‘Ladies First’ exhibit at Peabody spotlights women in STEM

Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree, is not a household name. Neither is Roger Arliner Young, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in zoology, nor Vera Rubin, a physicist who discovered evidence of dark matter.

These women are among two dozen pioneering doctors, scientists, and engineers highlighted in “Ladies First,” an exhibit at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History that honors the often-overlooked accomplishments and discoveries of women in STEM fields.

The exhibit, located on the museum’s third floor, was curated by the Peabody’s  EVOLUTIONS Afterschool Program (EVO), which provides 120 students from high schools in New Haven and West Haven experiences and instruction meant to inspire a passion for STEM and prepare for them college.

Display cases at the Ladies First women in STEM exhibition at the Peabody Museum.
“Ladies First,” an exhibit at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, pays tribute to the accomplishments and discoveries of women in STEM fields.

The stories of three groundbreaking women are highlighted in each of the following fields: environmental and geo-sciences, biomedical sciences, biology, physics, archaeology, paleontology, medicine, and space exploration. Working in teams and guided by Peabody staff, EVO students selected women to highlight, researched their lives and careers, wrote concise summaries of their achievements, and created dioramas illustrating barriers the women overcame, such as entrenched inequality, sexism, and discrimination. EVO students Genis Aviles and Zymarie Taylor drew portraits of each of the featured women.

Alana Ladson, the Peabody’s youth operations coordinator, worked closely with the EVO students to create the exhibit.

The students put their hearts and their minds into this project,” Ladson said. “They connected with the women we featured. It was exciting for them to see people who look like them and stood for things that they feel strongly about being represented in this way. We’re extremely proud of their work.” 

Melody DeBlasio, a junior at Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven, said comparing and contrasting the experiences of the pathbreakers was a fascinating exercise.

The obstacles they encountered varied, but they all shared a common passion for their work and a strong desire to make a difference,” DeBlasio said. “All of the women we studied brought fresh, unique perspectives to their fields, and as a result expanded and challenged the entire scientific community. They used their diversity and experiences as tools to enact meaningful change instead of obstacles to be overcome.”

DeBlasio noted a theme linking the three women featured for contributions to the biomedical sciences: Sameera Moussa, an Egyptian atomic radiation researcher who sought to make cancer treatment more accessible; Jane Cooke Wright, an African American physician who made groundbreaking discoveries in administering anti-cancer drugs; and Flossie Wong-Staal, a Chinese America bacteriologist and molecular biologist who was the first scientist to clone HIV.

They came from different countries, worked in different fields, and lived at different times, but they all used their scientific prowess to expand medical access to disenfranchised groups,” she said.

The project helped Amir Bond-Little, a junior at Engineering and Science University Magnet School in West Haven, to appreciate the contributions women have made to the sciences.

We almost never hear about them and the work they’ve done, but they paved the way for young women today who are aspiring scientists, especially women of color in the STEM fields,” Bond-Little said. “Giving them the recognition they deserve for their contributions is a great cause, and this was a rewarding project.”

The exhibit, which is supported by CT Humanities, presents information demonstrating the gender disparities and inequality prevalent in STEM fields. For example, it notes that women of color represent 20% of the U.S. population but only 11% of physicians. The exhibit also stresses the importance sharing the stories of scientists from underrepresented groups.

A display inspired by the Fearless Girl statue, with a collage of women’s faces and inspirational quotes.
Visitors are greeted by a silhouette of “Fearless Girl” decarted with a collage of women currently working in STEM fields.

You can’t be what you can’t see,” reads a quote by children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman displayed above the exhibit’s introductory text.

Brandie James, a junior at West Haven High School, said the paucity of information available about many of the featured women underscored the fact that women are underrepresented in STEM fields and that their impact is underappreciated. James, who researched the pioneers in medicine, enjoyed learning about the contributions of physicians like La Flesche Picotte, who opened a hospital in Walthill, Nebraska, in the Omaha Reservation that served a community of 1,300 people.

I loved learning about all of things that these women contributed to medicine,” she said. “I loved doing the research and gaining knowledge about the women in medicine. I also loved learning about the other women who had a huge impact in sciences and working with my friends in the class to create a visual component for the exhibit.”

The diorama that James and her counterparts created visualizes the experience of a woman of color at medical schools, which are often dominated by white men. The scene portrays a solitary female figure seated at desk in a science classroom surrounded by white students and teacher.

DeBlasio said she appreciated the challenge of condensing the women’s biographies into concise and easily digestible summaries.

We had to learn how to shorten sentences and eliminate details while still conveying a strong and accurate message to the reader,” she said. “I also learned that when making a museum exhibit, it is important to consider audiences of all ages and backgrounds. We had to anticipate everyone that would see our exhibit and make sure they would understand and enjoy it.”

While celebrating the historic role of in STEM fields, the exhibit also pays homage to women currently working in science, technology, engineering, and medicine. A silhouette of “Fearless Girl” — the bronze sculpture by Kristen Visbal of a defiant young girl with hands on hips that caused a sensation in 2017 when it was installed in front of the “Charging Bull” statue near Wall Street in Lower Manhattan — is on display, covered by a collage of women working in STEM today. The image greets visitors as they enter the exhibit. A label identifies each woman pictured in the collage.

We wanted to find a cool way to shine a spotlight on women who are working in these fields in the present day,” Ladson said.  “The idea is that visitors can look up these women at home and learn more about their work.”  

The exhibit, which opened in May, will be on view through April 2019. 

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548