‘It’s kind of like diversity education by stealth,’ Jess Wade of Imperial College London told Moneyish.
Anyone can edit Wikipedia — and one physicist is wielding that power to give underrepresented scientists their due.
Jess Wade, a postdoctoral research associate at the U.K.’s Imperial College London and longtime STEM diversity advocate, set out this year to write one Wikipedia biography a day to highlight scientists who are women, people of color and LGBTQ. So far, she told Moneyish, she’s up to about 280 pages — including entries for NASA engineer Nagin Cox, crystallographer Oluwatoyin Asojo and Susan Goldberg, the first woman editor of National Geographic.
“There are so many incredible women in science; people of color in science; LGBTQ+ (people in science),” said Wade, 29. “I think that we haven’t done a good enough job at telling the proper stories of the scientists that have contributed to everything we understand about the world around us.”
Wade, a daughter of two doctors who studies light-emitting diodes (LEDs), launched her project to bolster the share of English Wikipedia biographies about women (less than 18%). “(A) huge bias on Wikipedia is bad because we’re losing those stories, but it’s also bad because this is an educational tool,” she said. “If people are learning from such a biased source, then they’re only going to become biased themselves.”
🎨💫 Meet Dr Nia Imara, astrophysicist, artist and activist. In ‘10 Imara became the first African American woman to graduate with a PhD in #physics @UCBerkeley, now she’s a Fellow studying stellar nurseries @Harvard. New @Wikipedia page 👉🏽 https://t.co/LW5gwIw037 #WomenInSTEM pic.twitter.com/YFXZfVsWME
— Dr Jess Wade 👩🏻🔬 (@jesswade) May 3, 2018
Each bio takes Wade an hour or two to research and write, she said; she draws subject ideas from lists of award winners, university faculty rosters, people she sees deliver talks and suggestions via Twitter. (The account @BlackPhysicists has been particularly helpful, she said.) So why take her mission to the fifth-most-popular site in the world? “Everyone uses it,” Wade said. “Whether they want to admit it or not, most people go on Wikipedia every day to look something up. It’s kind of like diversity education by stealth.”
Wade’s first proper entry was for the award-winning climate scientist Kim Cobb, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor who studies corals. One recent favorite, she added, was her page for Esther Choo, an emergency medicine physician previously profiled by Moneyish who uses her Twitter presence to raise awareness of race and gender inequity. “She’s done so much that makes her notable beyond her discipline that she was a fun one to make,” Wade said. She also loved working on an entry for radiochemist Dawn Shaughnessy — whose five elements, according to Wade, all had Wikipedia entries before the woman who discovered them.
Wade, who launched a Women in Physics group at her college and sits on the U.K.’s Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) Young Women’s Board, says her project also aims to empower girls to participate in science by showing them influential scientists who look like them — and charting out their precise academic and career trajectories. (While young women in the U.S. take part in high-level math and science courses at similar rates to male peers in grades K-12 and earn 50.3% of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, they make up just 29% of the science and engineering workforce.)
“An awful lot of these kinds of educational initiatives aimed at inspiring kids with science or role models — they’re all super expensive, and they all try and reinvent the wheel,” Wade added. “Instead of doing that, we’re taking something that kids already access and we’re making sure there are more diverse role models on there.”
The researcher is also crowdfunding online to send a copy of the book “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong,” by science writer Angela Saini, to every girls’ state school in the U.K. The 2017 book, which Wade credits with changing her life, is a critical review of how scientists through the ages — including Charles Darwin himself — have stereotyped women as lesser than men.
While Wade admits her efforts are on a relatively small scale — and that editing Wikipedia won’t change STEM gender inequality overnight — she does hope her field can eventually “stop complaining of a lack of women in it, and start celebrating the ones who are there.” The goal, she said, is to “try to eliminate bias at every level” — including in teaching resources, peer review and student evaluations. She wants more women to be nominated for prizes and given opportunities to speak at conferences.
Meet Dr Anna Coble, who in 1973 became the first Africa-American woman to earn a PhD in biophysics. Her entire life was dedicated to improving the representation of minority students in higher education. New @Wikipedia page: https://t.co/RijwupeXF5 #womeninSTEM pic.twitter.com/oYgTTyUppB
— Dr Jess Wade 👩🏻🔬 (@jesswade) May 7, 2018
“There are so many phenomenal expert minds in (these underrepresented groups),” she said, “and we just don’t turn to them.”
Wade is not alone in her efforts to bolster underrepresented groups’ Wikipedia presence. The WikiProject Women in Red, for example, aims to turn so-called “red links” about women and their works — which lead to nonexistent pages — into populated blue ones. And Emily Temple-Wood, a Loyola University Chicago biology student turned a 2016 Wikipedian of the Year, vowed in 2016 to write one Wikipedia article about a woman in science per every harassing email she received. Wade, meanwhile, has organized multiple “wikithons” to teach groups of teens and adults how to edit the site.
Wade says that news coverage of her work has helped spur some increased enthusiasm in Wikipedia editing. “I’m just one little physicist in London, but people have reached out, and people are doing this all over the world,” she said. “If we can get as many people in as many countries around the world, in as many languages, then I think it can be better representative of the kind of science that I know and love.”
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