Marie Curie, Ray of Light for Science and Innovation

The first female Nobel Prize winner blazed a trail for today’s scientists and technology researchers.

Because women in the 1880s weren’t allowed to attend university in her native Poland, Maria Sklodowska studied underground, attending classes at night and in changing locations to avoid detection by the Russian czar’s police.

To earn money to further her education, she took a job as a governess for five years, attending illegal tutoring sessions and training in a hidden lab, because Poles were forbidden from teaching or learning laboratory science.

To gain legitimate credentials to pursue scientific research, she left her family, friends and country behind. She married, changed her name to Marie Curie, and became one of history’s most renowned women scientists.

“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that?” she once famously said. “We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”

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Aicha Evans, manager of Intel’s Wireless Platform Research and Development Group, says what’s most inspiring about Curie’s work was her passion for learning.

“She was intellectually curious,” Evans told iQ. “She made research not about a goal or result. It was about exploration and intellectual curiosity – wherever it leads you. To me, that’s brilliant. Amazing things are borne out of that.”

Curie inspires Evans’ work building todays’ 4G LTE and future 5G wireless technologies.

When Curie began attending university in Paris in 1891 she, at nearly 24, was older than her peers and behind them in her studies. But it didn’t take long before she started racking up achievements.

Curie earned a Master’s degree in physics from the Sorbonne in 1893, and another in math a year later. She followed up with a PhD in physics, becoming the first woman to receive a doctorate from a French university.

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To conduct research, she shared lab space with physicist Pierre Curie. The two eventually married and had two daughters – Irene and Eve.

Intrigued by the work of Henri Bequerel, Marie and Pierre became pioneers in radiation research, studying irradiation and the properties of uranium.  The Curies, along with Bequerel, were awarded a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903, making Marie the first woman to win the prize.

After Curie’s husband Pierre died in a horse carriage accident in 1906, Marie was offered Pierre’s teaching position at the Sorbonne, becoming the first female professor in a French university. Curie founded the Radium Institute to continue her research, and trained her daughter Irene as her laboratory assistant.

Curie won a second Nobel in 1911, this time in chemistry for identifying two new elements, radium and polonium – the former named after the Latin word for “ray” and the latter named in honor of her home country, Poland.

That any scientist could make such meaningful contributions is impressive. That Curie did this work as a woman during the Victorian era is astounding.

She is seen as a trailblazer and inspiration for generations of girls and women interested in pursuing careers in science.

“Curie was the proof point that women are capable of achieving anything they set their mind to, and that science isn’t a male-only field,” says Lama Nachman, principal engineer and director of Intel’s Anticipatory Computing Labs. In recent years, Nachman has worked on technology that keeps iconic physicist Stephen Hawking talking.

“I remember as a young woman hearing about her and her work, and that inspired me to focus on science in high school and not resort to literature which was the common field of study for girls in Kuwait, where I grew up.”

WWI and the advent of the x-ray

When WWI broke out, Curie realized that countless lives could be saved by having x-ray equipment on the battlefield, enabling doctors to see internal bullets, shrapnel and broken bones, and more quickly diagnose and treat soldiers.


Exhibiting characteristic initiative and determination, Curie put out a call for donations of vehicles and equipment to create the world’s first mobile x-ray units. She then recruited drivers, technicians and radiologists – most of them women – to work the front lines, while she, as appointed director of the army’s radiological service, worked alongside them.

These mobile x-ray units became popularly known as mini-Curies.

Curie’s studies on how radiation effects living cells gave way to a whole new field of medical treatment: radiation therapy. Today, radiation therapy is commonly used to treat cancer.

“One of Curie’s insights into radiation therapy was her foresight to understand that in order to treat patients you had to have a readily available source for radiation,” said Cristina Tognon, scientific director of the Brian J. Druker Laboratory, Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU).

“She did this in an age before particle accelerators. She understood the need to accumulate a radioactive source, not only for treatment but for research. Her ability to organize a stockpile of radiation really enabled the field of radiation oncology.”

Curie’s long-term exposure to radiation caused her to contract leukemia, which ultimately led to her death in 1934. But her research lives on even today.

Curie’s work continued at her Radium Institute and through her daughter Irene’s work. In fact, one year after Curie’s death, her daughter Irene and her husband Frederic – both were assistants in Curie’s lab — won their own Nobel in 1935 for their discovery of artificial or induced radiation.

In all, the Curie family won five Nobel Prizes, a record that stands to this day.

For Marie Curie it was about the work. She and Pierre didn’t attend the first Nobel awards ceremony in 1903 because they didn’t want to take time away from their research.

“There is nothing more wonderful than being a scientist,” she once said. “Nowhere I would rather be than in my lab, staining up my clothes and getting paid to play.”

Ruth Martin, a molecular biologist and research scientist at Oregon State University, said Curie’s story taught her that women don’t have to conform to society’s expectations. Just knowing that women scientists like Curie and others have traveled the road before them instills in many women an I-CAN-do-this attitude.

“These women paved the way for current women in science,” said Martin, “Hopefully it will get easier and easier for women in science as time goes on.”

But we’re not quite there yet.

“Even today, more than 100 years later, it is really hard for women to advance in technical fields,” says Intel’s Nachman. “They need to be much better than their male counterparts to compete in this space.”

Says Martin, who works with young coeds, encouraging them to explore laboratory science as a career, “I think we still have some societal ‘norms’ that women are expected to carry more of the home life responsibilities. But it is slowly changing. So each woman in science today makes it a little easier for future women in science.”

Honoring the Legacy

In honor of Curie’s profound contributions to science, in 1910, the Radiology Congress created the word “curie” to denote a unit of radioactivity (radioactivity being a term coined by Curie).

Another tribute was paid in 1944 in the naming of the radioactive element “curium.”

Additionally, because she is so admired, numerous educational and research institutions bear her name, as do schools, parks, squares, streets, bridges and even a Paris metro stop.

In January, Intel marked its forthcoming “small as a button” computing module for the maker and wearable tech community with the name Intel Curie.  It follows Intel Galileo, an Arduino-compatible development board and Intel Edison, a tiny computer that serves as a development system for wearable devices.


“It [Intel Curie] will open the maker and wearable communities to a lot more possibilities,” said Intel CEO Brian Krzanich at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week.

“We have products on the drawing board that will shift the thinking about how products work, like the voltage they can operate on, the mix of analog and digital, and a lot of things we are driving into the [smart device] space to see just what we can do with Moore’s Law.”

Bryan Deaner, Intel brand strategist, explains the naming of the chip.

“Last year, we launched Galileo and Edison, so we were looking for a scientist of note, a real innovator, in naming this latest device,” he said. “When we thought of Marie Curie, it seemed the obvious pick. Hers was a real story of drive and motivation.”

Deaner said the naming of the chip is a nod to both Marie as an individual and to the Curie family, who created a dynasty of scientific innovation.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood,” said Curie, who still holds the record for being the only woman to win two Nobels, and one of only two people to win the prize twice. “Now is the time to understand more, so that we can fear less.”


Mothers of Invention is a series about innovative women — from pioneers in the world of science and technology to modern engineers and mathematicians. These stories explore how women’s diverse contributions and perspectives impact current and future generations. 

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