Portrait of Ada Lovelace by British painter Margaret Sarah Carpenter (1836)
In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, I’m reflecting on the power of naming women in STEM. Ada Lovelace Day aims to “increase the profile of women in STEM and, in doing so, create new role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers.” There are many biases, systemic and unconscious, that hamper the success of women in STEM or gatekeep against their entry all together. This can make it easy to be cynical of efforts like Ada Lovelace Day — knowing Ada’s name does not impart a force field against rampant sexism in tech; knowing of Rosalind Franklin doesn’t shield one from sexual harassment in the lab or field. And yet, throughout September I kept bumping against examples of the power of naming women in STEM. Reading scientific literature, scrolling through twitter, participating in a TEDx event*: I continued to find myself engaged in conversations about institutions and individuals honoring specific women, and the next generation of women in STEM identifying their own role models. For example…
NASA’s Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility officially opened last month. The mathematician, whose story was made famous in the book and film Hidden Figures was one of the human computers whose calculations made early spaceflight possible. I thought about this as I navigated a new campus in my first weeks as a postdoc. I have studied science in many buildings and while not all of them were named for men in STEM, I can’t think of a single building in my career that’s been named to honor a woman in STEM.
At TEDx Piscataqua in early September, seventeen-year-old Lidia Balanovich shared her perspective as an early-early-career woman in STEM. She spoke of her experience as the lone woman in an AP Physics class — instead of despairing when her personal research on careers revealed examples of STEM’s leaky pipeline, Lidia began a science club for elementary aged kids with the goal of engaging young girls in STEM. Her science activities at local libraries are open to boys and girls, but intentionally highlight the contributions of women in STEM. I was impressed that Lidia’s reaction to the data on the challenges facing women pursuing careers in STEM was to open the path to the generation behind her. She immediately recognized the power of naming women in STEM — both for herself and for the kids with whom she engaged.
On twitter, @JacquelynGill recognized Phyllis Draper, the first scientist to reconstruct past vegetation from pollen in North America. Jacquelyn, Assistant Professor of Paleoecology and Plant Ecology at University of Maine and an established palynologist in her own right, wrote of her general recognition that historically many women contributed to the field, their names now lost to history. That such an eminent scientist and feminist could not know about a foundational figure in her own field is astounding.
For women in STEM, our historic role models are there — analyzing pollen in 1929 — but we have to excavate their stories and bring their names to light. This is work for the whole STEM community — to bring recognition to the history of our fields, to highlight the work that our research and theory is built on, and to reflect on the progress of our efforts to create equity and inclusion and the challenges that still remain embedded in our labs and field sites.
Finally, eight-year-old Sophia Spencer co-authored a paper in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America. She writes with Dr. Morgan Jackson about the power of the #BugsR4Girls hashtag. Sophia’s mom reached out to the Entomological Society of Canada when Sophia, an avid bug enthusiast, was teased for liking bugs. This letter inspired #BugsR4Girls, and suddenly twitter was full of entomologists exclaiming that of course bugs are for girls! Sophia expresses her reaction to this outpouring in her paper: “After my mom sent the message and showed me all the responses, I was happy. I felt like I was famous. Because I was! It felt good to have so many people support me, and it was cool to see other girls and grown-ups studying bugs. It made me feel like I could do it too, and I definitely, definitely, definitely want to study bugs when I grow up, probably grasshoppers.”
Happy Ada Lovelace Day! Here’s to women in STEM — may we be them, may we raise them, may we recognize their contributions both historical and modern, and may we name more buildings after them!
*After reflection, I realized that in my own TEDx talk, I was also naming a woman in STEM. I shared the story of Annie Sawyer Downs, a 19th century botanist, mostly forgotten, who mentored the young Edward L Rand as her compiled the Flora of Mount Desert Island, Maine. A part of my inspiration for this talk: Rand’s data and field notes made it into my dissertation, but despite years of searching I’ve never found Annie’s journals or raw botanical records. I uncovered the pieces of a fascinating life — she grew up botanizing with Thoreau, she was a school teacher who published natural history essays in magazines, she founded a library on Mount Desert Island — but none of this story made it into my PhD defense talk.