Women have made essential contributions to how we understand the world around us, from discovering new elements and sub-atomic particles to advancing modern psychology. However, they are often left out of history books and popular discourse while their male colleagues are celebrated. In her new book Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, author and illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky spotlights fifty women who have made, and are currently making, invaluable breakthroughs in science. Illustrated in bold, beautiful colors on a dark background, each woman is depicted doing the work she loves next to a brief biography and fun facts about her life. Signal to Noise had the chance to talk with Ignotofsky about her book and the inspiration behind it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Signal to Noise (StN): In your book and on your website, you have illustrations about lots of different scientific topics. How did you first become interested in science?
Rachel Ignotofsky: I have been watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus ever since I was a little kid. Everyone grows up wishing they were Ms. Frizzle! But for me, one of the biggest things that influenced me was a human anatomy class I took in high school. Understanding how my own body worked opened this whole door of learning more about the mechanics of the world I live in, and it made me feel like I had power over making educated decisions once I started learning about the world I lived in. So, I really always wanted to make work that involved these things I thought were beautiful in science and help educate people about some simple things that maybe seem a little intimidating if you don't have a science background.
Especially in the book, my sharing these women's narratives gets you to connect with the scientific information a lot more. It's not just [that] you're learning the Cori Cycle, you're learning about Gerty Cori! And, you're learning about how lactic acid works in your body. There's something about that. You connect with it, and it becomes a story instead of just facts on the page.
StN: How did you decide how to illustrate each woman? What was the creative process like?
Ignotofsky: For everything I do, I always do the research first. I get all the information that I want to talk about, and I organize the information on the page. For these women, I really wanted them to be floating around their experiment with facts about them kind of intertwined into the illustration. So I learned about them: I looked at pictures of them, what they were wearing, and then I lay it all out. Then I start drawing.
I really wanted these pictures to be bright and colorful, so I wanted them to be on this dark background and then these bright sort of energetic ideas that are being expressed like, “Oh! Look at the power of discovery! Look at the wonder of it."
StN: I liked how the science would integrate really well with the illustration. For example, I was looking at Nettie Stevens, who discovered the X and Y chromosomes, and I thought it was cool how you had chromosomes next to butterflies because chromosomes sort of look like butterflies. Was that intentional?
Ignotofsky: That was intentional! This is why learning about the scientist is so important before you start drawing. She used flies, butterflies, and beetles in her experiments, so I was like “Oh, cool, that's something I can put floating around her!” And then, the X and Y chromosomes, [you] can make it look like [they’re] also flying away with the little butterflies. There's so much beauty in their stories that you can draw on for inspiration when you're starting to make a visual.
StN: For each woman, you talk about their scientific achievements. What was it like learning about the science and then having to condense it and explain it to someone who might not be from that field?
Ignotofsky: I'm not from that field, so I feel like I was a really good conduit. I would find sources that were very narrative heavy. Two great books that I used were Headstrong and Nobel Prize Women in Science, and I also used the Nobel Prize website. I would listen to lectures of them in their class. It was basically a crash course in every discipline of science for me. And then I would write it in a way that I knew that I could understand it, like how I wish it was explained to me.
I have a degree in graphic design and illustration, and I have a passion for science. So I think [...] taking the time to understand it and then articulate it so that someone who’s even less scientifically literate than I am could understand this and feel like "Oh wow! I could go on and learn something even more complicated than this" - that's really what I want to accomplish with this work. Taking time to find the sources that explain the information in a way that I connected with [certainly helps] make the information accessible for other people.
StN: As a woman in science, I had heard a couple of these stories before, like Rosalind Franklin and Marie Curie. But some of them were a complete surprise to me! Was there a particular story that you were really surprised by while you were doing your research?
Ignotofsky: One of the ones that really surprised me was Lise Meitner. Not only was she a Holocaust refugee, but she discovered fission. What I thought was really remarkable about her story (as if that wasn't enough) is that she actually had to deal with a lot of sexism when she started working in the chemistry institutes in Berlin. Women at the time weren't even officially allowed in university, and she spent a year doing everything in a basement alone. She wasn't allowed into the main laboratories upstairs, [and] she wasn't even allowed to use the bathrooms upstairs. It really wasn't until the government officially allowed women to go to university did Lise get to be a part of the scientific community in Germany. And then, on top of that, she was working with Otto Hahn to create a new element. They were smashing neutrons into uranium to try and create a new heavy element and not understanding their results. Then the Holocaust started, and Lise had to flee for her life. From afar, in Sweden, she realized that she discovered fission. There's something to that story - just how much she overcame for her pure love of discovery and her pure passion for her own work, that nothing would stop her from continuing to find out the answers to her questions about the universe.
It's just amazing we don't know that story because it's such a hero story! She didn't get awarded the Nobel Prize for her work; only Otto did because she couldn't return to Germany. I feel like every kid should learn about that story in school not only because she contributed so much, but [because it's a] story about perseverance and what it means to really – in the face of some of the darkest historic events – continue to contribute and to continue to live your life. That this book helps that story be a part of stories that middle school girls and boys grow up with, and even adults, I'm hoping that people all know her story now because they had so much fun learning about her.
StN: Right, exactly! You make learning about these women really fun with all the facts about them around the edges of the biography. It's nice to look at all of the different parts of the page.
Ignotofsky: Yeah, I grew up with that. Amelia's Notebook is a book I grew up reading and was just about a girl named Amelia and her adventures, and it had all of these illustrated parts to it. We had so much fun reading it because of all the illustrated parts. That's the kind of book I wanted to make. I wanted to make a book that was super fun that was about information that was really important.
StN: You show women from a range of time periods, all the way from ancient times to the modern day. Why did you decide to include women from both the past and the present?
Ignotofsky: When it comes to women in science, the gender gap is still really prevalent. According to the 2013 census that talks about status of 2011, the gender gap is huge! It's around 52% in the workforce for women, and it hasn't gotten much better. I was reading about Maryam Mirzakhani and the fact that she was the first woman to win a Field's Medal, and it's 2014. Women still need to be represented today in the sciences. We need to talk about the groundbreaking accomplishments that happen right now because we're still breaking that glass ceiling.
I wanted to go all the way through each time to the modern day to show how far we've come, [from] not being allowed at universities, to not being allowed to even vote, to, especially for African-American scientists, having to fight segregation while trying to become a scientist. Not being allowed in programs that were all white, but still becoming a rocket scientist? Everything they had to overcome, and all the way up to now to show that it's still happening. We're still breaking barriers, and we're still making amazing discoveries.
StN: All of these women have such full and complex lives. How did you decide which parts to highlight in their biography and was there anything you had to leave out that you wish you could have kept in?
Ignotofsky: There's a whole bunch of stuff that I wish I could have kept in! One of the people who I really wish I got to include too was – I got her in the back, but I didn't really get to tell her story – is Janaki Ammal. She was born in the late 1800s in India, a time when women did not work. They were pillars in the community in their own way, but there were very strict gender roles. She became a botanist who genetically engineered sugarcane to be more easily grown in different regions and helped allow more people to have access to sugarcane all over the country. But also, she was one of the first women to work for the Indian government because she got to work for their botany department.
StN: Many of the women that you featured were actually inspired by women that they saw working in science. Do you hope that by having younger students reading this book and seeing all of these women that they'll want to go into science as well?
Ignotofsky: Yes, absolutely. I think especially if you don't have access to female role models who are in the sciences. By having those stories of these women who are working today or working since the dawn of time, I hope that their stories inspire these girls to – when they close their eyes – to see themselves as a scientist as well. So it's all just about normalizing what it means to be a scientist and including young girls in that equation.
I think that there's a story in here for everyone to connect to. Whether you're a girl who wants to go outside and play in the dirt, or the girl who looks at the stars every night and wonders what's out there.
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World can be purchased at Amazon or wherever books are sold.
To learn more about the women mentioned here and in the book, check out the resources page on Ignotofsky’s website.
Stephanie DeMarco (@sci_steph)
Staff Writer, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD Candidate, Molecular Biology