Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Marie and me

Last year the editor at Nature Chemistry invited me to write a commentary for the International Year of Chemistry on women in science, framed around Marie Curie (since this year is also the 100th anniversary of her Nobel prize in chemistry).

I leapt at the chance, given that Marie has been a hero since my childhood (and beyond, into widowhood). Last March I started thinking about illustrations for the essay, and dreamed up the idea of using photographs of women chemists to make up Marie's face. It took a lot of effort to get the permissions worked out (we take a moment here to say 'huzzah' for my editor, Stuart, who really made this happen). Collecting the photos was a wonder, as I asked students and friends, who asked their students and friends, until we had more than 250 photos (including one of the current director of the chemistry lab at the Institut Curie in Paris).

The editors decided to make this the cover image, and so last week, Marie and I and 269 other women graced the front of Nature Chemistry.

The essay itself, which asks if we send a message, through subtle visual and architectural clues, that women don't belong in the world of science, has been provoking some interesting conversation on Twitter and elsewhere — particularly around the color coding. Chemistry labs are primarily blue (Google it if you don't believe me), which in our culture is rather hard to read as anything other than as "for boys" (walk down the toy aisles, check out the clothing sections, peer into the ladies' room...).

You can read the essay, Sex in the Citadel of Science, at the journal — which I suspect is way better than the interview I did this morning for the Irish radio station Newstalk.

I'm in there in two photos, one in my baptismal gown in my then graduate-student-in-chemistry mother's arms and once as my current self (just above the "a" in Nature).


  1. Excellent article, Michelle!

    I particularly enjoyed this tidbit: "When shown ten-minute clips of physics lectures, observers rated male lecturers on average as substantially more knowledgeable than female lecturers, despite the fact that the lectures were word-for-word identical; the lecturers were actors working from a script and knew no physics."

  2. Brava! I could sense more than a little passion in this piece.

  3. Finally read the essay and it is indeed excellent!

  4. NPG was giving out copies of some of their issues at the expo at the ACS meeting in Denver. Yours with Marie Curie on the cover disappeared very quickly - they were the first to go. Fortunatly I got one!