Women in Science: The Stories Are All Around Us

Ann E. Robinson, PhD Candidate, UMass History

With classes starting, I feel like I should title this post What I Did on My Summer Vacation. Summer is rarely a vacation for graduate students and this summer was no exception for me. I spent part of my summer working on an exhibit with Martha Baker, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education at the UMass College of Natural Sciences (CNS), and Jane Markarian, Special Projects & Outreach Manager at CNS. Both also work with the Women in Science Initiative on campus.

Dean Baker teaches a Commonwealth Honors College seminar on women in science on a semi-regular basis. Last year, she had her students pick a woman scientist, research them, and present their findings to the class. Then the students voted on who was the most important or influential. The students discovered a great variety of women scientists and Dean Baker thought it would be wonderful to make others aware of the many contributions that women have made – and continue to make – to science. The exhibit that was currently on display in the atrium of the Integrated Sciences Building (ISB) was due to come down this summer, so the opportunity presented itself.

The exhibit space in the ISB isn’t very large, so we knew we’d have to be very selective while at the same time trying to be inclusive of as many time periods, disciplines, and ethnicities as possible. It seemed like a daunting task. As the historian, I was charged with coming up with an initial list of 100 women in science. I started with the list compiled by Dean Baker’s students, added the women I was familiar with, and then combed through lists on the Internet. Stopping at 100 was hard – there are a lot of women scientists, once you start looking! I then took the list of 100 and whittled it down to 30. The three of us (very scientifically) voted on each of the 30 and wound up with a list of 12 women in science. Twelve was the magic number that we had decided we could comfortably display in the exhibit cases.

The exhibit cases in many ways shaped what our exhibit would look like. We opted for portraits of our 12 women with accompanying text in the four vertical cases. That would make them rather 2-dimensional, however, so we decided to add what we referred to as stuff on the bottom of each case. Most science departments don’t throw away all of their old equipment – it gathers in storerooms and hallways and faculty offices – and we were fortunate to locate things that related to the work of our women, including old chemistry glassware, a broken bit from a mass spectrometer, and a space shuttle model.

Along with the four vertical cases, there is one horizontal case. This is the case that holds the narrative of the exhibit. In some ways this was the hardest part of creating the exhibit. From the beginning, the one question we kept asking was: what are we trying to say with this exhibit? Is it about the challenges faced by women who work in science? Is it showing how the role of women in science has changed over time? We weren’t sure until the project was well under way. It all started to come together when I was researching the women we had chosen and putting together the text to accompany their images. A narrative developed naturally from there and after some discussion, we had the exhibit theme and title: Women in Science: The Stories Are All Around Us.

And there are a lot of stories. Women have been making significant contributions to science since the beginning of recorded history. Consider Hypatia, the Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who was murdered in 415 CE. Or Wang Zhenyi, the 18th century Chinese astronomer who explained lunar eclipses. Or Ynes Mexia, who began her career in 1925 at the age of 55 and is considered to be the most accomplished plant collector of her time. Or Roger Arliner Young, the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in Zoology and the first to publish in the journal Science.

There are many, many, many stories of women in science – you just have to take the time to look for them. We had the space to tell only a handful of them, so we hope this exhibit and the accompanying web site pique your interest and serve as a starting point for finding out more about women’s contributions to science.

As can be said about many things, it takes a village to create and install an exhibit. We benefitted from the assistance and experience of many people: Kate Doyle, the Natural History Collections Manager in the Biology department, gave advice on the best way to use the exhibit space and shared her installation tips; the Chemistry and Astronomy departments loaned stuff for use in the exhibit cases; the Instructional Media Lab assisted with getting the web site up and running; and the amazing poster for the exhibit was created by artist Megan Lee (you can find more of her work at her Etsy shop).

The exhibit is on display in the atrium of the ISB through summer 2017. There will be an official opening on Thursday, September 15 at 4pm in ISB 221. The History department’s own Laura Lovett will be giving a talk on women in science, followed by refreshments. I hope to see you there!


    • Ann E. Robinson said:

      That’s awesome, Brian!

      • We also just saw the childhood home of Emilie du Chatelet, mathematician, metaphysician, learned commenter on Newton, and mistress to Voltaire, while we were in Paris. E.J. and I had just been reading a biography about her, which emphasized her scientific and mathematics interests over her more famous affair with Voltaire.

        I hope the exhibit has been successful!

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