Think back to your high school biology class. What stuck with you? If your experience was anything like mine, you probably remember all of two things: The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, and a lot of dead white dudes looked into microscopes for hundreds of years to figure that out. For many people — myself included — the intrigue of science is lost at an early age in heavy textbooks, dry lectures, and a cultural attitude that science is reserved for nerdy boys.
But if you ask Rachel Ignotofsky, that couldn't be further from the truth — and it's way past time to change the way we talk about science, especially in regards to women scientists who too often go ignored. Ignotofsky’s upcoming book, Women In Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, aims to change the everyday conversation about science — where we access information about science, whose work we see represented when we do, and how we digest the facts we’re given. Through eye-popping, brightly illustrated pages, Ignotofsky tells the stories of 50 women — some well-known and some who were left behind in mainstream history books — whose research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics influenced the world through their respective fields. Not only did these women make incredible strides in science and medicine, but in doing so they shouted a huge "fuck you" to a society that, historically, has actively and purposefully discouraged them from pursuing their work.
An illustrator by trade whose work often focuses on scientific topics, Ignotofsky realized the power of her work after receiving a fan letter from a father of a young girl with a rare respiratory condition. “He was using an illustration I did to explain to his four-year-old-daughter why she would need a respirator,” she tells Refinery29. “I realized that this work is important; I’m taking information that’s super dense and complicated and making it digestible for kids and adults in a way that no one’s really doing.”
With the success of her scientific illustration — and frustration by male-dominated curricula in high school history and science classes — Ignotofsky decided that her work could help tackle women’s underrepresentation in STEM in an accessible format.
“I just kept saying over and over again, ‘Young girls are testing just as well as boys in these STEM subjects, but aren’t pursuing it as a degree. We’re not taught about women in our history classes. We’re not taught about them in our science classes. We need to be taught about these women at an early age, so that strong and powerful women are the norm.’ So I decided I was going to use my skill set to shape the conversation in a better way.”
The book includes the narratives of women such as Hypatia, a mathematician born in Alexandria, Egypt in 315 CE, as well as modern women like current Stanford University professor and 2014 Fields Medal winner Maryam Mirzakhani, giving the book a breadth of history while proving a point that, yes, women in science have always been around, even if our history textbooks didn't include them.
Ignotofsky also stresses the importance of scientific literacy for everyone: “To make educated choices in life, you need to know how the world works — whether it’s understanding global warming or understanding why your computer turns on,” she says. “There’s a fight for scientific literacy in this country, and if drawing a little happy face on a cell can help it, then I definitely want to be a part of it.”
Women In Science will be released on July 26, 2016 and is currently available for pre-order. Click through to see eight illustrations as well as the bios of women whose pioneering work changed the way we think about health.
Reprinted with permission from Women In Science Copyright © 2016 by Rachel Ignotofsky. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.