I find nothing more rewarding, honestly, than seeing people get recognized and championed for what they’ve done. – Dr. Jess Wade
As far as centuries go, the 21st one is a relatively good time to be a girl with an interest in STEM.
Modern science-loving girls find themselves born into a world where books and TV shows celebrating their interest proliferate. Their classrooms are festooned with posters of trailblazing female scientists. Even Barbie has ditched her bathing suit for a lab coat and a microscope.
You’d think Wikipedia would have kept pace in this climate.
And it has…thanks almost entirely to the efforts of Dr. Jess Wade, a 33-year-old Imperial College Research Fellow who spends her days investigating spin selective charge transport through chiral systems in the Department of Materials.
Her evenings, however, belong to Wikipedia.
That’s when she drafts entries for under recognized female scientists and scientists of color.
“I had a target for doing one a day, but sometimes I get too excited and do three,” she told The Guardian in 2018.
To date she’s added more than 1,600 names, striving to make their biographies as fully fleshed out as any of the write ups for the white male scientists who flourish on the site.
This requires some forensic digging. Discovering a subject’s maiden name is often the critical step to finding her PhD thesis and early influences.
A handful of Wade’s entries have been stricken for the truly maddening reason that their subjects are too obscure to warrant inclusion.
When you make a page and it is disputed for deletion, it is not only annoying because your work is being deleted. It’s also incredibly intrusive and degrading to have someone discuss whether someone’s notable enough to be on Wikipedia – a website that has pages about almost every pop song, people who are extras in films no one has ever heard of and people who were in sports teams that never scored.
Below are just a few of the 1600+ female scientists she’s introduced to a wider audience. While history abounds with nearly invisible names whose discoveries and contributions have been inadequately recognized, or all too frequently attributed to male colleagues, these women are all contemporary.
Nuclear chemist Clarice Phelps was part of the team that helped discover, tennessine, the second heaviest known element.
Mathematician Gladys Mae West was one of the developers of GPS.
Physical chemist June Lindsey played a key role in the discovery of the DNA double helix.
Oceanographer and climate scientist Kim Cobb uses corals and cave stalagmites to inform projections of future climate change.
Vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert led the team that developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine (and inspired a Barbie created in her image, though you can be assured that the Wikipedia entry Wade researched and wrote for her came first.)
Wade’s hope is that a higher representation of female scientists and scientists of color on a crowdsourced, easily-accessed platform like Wikipedia will deal a blow to ingrained gender bias, expanding public perception of who can participate in these sorts of careers and encouraging young girls to pursue these courses of study. As she told the New York Times:
I’ve always done a lot of work to try to get young people — particularly girls and children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and people of color — to think about studying physics at high school, because physics is still very much that kind of elitist, white boy subject.
Our science can only benefit the whole of society if it’s done by the whole of society. And that’s not currently the case.
Unsurprisingly, Wade is often asked how to foster and support girls with an interest in science, beyond upping the number of role models available to them on Wikipedia.
The way forward, she told NBC, is not attention-getting “whiz bang” one-off events and assemblies, but rather paying skilled teachers as well as bankers, to mentor students on their course of study, and also help them apply for grants, fellowships and other opportunities. As students prepare to enter the workforce, clearly communicated sexual harassment policies and assistance with childcare and eldercare become crucial:
Ultimately, we don’t only need to increase the number of girls choosing science, we need to increase the proportion of women who stay in science.
Listen to Jess Wade talk about her Wikipedia project on NPR’s science program Short Wave here.