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.
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."
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."
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)
Maia Weinstock is an editor and writer specializing in science and children's media who has worked at BrainPOP, Discover, SPACE.com, Aviation Week & Space Technology, and Science World. Maia is a strong advocate for girls and women, particularly in the areas of science, technology, politics, and athletics. She is an active member of Wikimedia New England and has led various efforts to increase the participation and visibility of women on Wikipedia. Maia also spearheads a number of media projects, including Scitweeps, a photo set depicting scientists and sci/tech popularizers in LEGO. She holds a degree in Human Biology from Brown University. Follow on Twitter: @20tauri.