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The Case for Representation

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Take a minute to close your eyes and picture a “scientist.” What images immediately come to mind? What are they wearing and where are they working? What’s their gender, their race, or their ability? If you immediately pictured a cisgender white man wearing a white lab coat, you aren’t alone.

In a 1983 study , less than 1% of children participating drew a female scientist when asked the same question. In 2009, that number jumped to 35% of children surveyed. Why? Because partic ipation and representation in textbooks and media matter. In the time between the two studies, the amount of women pursuing higher education in science and engineering increased , and in some cases almost doubled. A 2014 study found that countries with higher percentages of women receiving science degrees and/or participating in science research had weaker stereotypes about genders in science.

Mind you, this study only focused on gender in STEM; a small piece of the puzzle in creating a more equitable STEM community. It’s imperative that we think about intersectionality when planning our lectures and lessons, the framework that all of the identities our students carry with them overlap, and impact the way they perceive and are perceived in the world. We can’t talk about gender without talking about the ways race, sexual orientation, class, and ability impact these numbers as well. While women earned 19% of all undergraduate physics degrees in 2014, only 5% of those degrees were earned by black or African-American women. Recognizing that our students share a variety of identities is the first step to increasing meaningful representation for students to engage with in the classroom.

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The Black Hole Huntresses


Above are only a few of the female astrophysicists featured in Black Hole Apocalypse. From left to right, Chung-Pei Ma, Priya Natarajan, Janna Levin, and Andrea Ghez.

With the recent release of Black Holes Apocalypse , NOVA made strides to increase the visibility of female astrophysicists. The 2-hour special released in January featured Janna Levin, astrophysicist, author, and NOVA’s first ever female program host. She was accompanied by 8 other women that are experts in the field, accounting for 40% of the scientists featured in the program; more accurately representing the 50% of the population that consists of women. The impact of this representation in the film was noted by many members of our audience:

“My son & I are streaming this NOVA hosted by the amazing @JannaLevin. Not only is the science great. It’s an astrophysics story in which almost all the central characters are women, many women of color. This is what happens when NOVA has its first female host in 40+ years.” – @DanaJSimmons

“It was obvious (and welcome) that your editorial choice wanted to show us wonderful women women scientists in astrophysics…I am the father of two girls… For them, and for all the young girls watching this episode, it was inspiring to see these super bright women in sciences. I am sure that you have planted numerous seeds that will grow to become tech and science women. Science will benefit from their presence.” – Anonymous Viewer

“There are far too many unsung women in science. We deserve their recognition. We deserve their leadership to be rewarded as well known.” – Rich Kangas

“LOVE that most of the scientists in Black Hole Apocalypse are women! GOOD JOB!!” – Anonymous Viewer

Most mainstream media stories fail to capture the gender, racial and ethnic composition of the U.S. In the 2014 study, Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment , researchers found that only 33% of all speaking roles across film, broadcast, streaming, and cable were female, and only 28% held by people underrepresented by race or ethnicity. This lack of representation fails to provide young people with successful, relatable role models that reinforce that their identity is important and valued in our society.

Representation isn’t only important in entertainment media; it wields equal power in the classroom. Far too often, textbooks only highlight underrepresented groups with stories of slavery and oppression, which can be extremely taxing for students who share these identities. Celebrating the discoveries, creativity, joy, and passion that underrepresented groups have brought to math and science is critical to unlocking students’ potential. Providing a student with a role model in physics or astronomy that looks like them can be the catalyst a student needs to realize their dreams. Below is a list of scientists and engineers that have made contributions to physics and astronomy that teachers can highlight throughout the school year.

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10 Physicists & Astronomers to Feature in Your Next Science Lesson

Dr. Sally Ride (1951 – 2012): We all know Sally Ride as the first American female astronaut in space. What was not as well known was her 27-year relationship with writer, Tam O’Shaughnessy. Sally never hid her relationship from the media, but she also never came out as a lesbian publically. This was only made public after she passed away in 2012.

Benjamin Banneker (1731 – 1806): Benjamin Banneker was an African-American astronomer, mathematician, and author. He is most known for publishing his almanacs, where he devised calculations to predict lunar and solar eclipses, the rising and setting time of the sun and moon, and the tides of the Chesapeake Bay. Banneker also frequently corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, noting the hypocrisy of Jefferson’s words in the US Declaration of Independence and his actions as a slaveholding president.

Dr. Wanda Díaz-Merced (- Present): Wanda Diaz-Merced was born and raised in Puerto Rico. As a young girl, she was fascinated by space, and wanted to become an astronomer. However, as she got older, she completely lost her sight due to prolonged illness and thought her career in astronomy would be over. She discovered that data plots on a graph could be translated into sound, and now, she uses sonification to study space, and remains at the top of her field.

Dr. Arthur B.C. Walker (1936 – 2001): Arthur B.C. Walker was a solar physicist. He is known as an ultraviolet/extreme ultraviolet radiation pioneer, and developed telescopes that could photograph the solar corona. When not conducting research, Walker mentored many graduate students at Stanford, particularly students that were underrepresented in science. One of his mentees was Sally Ride, the first female U.S. astronaut.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868 – 1921): Henrietta Swan Leavitt was one of the many Harvard “computers”: women who studied photographic glass plates of the stars. Leavitt was deaf and in ill-health for most of her adult life, but continued to study the brightness of stars. Through her work, she discovered how to measure stellar distances, and determined that a star could be much farther from the Earth than originally thought. She laid the groundwork for Edwin Hubble to discover that the universe is larger than the Milky Way, and that we are surrounded by many galaxies.

Neil Divine (1939 – 1994): Neil Divine was a LGBTQ figure in astrophysics. He spent 25 years working at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he made large contributions to the modern understanding of star formation. His work was also critical in defining radiation belts around the other plants, and the distribution of meteoroids and space debris.

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson (1946 – Present): Shirley Ann Jackson was the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate degree from MIT, and only the 2nd African-American woman to earn a doctorate degree in physics. She conducted research at prestigious laboratories like CERN and Fermilab before becoming the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute– the first woman and the first African-American to do so.

Dr. Ellen Ochoa (1958 – Present): Ellen Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman to go to space, and has logged over 978 hours of time in space in 4 different missions. Currently, Ochoa is the Director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. She is the center’s first Hispanic director, and its second female director.

Émilie du Châtelet (1706 – 1749): Émilie du Châtelet was a mathematician and physicist. While she was most known for being Voltaire’s mistress, Châtelet pursued a variety of scientific research projects even though she was not not welcome in academic circles due to her gender. Most notably, Châtelet translated Newton’s Principia into French with her own notes and experiments that supported Newton’s theories. This was crucial to helping French scientists understand and elaborate on Newton’s ideas.

Dr. George Carruthers (1939 – Present): George Carruthers is an African American inventor and physicist. He was an inventor at an early age, building his own telescope from cardboard when he was 10-years-old living in Cincinnati, OH. He is most known for developing the first ultraviolet camera/spectrograph that travelled to the moon for the Apollo 16 mission.  He was awarded the 2012 National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama.

These ten figures represent only a fraction of the diverse scientists and engineers who have made invaluable contributions to science and society, and can serve as excellent role models for students. Consider featuring them in your next physics or astronomy lesson, and fuel the fire for a more equitable and inclusive STEM community.

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