Web application shares ‘Science Stories’ of pioneering women at Yale
Zoologist Katharine Jeannette Bush published a scholarly article in 1899 “based on a small, but very interesting, collection of gastropods belonging to the genus Turbonilla” that a “Mr. Pilsbry” had loaned to her for study.
Bush, a protégé of the renowned zoologist Addison E. Verrill at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, explained that most of the specimens — Turbonilla is a genus of sea snails — had been previously identified as belonging to known species, but a careful comparison of them against the existing literature showed that “these names were incorrectly applied.”
“Most of the species are now described and figured as new,” Bush wrote in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
In 1901, Bush earned a Ph.D. in the sciences at Yale. She was 45 years old and had spent more than 20 years as Verrill’s assistant.
Bush is one of five pioneering scientists currently featured on Science Stories, a linked-data, image-based web application highlighting the careers and achievements of women in STEM fields. Her article on the Turbonilla specimens is one of seven of her scholarly publications that visitors to Science Stories can access.
Her story is presented alongside those of computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper ’30 M.A. ’34 Ph.D., a pioneer in computer programming and U.S. Navy rear admiral; research astronomer Dorrit Hoffleit, author of the most recent edition of the “Bright Star Catalogue,” a compilation of data on the 9,110 brightest stars in the sky; molecular biologist Maxine Singer ’57 Ph.D., whose work contributed to solving the genetic code; and epidemiologist, virologist, and pediatrician Dorothy Horstmann, the first woman appointed a professor at the Yale School of Medicine.
Science Stories was conceived by Katherine Thornton, a Council on Library and Information Resources postdoctoral fellow with joint appointments in the Department of Computer Science and the Yale Library’s Digital Preservation Department, who envisioned the application as a way to honor the 50th anniversary of coeducation at Yale, which will be celebrated in 2019.
“It struck me that one way to celebrate the milestone is to look back at the women who performed scientific research on campus prior to 1969, as their work and achievements helped paved the way for coeducation,” she said.
Thornton partnered with Kenneth Seals-Nutt ’18 B.S., a computer science major who built the application as his senior project.
“When Kat presented this idea to me, it really hit home because I think it’s very easy to overlook a lot of people’s stories, and I thought it’d be cool if I could build something that draws attention to the lives and contributions of women scientists,” said Seals-Nutt, who added that the project reminded him of “Hidden Figures,” the Oscar-nominated 2017 film about three African American women who were NASA mathematicians — Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson — whose work was crucial to the early stages of the space program.
Thornton and Seals-Nutt began building Science Stories in the fall of 2017 as a means to showcase women who performed scientific research at Yale before coeducation, but the application has since evolved into a platform for sharing stories about women at Yale and other institutions who made significant contributions to STEM fields. As of this writing, visitors can browse stories of 548 women going back several centuries.
Like a storybook
The stories presented on Science Stories are created from digitized collection materials housed at Yale, and at libraries and museums in the United States and overseas. Building a story involves taking the material’s metadata — a variety of background information about the digitized object — and using it to create a visually compelling narrative about a scientist composed of digital images of archival photographs, notes, correspondence, publications, scientific specimens, and other materials.
“What we’re doing is taking metadata from different collections, and making it interoperable by transforming it into linked open data,” Thornton said. “We’re using that metadata to support the images related to these women or their publications, or in the case of certain scientists, like Katharine Jeannette Bush, the biological specimens that they collected and used in their research.”
The stories are organized into a scrolling format. Each page presents a new aspect of the scientist’s career, whether it is a photo from their college days, portraits of people influential to their career, or images of their handwritten notes or calculations.
“It is meant to work like a storybook,” said Seal-Nutt, now a software engineer at Pandora, the music-streaming company. “People can navigate from page to page, walking through the person’s life and accomplishments.”
The featured stories have several common elements. All of them include a timeline of significant events in the subject’s career, a map marking places of special importance to their lives, pages identifying where they were educated and their mentors or collaborators, a library of their published research, and Wikipedia articles about them.
Videos often complement the digital images. Hopper’s story provides video of a lecture she gave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hoffleit’s and Singer’s stories feature video of them reflecting on their careers, while Horstmann’s opens with a video created in her honor for the 2010 bicentennial of the Yale School of Medicine.
The images presented in the stories are dynamic. Visitors can zoom in on them, rotate them, and change the contrast and brightness. Photographs can be annotated to provide viewers information not apparent from a close look, such as the identity of individuals pictured alongside the featured scientist.
Visitors can access a given image’s metadata for additional information, including a pathway back to the repository where a featured photograph, manuscript, or specimen is housed. For example, someone exploring Hopper’s story can call up the metadata of a photograph of the computer scientist in her military uniform standing in front of computing hardware and learn that the portrait was taken by Lynn Gilbert in 1978 and is held at the National Portrait Gallery. The metadata also includes a brief biography of Hopper taken from an exhibition label and the photograph’s object number.
Making information easier to share
Science Stories is part of an international movement to make digital images of collection material from museums, libraries, and other repositories more accessible to scholars and the public, Thornton said.
The application’s web interface has been designed in accordance with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), which sets universal standards for describing and presenting digital images. Thornton and Seals-Nutt decided to adopt IIIF for Science Stories after learning about the Yale Center for British Art’s (YCBA) pioneering use of the framework to make tens of thousands of images of its collections available online. The application pulls digital materials from individual repositories and presents them together in a single interface, making it more easily available to a greater number of people, Thornton said.
The metadata behind each element of a story is transformed into linked open data, which is published and organized on Wikidata — the free and open online data warehouse — creating an index with links to the institution that houses the source material for every image presented in the stories.
“It provides an opportunity for people who don’t have a research degree or any specializations to access interesting information about a pioneering scientist,” said Seals-Nutt. “If we can make it really easy to share this information, it will make it easy to tell these important and inspiring stories.”
Seals-Nutt said the project exposed him to the depth and breadth of Yale’s collections.
“I’ve enjoyed learning about all of these amazing resources on campus that I’ve walked past for the last four years and finally took some time to explore,” he said. “It’s been cool telling my friends about the interesting things we’ve found in the archives.”
Thornton said she was fascinated by certain relationships behind the stories. For example, Bush’s brother-in-law, Wesley Roswell Coe, was a zoologist on the Yale faculty and a curator at the Peabody Museum. Coe was a member of railroad magnate Edward Harriman’s famed maritime expedition to Alaska in 1899. He came back with a number of marine bristle worm specimens, which were of great interest to Bush. She published an influential 1905 monograph naming various sea worm species Coe had collected. (Visitors to Science Stories can access the monograph.)
“It’s fascinating that this family relationship is part of the fabric of the Peabody,” Thornton said. “Was Coe specifically collecting for Katherine’s interests? Some day we’ll turn up a diary by a member of the Harriman Alaska expedition and if it is digitized some day, we can add it to her story.”
Thornton and Seals-Nutt were assisted by Benedict Brown, a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science; Holly Rushmeier, professor of computer science; Susan Gibbons, the Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian and deputy provost for collections and scholarly communication; Euan Cochrane, digital preservation manager at Yale University Library; Alison Clemens, assistant head of arrangement and description for Yale Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department; Christine Weideman, director of the Manuscripts and Archives Department; Michael Appleby, director of software engineering at the Yale Library; Emmanuelle Delmas-Glass, collections data manager at the YCBA; Lawrence Gall, head of computer systems at the Peabody Museum; Tim White, director of collections and research at the Peabody Museum; the staff of the Yale’s Digital Humanities Lab; and the Yale Women Faculty Forum.