Meet the Physicist Who Has Created 1600+ Wikipedia Entries for Important Female & Minority Scientists

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.

Wade’s own Wikipedia entry notes the hypocrisy of this log­ic, refer­ring read­ers to a 2019 Chem­istry World arti­cle in which she’s quot­ed:

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Women Sci­en­tists Launch a Data­base Fea­tur­ing the Work of 9,000 Women Work­ing in the Sci­ences

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

The Lit­tle-Known Female Sci­en­tists Who Mapped 400,000 Stars Over a Cen­tu­ry Ago: An Intro­duc­tion to the “Har­vard Com­put­ers”

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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