Dissecting the identity of women in science

Science communicator and Digital Intern, Emily Medcalf, shares insights from her project on the lives and work of women in STEM, in celebration of Ada Lovelace Day 2019.

This layered sculpture is a dissection of the identity of a female scientist. Like a set of microscope slides, the layers are a sample and don’t represent the absolute truth. For a group project as part of my Masters in Science Communication at Imperial College London, my team took to Twitter to ask women in STEM about their experiences of being a scientist.

  • A collage of different angles of a layered perspex sculpture of Marie Curie's face

    The sculpture from face on in the optimum viewing position, The five layers, and the hand-written aspect of the sculpture

    Credit: Emily Medcalf

  • A collage of photos showing the construction of the sculpture

    The words were hand-written onto tracing paper and then the shapes were stuck onto sheets of perspex.

    Credit: Emily Medcalf

This callout really resonated with people and we got an overwhelming response. We sorted their answers into five categories – collaborative, personal, empowering, challenging and professional – which can each be seen in a separate layer of the sculpture. Together the layers form the portrait of Marie Skłodowska Curie, but viewed separately or from an odd angle, the piece will be distorted, much like the outdated and stereotypical representation of women scientists in some popular media.

From the beginning, we knew we wanted to speak directly to working scientists, to gain a clear representation of their thoughts and views. We initially planned to interview a couple of female scientists to gain an idea of concepts to follow through with. However, this approach was challenged when I put out a tweet asking for help and the response was way larger than anticipated.

We changed our plan and put out a survey to capture as many responses as possible. The survey received a surprisingly exact 400 responses. This really demonstrated how supportive the science and #SciComm online community can be.

  • Image of quotes from the survey, which say 'Being part of a small but powerful minority', and 'I love to see young girls get excited about science, I love fostering that curiosity. It really makes me feel like we're moving in the write direction.'

    Quotes from the survey responses.

    Credit: Emily Medcalf

  • Quotes from the survey responses, which say 'Being the underdog. Always being doubted, but the thrill of accomplishment in the face of adversity is worth it', and 'My love of science isn't shaped by my gender/sex. I am a curious adventurer and being a sci

    Quotes from the survey responses.

    Credit: Emily Medcalf

We wanted to find out how different factors are combined to create a scientist’s identity – the combination of their work and private lives, and other factors they feel influence them. As well as asking questions about the positive and negative aspects of being a woman working in their field, we also asked them to describe being a woman in STEM in four words. Analysis of the results led us to categorise the results into our five categories.

Of course, this was our own interpretation of other people’s words, so it was ultimately a really subjective process. Our sculpture represents reality in a sense, but certainly not a whole reality, and this is a common aspect of data visualisation. To quote data visualiser Giorgia Lupi, 'It’s time to leave behind any presumption of absolute control and universal truth, since we get our data from humans; it’s riddled with human error and tainted by biases.'

Lupi talks about how just because something is data-driven, it does not mean that it is irrefutably true, which is definitely the case with our project. While the words within our sculpture have been taken from the responses to our survey, we heavily influenced the themes that we grouped the words together in, as well as the layout and form of the words.

For the actual construction of the sculpture, our team was very lucky to have a talented artist, Celeste, who drew the initial sketch of Marie’s face. We scaled the image up to match the size of the Perspex sheets we wanted to use. We printed it out and separated different parts of the face for different layers. Then we got drawing! On tracing paper, we hand wrote the words from each theme to create the shapes of the face, using the scaled-up drawing as a template.

We then digitally scanned the hand-written tracing paper, vectorised it, and printed it out onto static paper. Next we carefully lined up the shapes onto each layer, and slowly assembled the face by sticking the paper onto the perspex sheets. Through the two very long days of sketching and sticking, we were both anxious and excited to see how it would all come together. To our great joy, the end result spoke for itself.

The finished sculpture shone a light on the two issues that we set out to address: the fact that observation is always subjective, and that the identity of a scientist is complex and layered.

It links to Hanson’s theory that observation is theory laden, meaning whatever you see is dependent on your personal background and the context it is in. We’ve all seen the rabbit-duck image, right? Hanson proposed that you could never see the duck in the image if you’ve never seen a duck before. Applied to science, when confronted with the same dataset different people will interpret it differently depending on their personal contexts. That could even mean that the scientific question they want to answer is different.

  • The Rabbit-Duck illusion.

    Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the case of our sculpture, each viewer saw all of the same data laid out on the layers, but the meaning and words that stood out to them depended on their personal context and experiences. For this project, we wanted to recognise the human side of science. And we wanted to explore the complexity of the identities of female scientists.

This leads on to point number two – we wanted to demonstrate the multi-layered identity of a scientist. The perception of scientists can often feel quite one-dimensional, but of course scientists are people with hobbies, interests and fears too.

In particular we focused on women in science, to explore how the female identity relates to working in a scientific field. We were interested in the intersection between being a woman and being a scientist. It’s not to say that we think there’s anything different about being a woman scientist as opposed to just a ‘scientist’, but we wanted to explore how the two link.

We chose Marie Skłodowska Curie as the face of the sculpture, not least because of the brilliant work she contributed to the fields of chemistry and physics, but also because many people know her name and not her face.

Historically, women in science have been faceless. When looking at the stories of Rosalind Franklin, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Mary Anning we see women who made important contributions to science, but who were not recognised for their work at the time. Women also were not accepted into prestigious scientific academies until well into the 20th century and therefore struggled to earn the same respect as men.

Marie Skłodowska Curie was denied membership to the Académie des Sciences in France in 1911, despite winning her second Nobel prize that year. Marie visited the Ri in 1903, accompanying her husband Pierre as he delivered a Friday Evening Discourse entitled 'Le Radium'. Though they both worked on the research together, he was the one to give the talk. We haven’t found any evidence in our collection to explain why this was the case.

We thought that using Marie’s face for the sculpture was the perfect opportunity to place her centre stage, especially as many of our survey participants mentioned her as an inspiration to them.

Despite the way the words have been grouped on each layer, our sculpture allows the viewer to make their own interpretations of the data and draw their own conclusions from it. Our aim is that the data we collected and the way in which we presented it leads the viewer to ask meaningful questions about the experiences of women in science. 

With thanks to Gina Degtyareva, Lilly Matson, and Céleste Nilges. To learn more about Imperial's Masters in Science Communication, click here.

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