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Former Physicist Tops List of Most Powerful Women

German Chancellor Angela Merkel retained her crown as the most powerful woman in the world this year, according to a Forbes list of the top 100 women from areas including business, politics, entertainment and technology.

As a leader of Europe's largest economy amidst an ongoing debt crisis, Merkel's fifth appearance at the top of this list may come as no surprise. But many people do not know that Merkel holds a PhD in physics and conducted research in quantum chemistry.

She eventually left the academic world for a career in politics, but her scientific roots remain intact as she makes important policy decisions concerning science. Merkel's not alone in this territory, however. Several other prominent women on this year's list have significant scientific backgrounds.

Photo of Angela Merkel courtesy of Aleph via Wikimedia Commons.

Angela Merkel, German Chancellor: #1

During her undergraduate years, Merkel developed an interest in both foreign languages and the universal language of mathematics. In 1978, she earned her doctorate in physics with a dissertation on quantum chemistry. After working as a researcher, Merkel eventually turned to politics and became Germany's first female chancellor in 2005.

Merkel's science backgrounds even extend beyond her career: She's currently married to Joachim Sauer, a physical chemistry professor. Together, Sauer and Merkel form perhaps the most powerful science couple in the world.

For more on Merkel's science background and upbringing, listen to this BBC podcast (scroll to the middle of the page).

Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox: #17

Ursula Burns has led printer and copier giant Xerox for the past three years. Before her tenure at Xerox, she studied mechanical engineering, earning a bachelor's and master's degree in the discipline. Since joining Xerox as an intern in the early 1980's, Burns has certainly made an impact on the technology sector.

Maria das Gracas Silva Foster,
CEO of Petrobras-Petroleo Brasil: #20

Maria das Gracas Silva Foster studied chemical engineering as an undergraduate before earning her master's degree in nuclear engineering. According to Forbes, largely government-owned Petrobras outputs over 90 percent of Brazil's oil and natural gas, and Gracas Silva Foster has risen to the top of the company over the past 30 years.

Weili Dai, Co-founder of Marvell Technology Group: #89

After earning a degree in computer science, Dai went on to help form one of the most successful semiconductor businesses in the world. Dai's company, Marvell Technologies, caters to today's top technology companies including Apple, Western Digital, and Samsung. Outside of her career in business, Dai has focused on promoting STEM education among girls, according to Forbes.

Forbes' Methodology

Assuming that Forbes used a similar methodology for this year's list compared to last year, Forbes narrowed down its list of 100 from an initial pool of 200 candidates. For the final list, Forbes staff looked at three main categories: wealth, media influence and power base.

For instance, higher rankings were given to women with higher social media metrics and influence over a variety of people. Having authority over a narrow group doesn't count as much as a broad influence.

While creating such power rankings can be somewhat subjective, there's no question that many women with science and engineering backgrounds are continuing to make a huge impact on the world. Congratulations to this year's finalists!

Gracas Silva Foster photo courtesy of Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr. Weili Dai photo courtesy of UC Berkeley school of engineering.


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  1. Please. She is 1) a mediocre physicist who could not or would not make it in the standard career path, 2) responsible for an economic policy widely-recognized as deleterious, one that is bringing many countries in Europe to their knees (not like she seems to care), 3) responsible for the shutting down of the German nuclear power program. This last done with the sole purpose of securing a few much-needed votes from the left side of the German political spectrum, i.e., a self-serving maneuver going against common sense and her country's best economical interests. She is an embarrassment to physicists anywhere.

  2. How is Germany responsible for the irresponsibility of other countries?!?

  3. "[Angela Merkel] is an embarrassment to physicists anywhere" is, without a doubt, the funniest thing I've read all week. Oh spiteful internet, you slay me.

  4. Oh yes, that's funny indeed.


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