Name five women scientists you learned about in school. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
I got to three very quickly but had to think for a moment to get to five. It’s not because these researchers, explorers, and innovators don’t exist; I simply didn’t learn about their work and contributions to history in school. It just wasn’t a large part of the curriculum. And, sadly, my experience isn’t unique.
You can’t be what you can’t see, which may be why women remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) roles. Just 25% of computer and mathematical science professionals and a mere 13% of engineers today are women.
But one woman is doing her part to help change that. And she’s doing it with comics.
Rachel Ignotofsky is a Kansas City-based artist and designer whose first book is an illustrated look at 50 game-changing women across centuries of scientific discovery and inquiry.
But why comics? It’s the medium that changed her life.
Ignotofsky had a difficult time learning to read and grew frustrated until she found her secret weapon.
“The only thing that … got me through it was educational comic books and cartoons,” Ignotofsky said. “It gave me this push to learn information that was for the ‘smart kids.'”
Ignotofsky grew up loving comics, design, and science. (If a career as an artist didn’t work out, medical school was young Rachel’s backup plan.) So she channeled her passions into “Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World.” The book is a beautifully curated collection of personal narratives from female scientists from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines, with a dash of whimsy thrown in.
Ignotofsky hopes it will open doors to kids and adults interested in learning more about the women who shaped not only science, but history. And after her childhood struggle with reading, she knows firsthand how well comics can deliver information.
“I feel like there’s a real struggle with scientific literacy, especially in this country,” Ignotofsky said. “You have to win people over. And you can convince anyone to do anything with illustration.”
Check out a few of the courageous women in science profiled in Ignotofsky’s book.
1. Edith Clarke, who worked as a human calculator and became General Electric’s first female electrical engineer.
2. Marie Curie, the two-time Nobel Prize winning physicist and chemist who discovered polonium and radium.
3. Paleontologist and fossil collector, Mary Anning, who at age 12 discovered an intact dinosaur skeleton. Though respected in the field, Anning was never allowed to publish her work because she was a woman.
4. Patricia Bath, a physician, professor, and inventor who brought eye care to people in need and developed the laser probe used to treat cataracts.
5. Rosalind Franklin was a pioneering chemist and x-ray crystallographer who discovered the double helix shape of DNA.
6. Sylvia Earle, a celebrated marine biologist and aquanaut, who explored the recesses of our oceans to study the plants and animals found in the depths.
7. Hypatia, one of the earliest recorded female mathematicians and teachers who was also an expert philosopher.
But even with the amazing women she highlights in her book, Ignotofsky still remembers the women she had to leave out.
Women like pioneering Indian botanist Janaki Ammal, paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey, accomplished physicist and astronaut Sally Ride, and Irene Joliet-Curie, daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie and a talented chemist in her own right. But for this collection, Ignotofsky had to make some tough calls and let variety be her guide.
“I could’ve had 50 women in chemistry if I wanted to, but I really wanted to have a diverse group.”
But, luckily, for Ignotofsky and all of us who love women in science there are plenty of women in science for another book or two … or 20.
Women are earning just over half of the undergraduate degrees in STEM fields, and we’re re-writing history and making groundbreaking discoveries every day. The future belongs to these rising stars, and they have these courageous pioneers to thank.