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A Factory for Scientific Heroines at the Royal Society of London

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'Heroes of Science' was the title of Roger Highfield's lecture at the Royal Society in September. There is a lot of antagonism among historians about the very idea of heroes. It is the little people who count after all, and so it is in science: team work and gradual accumulation of knowledge leads to the breakthroughs and big discoveries, which are falsely credited to the Albert Einsteins and Francis Cricks of this world. My friend Athene Donald has written about this eloquently. But, as Highfield pointed out, to disseminate scientific knowledge, there is nothing more effective than a good narrative, and narratives need heroes.

Having myself done some research that highlights the power of narratives when people watch the otherwise meaningless movements of triangles, I find this argument quite persuasive. However, it is one of those pesky facts, that apart from the amazing Marie Curie, there are few heroines of science. Be honest, how many famous women scientists can you name? In the network I have set up for high flying women in science we took a quiz set by Rosalind Franklin Prize winner Eleanor Maguire. We did embarrassingly poorly on this. For example, none of us knew Alexa Canady (the first female and first black resident in neurosurgery). You too can test yourself by taking this quiz.

Let me give an example. Eleanor Maguire is a scientific heroine. She has made major discoveries about the memory of taxi drivers - yes, that study that showed that the training that London taxi drivers undergo results in increases of the anterior parts of the hippocampus and shrinks back again after the taxi drivers retire. Furthermore, Eleanor has inspired thousands of London school children with her essay competition to write about a woman scientist. But she doesn't have a Wikipedia entry.

How many more stars are there and why are they so hard to see? We may know some names and when we look them up in Wikipedia they are not there. We conclude that maybe they are not famous after all. Yet, who enters the names in Wikipedia in the first place? It should be me and you. We can do our bit to enhance the existing entries and we can start new entries. The idea of adding and editing Wikipedia entries for women scientists was pioneered by the Smithsonian Institution. Now, the Royal Society has followed suit. The idea fits perfectly with the desire to give more prominence to women scientists.

Fellows of the Royal Society often talk of the alienating effect on young female scientists produced by a lack of role models, or concretely, lack of portraits of women to adorn the walls of the Society, and we are keenly aware of the pervasive but usually unconscious sexist biases, that exist. A recent paper that was highlighted on many blogs increased awareness that such a bias exists in science. The paper reported a randomised controlled study, which showed that given identical job applications, science faculty staff rated those with a male name attached more highly than those with a female name. This has galvanised many women in science into speaking out. It is hard to make a change, but Wikipedia profiles are something we can work on.

Alluding to the Wikipedia event, Roger Highfield suggested in his lecture that the Royal Society will set up a factory for scientific heroines. Actually, it is more of a cottage industry. We are starting with entries for 15 women about whom the library has documentation. Entries for these will be prepared by 15 volunteers with the help of the library staff. Afterwards we will have a discussion, where we will hear the views of some living heroines of science, as well as the views of historians of science who have celebrated the heroines of the past.

Obviously this is just a start, but it will reinforce other ideas, for instance the idea to commission portraits of women scientists to hang on the wall of the Royal Society, a project that is currently in progress. In time I look forward to seeing scientific heroines and their extraordinary lives being portrayed in films and novels, as inspiring teachers, valiant mothers, courageous friends. Nothing would counteract more the distorted image of the creepy scientist in a white coat.