If you like science, or books, or art, or history, we’ve got a title for you: illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky’s picture book Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World. mental_floss talked to Ignotofsky about her history, her heroes, and her hopes for our planet’s future.
Have you always been passionate about science?
Pretty much. My dad has a master’s degree in biochemistry and my mom worked as a computer programmer, so there was always science going on in our house. My two favorite subjects in school were science and art.
How did you get started as an artist?
There’s also a reason my work is so heavily illustrated: I was a very weak reader at first. It was only through illustrated books that I really learned to read and gained my love of learning. I began to draw the information so I could actually understand it. Later on in college, I was learning so much about design and organizing information that, when I was left to my own devices, all I wanted to do was make diagrams of the things that interested me.
Women’s accomplishments have historically been overlooked or erased. Was it hard to find 50 women to feature in your book?
Not at all. It was actually hard to narrow them down! I could write a whole second book with 50 more women who made amazing discoveries. There’s this assumption that just because we don’t know their names, women have not been key players in the field. And that assumption is so detrimental. It gets into the hearts and minds of young boys and girls who want to get into STEM and it creates less opportunities for women.
Who do you think should read Women in Science?
This book is for people of all ages. There are adults who need to know this information just as much as kids do. But my dream is that a bunch of young girls will read this book, then grow up and cure cancer. That’s the fantasy.
If you could speak directly to STEM-loving* kids, what would you tell them?
Follow your passions. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re incapable of doing anything, and look at all these incredible role models who came before you. Feel empowered, take risks, and contribute. I think a lot of young girls feel shy about taking their place as leaders in STEM fields. My hope is that seeing these women who have led in the past will help girls feel more confident, like ‘Not only do I deserve this, but I’m going to take it.’
What would you tell their parents?
If your kid is digging in the dirt and looking at worms, encourage that. Send them to science camp. Buy them good books. No matter what your child’s passion is, whether they want to be a dancer or a scientist or an artist, it’s best to nurture what they want to do the most. That’ll make them proud and powerful. Don’t limit a child’s imagination with what you expect them to be.
In your opinion, what are the greatest obstacles facing women in STEM fields today?
There are so many. Just getting hired, for starters. Another challenge is that, in all fields, women are seen as only able to take on one role at a time. You’re a mother, you’re a star, you’re a smart girl, or you’re pretty. The truth is that you can be all of those things at the same time. Then there’s the lack of funding and opportunities for women due to the idea that science is not a place for women. But through these stories and all the women working there now, you can see that’s not true. Women have as much of a place in these fields as men do, and they succeed and soar in them.
Do you have a science hero?
One of my favorite stories is Katherine Johnson. She was an African-American woman growing up during the Civil Rights movement. She got a job at NASA, at a time when women were only seen as female computers, meaning that they just crunched the numbers for the engineers. But she just invited herself into meetings. They tried to keep her out, and she said, ‘Is it against the law for me to be in these meetings?’ and they were like, ‘Oh. No. I guess not.’ She got very involved and started educating herself and became a lead on solving equations to get the space shuttles from Earth to the Moon. She calculated the flight paths for one of the first manned missions into space, then the Apollo missions. Due to her, the astronauts were able to get to the moon and back safely.
It’s amazing how far she came just by not taking “no” for an answer and speaking her mind, and what an asset she was to such a pivotal moment in American history.
Why do you think it’s so important to talk about these women?
The most important way to fight gender bias is to share stories of amazing women with boys and girls. Statistics and just being told that things are unfair may not be enough; people need to feel an emotional connection and hear stories to realize that there are injustices in this world, and to stand up and do something about them.
Many of these women have changed the way that we understand our world forever, but we don’t know about them. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are more household names than Grace Hopper, who invented coding. When we don’t tell these stories, we allow these inequalities and stereotypes to continue.
Women have more power than we ever had in human history, but we still have a lot to fight for. We’re 50 percent of the population. This is brain power we can’t ignore.
*STEM stands for the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
All images reprinted with permission from Women in Science© 2016 by Rachel Ignotofsky. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.