Research into why women continue to drop out of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields despite high aptitude in these areas at early ages increasingly points to factors that include the stereotypical treatment and unequal representation of females in popular culture. It is becoming clear that toys, visual media and written media, from books to references such as Wikipedia, could do wonders to encourage girls and young women by adding more and better representations of females in STEM. Fortunately this is starting to happen, as evidenced by new offerings such as the latest LEGO scientist, whom I have written about at length on the heels of my own LEGO scientists minifigure project; by the runaway success of Gravity, a film with a medical engineer–astronaut as its protagonist and hero; and by the recent popularity of Wikipedia edit-a-thons, including several I have organized in the U.S. focusing on articles about women in STEM.
But there's another sea change taking place right now, and that is the morphing of STEM into STEAM, an acronym acknowledging that art and design have always been integral to the fields of science and technology. Scientific and mathematical crafts have become easier to find and purchase in recent years, thanks to the growth of online artist communities and marketplaces. And although depictions of scientists remain overwhelmingly male, an increasing number of artworks are beginning to highlight women as thinkers and creators. The artists in the following collection of works featuring women in science have contributed boldly to the dual goals of celebrating women in the STEM fields and portraying them positively through the lens of visual media. A selection of these will be featured at a women-in-STEM art exhibit that I will guest curate at the Art.Science.Gallery. in Austin, Texas, from September 13 through October 15, 2014.
“Marie Curie" - Jeff Fenwick
(gouache and ink)
This provocative painting of renowned physicist Marie Curie gazing curiously at a serpent ghost appears at first glance to reference the fact that what Madam Curie became most famous for—her tireless work uncovering the mechanisms of radioactivity—was also what ended up killing her. But Jeff Fenwick, a Toronto-based illustrator and craftsman, describes a secondary symbolism to his work: The snake and vial, he says, were also designed to evoke a Rod of Asclepius, the universal symbol of medicine. "The piece is meant to represent Curie's research being a miraculous breakthrough for medical science," Fenwick explains, "while also suggesting the imminent danger Curie was in while working with radioactive materials."
After learning of Curie's life story, and of the circumstances behind her death from overexposure to radiation, Fenwick decided she would make an ideal model for a painting. He began and finished the piece during his first year at OCAD University in Toronto, where he is pursuing a degree in illustration. "I chose Marie Curie because she has a very particular melancholy expression, which I felt makes her portrait interesting to study."
Fenwick plans to focus on creating comics and other illustration works after he graduates." I also see a future," he says, "in marrying my love of design and art with my professional career as a carpenter."
"Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission" - Orlando Leibovitz
(acrylic on jute)
Both Marie Curie and German-born physicist Lise Meitner were responsible for some of the most important advances in physics of the 20th century. Meitner's contribution was the discovery of nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms that led to the development of nuclear energy and atomic weapons. Unlike Curie, who was showered with two Nobel Prizes, Meitner was snubbed when her collaborator, Otto Hahn, took home a solo Nobel in physics for their work. But Meitner's accomplishments eventually earned her something even more enduring: a place on the periodic table of elements. She is the namesake of meitnerium, element 109.
I was pleasantly surprised by the whimsy with which Orlando Leibovitz, a self-taught artist based in Santa Fe, N.M., represented Meitner's signature work. In stark contrast to Jeff Fenwick's cautionary vision of a transformational breakthrough, Leibovitz provides a simpler, more joyful look at an iconic scientist and her discovery. The portrait belongs to a 10-piece series called “Painted Physics,” which also includes paintings of Richard Feynman dancing in front of a chalkboard filled with Feynman diagrams and Ernest Schrödinger juggling cats. "Since my teenage years," Leibovitz says, "I have been intrigued by the way theoretical physics explains our universe. Artists seek the same explanations. Art, of course, does not require the same rigorous verification. But creativity and the desire to penetrate the mysterious connect art and physics."
Leibovitz adds: "Lise Meitner's discoveries continue to have a monumental impact on our lives. The way she overcame the discrimination she faced as a woman, as a physicist and as a Jew in Nazi Germany is a dramatic story. Meitner wrote, 'Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity. It teaches people to accept reality with wonder and admiration....' She lived that sentiment every day of her life. That is a story worth painting."
"Inge Lehmann and the Earth's Core" - Ele Willoughby
(ink on kozo paper)
Ele Willoughby is a marine geophysicist based in Toronto whose research focuses on gas hydrate deposits in underwater environments. She is also a highly accomplished printmaker who creates screen prints, etchings and linocut prints on topics in science and the natural world. This wonderful piece depicting Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann, who in 1936 demonstrated that our planet contains a solid inner core, is part of Willoughby's linocut series on famous and less-known scientists. "I'm rather passionate about the history of science, particularly physics and geophysics," Willoughby says. "I am more than happy to be sharing it through art—especially underappreciated female superstars like Inge Lehmann."
The print's geometric red figure is a representation of Earth in cross-section as depicted in Lehmann's seminal paper, "P’," one of the most succinctly titled articles in the history of science. "The three concentric spheres are the mantle, outer core and inner core, which she postulated," Willoughby explains. "'E' marks the epicenter of a massive earthquake. The numbered rays from E show the waves we would expect to observe at various angular distances around the Earth, as time progresses and they propagate through the planet."
"I'm not sure when I realized," Willoughby adds, "that the Lehmann of the Lehmann discontinuity or the American Geophysical Union's Lehmann Medal recognized a woman whose career spanned a period when it would have been unusual for her to achieve what she did. The more I looked into her story, the more interesting she was. It was not only really clever to infer that what she was seeing in the data were earthquake waves that shouldn't have been there if the core was fluid as it was believed; it was really a paradigm shift. She decided that these needed a proper, systematic explanation, and her bold hypothesis fit. It isn't widely recognized—even among Earth scientists—that this fundamental discovery about the structure of our planet was the work of a pioneering woman in the field."
"Portrait of Gabrielle-Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet" - Nicolas de Largillière
(oil on canvas)
The great 18th-century mathematician, physicist and natural philosopher Émilie du Châtelet has been the subject of quite a few artistic renditions, but this radiant portrait by French painter Nicolas de Largillière is my favorite by far.
It dates to around 1735, a period in history when it was almost unheard of for a female scholar—particularly one who worked in the natural sciences—to be depicted by a master painter such as De Largillière. The work also dates, roughly, to the time when Du Châtelet reconnected with her childhood friend, Voltaire, the historian and philosopher who would become her lover, intellectual partner and lifelong friend.
Paris-born du Châtelet was drawn to the sciences from an early age, and she benefited from the encouragement and tutoring of many fine academics. As an adult, she became particularly fascinated with the work of Isaac Newton, and she is considered to have been a leading driver of the move among French academicians away from Cartesian and toward Newtonian physics. Near the end of her short life she contributed her most lasting work, a translation and commentary on Newton's groundbreaking Principia. It is, to this day, the standard translation of the work into French. Du Châtelet died after the birth of her fourth child at the age of 42.
The symbols and gestures in de Largillière’s portrait are full of meaning. First, du Châtelet is staring skyward, a likely nod to the fact that she was interested in astronomy and the cosmos. She grips with her right hand a gold compass, symbolizing her work in measuring and bringing order to the natural world and universe. Her left hand sits on a celestial globe, probably a cue to her reverence for Newton's theory of universal gravitation. Whether the positioning of this hand just above the constellation Scorpio was related to the fact that her beloved Voltaire was born under that particular sign is up for debate.
Incidentally, this artwork is one of the most valuable among those presented in this collection; the original sold at auction for $134,500 in 2010.
"Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale," "Barbara McClintock," "Agnes Pockels," and "Maria Goeppert-Mayer" - Jennifer Mondfrans
(oil, acrylic, and wax pastel)
"I was having a conversation with a male acquaintance, and we were talking scientists," begins San Francisco artist Jennifer Mondfrans. "He thought the only historical woman scientist was Marie Curie. After asking many of my smart friends, I realized that this was a secret history that needed to be known."
Mondfrans's response was two spellbinding series of vivid portraits depicting notable, but not necessarily well-known, women in science and mathematics. One set, “At Least I Have You, to Remember Me,” pairs portraits in wild, saturated colors with "autobiographies" in the form of letters to the viewer. These are meant to imprint a story along with Mondfrans's visual interpretation of the scientist in question. The other set, “Women Scientists in History,” includes alternate interpretations for some of the same personalities, while introducing yet more individuals to her overall mix. "I chose women who had accomplished great work and who had been photographed," Mondfrans says.
The four women represented here are (clockwise from top left): Kathleen Lonsdale, the pioneering British crystallographer who proved that the benzene ring is a flat hexagon; Barbara McClintock, the American geneticist and Nobel Prize–winner who produced the first genetic map of maize; Agnes Pockels, an underappreciated German pioneer in the discipline of surface science; and German-American Maria Goeppert-Mayer, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist who proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.
Mondfrans plans to add more portraits of women to her science collections as time allows. High on her to-do list are chemist Irène Joliot-Curie and biologist Lynn Margulis. "I will continue to do scientists as they pass," she says, "to create an ongoing history."
"Henrietta Swan Leavitt" - Raúl Colón
(colored pencil and lithographic crayon on paper)
I live in the same neighborhood where astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt spent a great deal of time, carefully analyzing the brightness of stars as they were observed around the turn of the 20th century. I often pass by her former office at the Harvard Observatory, and by the last apartment building she lived in before she died. I wonder how life might have been for her, walking these same streets.
Physically, much of the area remains unchanged, but in Leavitt's time, women couldn't even dream of matriculating at a university like Harvard. Nevertheless she was one of a famous group of women who not only worked at the Harvard Observatory (earning next to nothing, I might add) but who also succeeded in making a number of major contributions to the field of astronomy.
Last summer I came across a children's picture book about Leavitt written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by New York artist Raúl Colón. It details her life and greatest work: the discovery of an important relationship between the changing brightness of so-called variable stars and the duration, or period, of their light fluctuations. Leavitt gained little notoriety for it in her lifetime, but this observation proved so fundamental to later discoveries about our place in the cosmos that a number of scholars, including renowned astronomer Edwin Hubble, considered it worthy of a Nobel Prize. "I was impressed by her accomplishment—basically, finding a way to measure the distance of stars," Colón says. In his portrait the top panel represents the varying brightness of a star whereas the bottom is a re-creation of how Henrietta and her fellow "computers" noted the changes on paper.
"When I visited Harvard, I saw the transparencies of different stars Henrietta and other astronomers studied," Colón explains. "I also read through some of the notebooks they used to annotate their observations concerning the degree of brightness in each star through a period of time. Having some of the equipment they used—like the glass device to place the transparencies—right there for me to study and sketch really connected me to the past and her story."
"Mae Jemison" - Muhammad Yungai
(oil on canvas)
You may know that Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space, but did you have any idea that she's a serious dancer? That she spent two and a half years as a Peace Corps doctor in Africa? Or that she fulfilled a childhood dream by playing a small role on Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Mae Carol Jemison has become an inspiration to women and children everywhere, not only because she earned the call from NASA but because she has, in her post-astronaut years, excelled as a multifaceted and highly successful businesswoman, tech developer and social leader.
These credentials, plus her commitment to education, are just a few of the reasons why Atlanta-based artist and teacher Muhammad Yungai decided to create this expressive portrait of Jemison as part of his colorful “29 Black People You Should Know” series. "Mae Jemison is an amazing woman whose story should be known," he says.
Yungai is a self-taught painter who grew up in New Orleans with a passion for artistic expression. "After receiving praise and guidance at a very early age from my father, my fascination with art bloomed into an unquenchable thirst," he wrote on his Web site.
Today Yungai lives in Atlanta where he teaches visual arts to children at the KIPP WAYS Academy. His portrait of Mae Jemison was created to honor Black History Month and to serve as a fundraiser for his students. Along with the other 28 paintings of historical black leaders and figures from Langston Hughes to Whitney Houston, Jemison's portrait was auctioned off, with proceeds going toward materials to help Yungai instruct a new generation of artists.
"Jane Goodall Darwin Day Portrait Project 2013" - Hayley Gillespie
(paper collage and acrylic on wood panel)
In 2012 ecologist, conservation biologist and artist Hayley Gillespie began the Darwin Day Portrait Project, a community endeavor in Austin, Texas, that celebrates great naturalists on Charles Darwin's birthday (February 12th). After crafting a collage of Darwin himself for the inaugural event, Gillespie decided to focus in 2013 on primatologist Jane Goodall, a chimpanzee expert and one of the most celebrated scientists of our time.
By happy coincidence, Gillespie learned she would have the opportunity to show her work to Goodall just a few months later, during a public lecture at Southwestern University in Texas, where Gillespie was a visiting professor. "I felt a lot of pressure to get the portrait just right because I knew she might see it," Gillespie admits. "'Very good likeness,' was her calm assessment, so I felt really good about that!"
The collage, now signed by Goodall (top right), is on display at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin—not far from Art.Science.Gallery., another of Gillespie's creative endeavors. She began the project in response to her popular blog about science and art. "I met so many amazing artist–scientists through my blog who were searching for a place to exhibit their work," she explains. "I woke up one morning and said, 'Why not start a gallery specifically for science and nature-inspired work?'" Art.Science.Gallery. existed in pop-up mode for some time, but it now has a permanent space a few miles east of downtown Austin, where it not only showcases artworks but also provides a home for science communication activities.
"My mother, several aunts and grandmother are all artists, and my grandfathers were engineers, so art and science have just always been a part of my life," Gillespie says. "I think they were just as much a part of Darwin's life—who had to draw, sketch, etcetera—or Ernst Haeckel's life, who became famous for his Art Forms in Nature. Somehow the two fields became more separated in the 20th century as science became more quantitative. But, I think we're on the verge of a major resurgence of integrating arts and sciences."
"Rosalind Franklin" - Geoffrey Appleton
(acrylic on board)
This unique painting of renowned x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin was commissioned in the late 1990s by the science department of Staffordshire University in England. "I wanted to show Franklin at work," says British artist Geoffrey Appleton, who was trained at Saint Albans College in the U.K. and at the Canterbury College of Art, now part of the University of Kent. "I knew more about her as a figure that had been sidelined in the DNA structure discovery, rather than as a committed crystallographer. But I got the impression from reading about her that she was very hard-working and thorough and solitary."
Appleton's intent was to portray Franklin "as an innocent in a dark, male-dominated world," with the feet of scientific rivals James Watson and Francis Crick "waiting in the wings." The figure before Franklin represents Photograph 51, her famous DNA x-ray image. Without her knowledge or permission, Franklin's colleague Maurice Wilkins showed Photo 51 to Watson and Crick shortly before they introduced the world to DNA's double-helix structure in 1953. This photo led directly to Watson and Crick's discovery, and today Franklin is often credited as a co-discoverer of DNA's structure.
But only Watson, Crick and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize—and the early glory—for this achievement. Franklin died at age 37 from ovarian cancer, likely a result of her work with high-energy particles. This left her ineligible for a share of the Nobel, because the prizes may not be awarded posthumously. It also left her unable to defend herself when Watson and others publicly belittled her in books and interviews. In more recent years Franklin has become a revered symbol of the history of discrimination against women in science.
Geoffrey Appleton has been a freelance illustrator since the 1980s. If you look closely, you can make out his likeness as a symbol of genetic inheritance on the bottom right of his Franklin portrait. "The picture is based on a family photo, showing my mum and dad with me as a baby," he says. "It's a sort of nod toward my identity."
"Rita Levi-Montalcini" - Francesca Mantuano
On the penultimate day of 2012 the world said goodbye to Rita Levi-Montalcini, a spirited and highly decorated Italian neurologist best known for her Nobel Prize-winning discovery of nerve growth factor. That same day, Italian artist Francesca Mantuano created this digital portrait of the esteemed scientist.
Levi-Montalcini was 103 years young when she died, and by all accounts she lived each of those years to the fullest. Born an identical twin in 1909, Levi-Montalcini's early career was colored by the dark cloud of World War II. After studying chicken embryos in hiding she moved to the U.S., where she spent three decades on the faculty of Washington University in Saint Louis. There she focused her work on a mysterious protein responsible for nerve growth and maintenance. She would eventually return to her homeland, first part-time and later for good. Levi-Montalcini never stopped working or supporting the causes that were important to her. A longtime champion of women in science, she was also, from 2001 until her death, a fiery member of Italy’s Senate. "I've always admired her for her work and contributions that she gave to science," Mantuano says, "but also for her personality and importance in the Italian social contest. I wanted to make a tribute because I think it's important to honor this kind of character—especially nowadays, when the Italian social-political-cultural situation is not the most prosperous and shiny."
Mantuano dabbles in various media but her first love is comics. She has completed programs in comic, cartoon and animation design, and she is soon to finish a program in Web design at the New Institute of Design in Perugia. Mantuano takes pride in the achievements of Levi-Montalcini and hopes the illustration of her fellow countrywoman might serve as an inspiration: "We must remember that we, as a nation and people, can do a lot and bring a lot of enrichment to others."
"(Augusta) Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) Mathematician; Daughter of Lord Byron" - Margaret Sarah Carpenter
(oil on canvas)
Augusta Ada King, the 19th-century Countess of Lovelace, is best known for her work on the Analytical Engine, an early computing machine devised by her mentor and friend, Charles Babbage. Her predictions on how this and other machines might one day move beyond simple arithmetic calculation were unique for her time, and for this reason she is considered a visionary in the field of computational technology. She is also said by many to be the first computer programmer for the notes she contributed to an Italian article about the Analytical Engine.
But Ada Lovelace is way more than the sum of her intellectual, mathematical achievements. She has become, especially in the last five years, an influential symbol of the celebration of women who have contributed significantly, oftentimes silently or without reward, to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
This regal painting of Lady Lovelace was completed by British portraitist Margaret Carpenter in 1836. It was the same year that Lovelace gave birth to the first of three children with her husband William King-Noel, aka the Earl of Lovelace.
The piece was greeted with critical acclaim at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, but Lovelace herself was far from pleased with the likeness. In fact, she responded rather brusquely to it, and to Carpenter's effort. "I conclude she is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jawbone," Lovelace wrote, "upon which I think the word ‘Mathematics’ should be written."
"Sally Ride" - Andrea Del Rio
It is fitting that astronaut, physicist and science educator Sally Ride would strike a pose in this portrait so similar to that of her fellow pioneer, Ada Lovelace. Standing tall with her characteristic bright, inviting smile, Ride provides hope for the next generation of explorers, whether out in the cosmos or here on Earth.
In becoming the first American woman in space, Ride captured the world's attention when she flew on the shuttle Challenger in 1983. But in her post-NASA career, up until the day she died of pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2012, Ride made her living as a steadfast champion of STEM education. She particularly encouraged young girls to "reach for the stars."
Andrea Del Rio, a Peruvian art student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, attempted to capture that inspiration in her unique artwork. To create Ride's likeness, Del Rio utilized a variety of media, including watercolor, charcoal, india ink, colored pencil, chalk pastels and acrylic paint. "The pose is empowering," Del Rio says. "Her helmet represents what the world saw her accomplish, and her suit shows what perhaps she saw out there in space. Sally did great things that before her time were not possible. As she smiles and looks away, I believe she is thinking how everything turned out just fine. Nothing is impossible."
Del Rio's own aspirations include becoming a full-time portrait painter and textile designer. On this particular work, she adds: "I wanted to represent someone who had overcome many obstacles to achieve her dreams, to serve as inspiration for me and other people, to realize that the possibilities are endless. Like saying, 'Look at her! She did it. Now get to work!'"