Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, a multidisciplinary artist with a background in neuroscience, gave a talk titled “Beyond Curie: Women in STEM” on Tuesday in Charles Commons. The Office of Women & Gender Resources hosted the event.
Phingbodhipakkiya began the talk by explaining that she has always felt drawn to both art and science. As a child, she said, she played piano, did ballet and was interested in art and design. However, in high school she conducted oncology research and would go on to study Alzheimer’s disease at Columbia Medical Center in college.
Because of her varied interests, Phingbodhipakkiya said she often felt like she did not quite fit in in either field.
“I was kind of resigned to the fact that maybe I’m one of those people who will never feel like they belong,” she said. “I was living out my research dreams during the day and letting my creative side out at night, but I was very careful never to let the two meet.”
She added that throughout college, she felt pressured to choose a career in either science or art. It was not until much later that she considered combining her passions.
“I felt very much like an odd bird that was forced to make a nest in one of two trees. One nest was in the tree of the creative arts... and there was the other tree with science and research,” Phingbodhipakkiya said. “Then I decided that maybe there’s a way to make a nest between these two different trees and try to bridge the worlds of art and science.”
One of Phingbodhipakkiya’s first projects bridging the divide between science and art was Beyond Curie, a series of posters, illustrations and stories depicting women in STEM. The project, which Phingbodhipakkiya funded with a Kickstarter campaign, highlights 40 different female scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
Phingbodhipakkiya hopes that the project will shed light on the history of women in scientific fields.
“I created it so that young women everywhere could stop wondering if they had the potential to make an impact in STEM and instead start asking, ‘Why should we stop now?’ We’ve been doing this since the beginning,” she said.
Phingbodhipakkiya then told the stories of four female scientists featured in Beyond Curie: Barbara McClintock, Carol Greider, Elizabeth Blackburn and Youyou Tu.
McClintock, Phingbodhipakkiya explained, made important discoveries by studying the genetics of maize. McClintock was the first person to propose the idea of “jumping genes,” DNA sequences that move from one location on the genome to another; however, at the time, her research was met with “puzzlement and hostility.”
It was not until 30 years after her initial discovery that other scientists began taking McClintock’s research seriously. She earned the Nobel Prize for her discovery of transporting genes in 1983.
According to Phingbodhipakkiya, McClintock’s story highlights the importance of perseverance.
“Sometimes it takes ideas some time to permeate the world, and by making her mark and staying in the game she was finally able to get the recognition that she deserved,” she said.
Phingbodhipakkiya believes that the story of Carol Greider, a Hopkins alum and a professor and director of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics demonstrates the value of finding champions, or mentors, in one’s field.
Greider began working with professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco Elizabeth Blackburn just one year after she completed her undergraduate degree. The women would have intense discussions about telomeres every day. A telomere is the nucleotide sequence at the end of chromosomes. Eventually, Blackburn and Greider would discover telomerase, the enzyme that adds nucleotides to telomeres, and win the Nobel Prize in 2009. According to Phingbodhipakkiya, the level of interaction between Blackburn and Greider is rare. She also noted that it is uncommon for first-year graduate students to be given full credit for their discoveries, the way that Greider was.
Phingbodhipakkiya believes that Blackburn and Greider’s relationship shows the positive effects of women in STEM supporting one another.
“If we champion each other, we can do extraordinary things,” she said.
The fourth scientist that Phingbodhipakkiya discussed, Youyou Tu, discovered a cure for a new strain of malaria by examining ancient Chinese medicine. After Tu’s discovery, Phingbodhipakkiya explained that the number of global cases of malaria dropped by about 20 percent, and the global mortality rate of malaria decreased by nearly half.
Phingbodhipakkiya noted that Tu saved hundreds of millions of lives by being willing to retread old ground and look for answers in unexpected places.
She believes that the stories of these scientists, as well as the others featured in Beyond Curie, can inspire women.
“Beyond Curie is about discovering our heroes, because when we connect with greatness, we come to see that it is not some distant, unreachable place, but a long body of work forged through perseverance, love and courage,” she said. “When we truly know our past, then we can reclaim our present, and when we hold the present in our hands, the future is ours to shape.”
The talk then opened into a discussion and Q&A session.
Junior Melissa Eustache attended the talk. She said that Phingbodhipakkiya’s point about feeling pressured to choose between a career in science or the humanities resonated with her.
“For me it’s been a little tough, because in all these STEM classes you dedicate your time and you have to study for them, and you’re creative also, but you don’t have time necessarily to channel that creativity,” she said.
During the discussion, Phingbodhipakkiya addressed the importance of having all-female spaces. Phingbodhipakkiya leads a girl’s STEM club for middle schoolers. When she was forced to admit boys to the club, she said that she noted the girls in the group were more hesitant to speak up or raise their hands to answer questions.
“This is why I think these all-women spaces are important,” she said. “I don’t think it should be us against them, but I think they’re just important for support when you need it.”
Eustache shared her own experience starting an all-girls science club called Flowers of STEM in her high school. Like Phingbodhipakkiya, school officials felt that Eustache’s club was “too feminine” and told her to admit boys as well. Eustache believes that this ultimately hindered her mission to create a safe space for women to explore science.
“It felt like I was compromising what I wanted to do with that club... When I left they changed the name, and it’s not Flowers of STEM anymore, it’s just a general science club,” she said. “I wanted it to be a continuing legacy to reaffirm women’s spaces.”