings of the future...We need you to perfect nanotechnology and find a cure for cancer - and maybe the common cold, too."

The role of women in science is also discussed in a comment thread beneath a story in Times Higher Education in which senior female academics argue that they and their peers must be more assertive to combat sexism.

One reader, Bee, describes her own travails as a female academic, commenting in particular on the suggestion that a system of "gender-blind" peer review is required to ensure that female researchers are not discriminated against.

"In reports...I am frequently addressed as 'he', even though my first name is a quite common female name. In any case a Google search would bring up my homepage...I don't see how the reviewers can become much more 'gender blind'," she writes.

Of far less significance - but no less interest on Twitter - was a heated debate about the correct pronunciation of the acronym Hefce (Higher Education Funding Council for England). Every man, woman and dog seemed to tweet an opinion about whether the correct form was "heff-see" or "heff-kee", with little clarity emerging.

Finally, the Hefce press office was called in to adjudicate: the answer - Both are permissible. With such fence-sitting failing to satisfy the tweeting mob, a twitter poll was set up. The vast majority voted for "heff-kee".

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