Stanford microbiologist creates ‘resistor’ hats for the March for Science

Motivated by a love for science and a desire to encourage more evidence-based thinking, Heidi Arjes creates science-themed knitting designs. For the April 22 March for Science, she’s come up with a special project: the resistor hat.

A post by Heidi Arjes, Stanford University postdoctoral fellow, on the March for Science Facebook page has over 600 comments and more than 13,000 “Likes,” “Loves” and “Wows.” Arjes, a microbiologist in the KC Huang lab, garnered this praise for photos of a hat she made for the March for Science, inspired by the Women’s March “pussy hat.” Her teal, Fair Isle-style beanie is banded with a simple circuit diagram depicting a battery and three resistors.

It’s called the resistor hat.

“I wanted something that, on its own, could be a really good science hat that represents physics and engineering,” Arjes explained. “I also like the double-entendre with the resistor. It’s a nice, subtle message.”

She will be wearing her hat, and passing out fabric headband versions, at the San Francisco March for Science on April 22, Earth Day. This is one of over 400 satellite marches planned in coordination with the main March for Science in Washington, D.C.

Arjes has made a dozen of her March for Science-inspired designs available, including the resistor hat and others celebrating a diverse range of sciences, including computing, archaeology, renewable energy and agricultural science. Up until the march, Arjes will also make a few of her other science-themed patterns available for free. She simply asks that people who make something with the patterns use #ProjectThinkingCap – and #ResistorHat for the resistor-themed pieces – if they post on social media so she can delight in the results.

Arjes also designed fabric that even non-knitters can order and cut apart to fashion 20 resistor headbands and she is selling finished versions.

Why she marches

Arjes studies bacterial cell communities, called biofilms, to see how they might create niches for genetic diversity. Climate change denialism, vaccination opposition and apathy in the face of antibiotic resistance trouble her deeply, but she’s mostly kept out of politically charged scientific debates. Proposed cuts to scientific funding under the new administration pushed her to be more outspoken.

“Recent events have shown scientists that we need to stand up, be more vocal and do more outreach so that people learn more about science,” Arjes said. “We want to make science accessible, so people aren’t afraid of it and so they realize how valuable it is for everyday life.”

The resistor hat is a more politicized version of science-themed knitting that Arjes has been doing for years. She picked up knitting 14 years ago. In 2013, when her friend was defending his doctoral thesis, she made her first science hat: a beanie encircled with clovers, the subject of her friend’s research. His fiancée’s defense followed soon after, warranting a prairie dog hat.

To celebrate the achievements of other scientist friends, Arjes knit hats featuring a neuron, sperm, birds, bacteriophages and red-eared slider turtles, to name just a few. She’s covered several model organisms, including drosophila, bees and mice – she has a C. elegans design that hasn’t made it to hat-form yet – and celebrated her first time as a first author with some bacterial cell cycle fingerless gloves.

Whenever she knits a friend’s PhD, she also takes the time to write about their work on Craftimism. As she’s experienced first-hand, her cozy take on science is also an opportunity to connect with non-scientists.

“When I try to explain my research to my mom, she cares but it doesn’t always lead to much of a conversation,” Arjes said. “Then I make a knit hat and she’ll say, ‘Oh, I saw you made a uterus hat. That’s really cute!’ And we talk about my friend’s research on the contraction of uterine muscles during birth and delivery.”

The march has substantially ramped up Arjes’ involvement in both knitting and science advocacy. She’s knitting as fast as she can in order to fill custom orders for the march, including a hat rimmed with silhouettes of vases for an archaeologist and a farm scene (complete with tractor, silo and barn) for an agricultural scientist.

She and two other postdoctoral researchers at other institutions are co-organizers of Project Thinking Cap (#projectthinkingcap), which has knitting and sewing patterns for people who want to make their own March for Science swag. They are also gathering donated hats to hand out at the D.C. march, where Arjes hopes to send about half of her own creations. The same trio of post-docs also runs the March for Science – Official Knitting and Crafting group on Facebook.

Why she knits

Knitting is more than just a hobby for Arjes. It’s rewarding, productive and restorative. People who see her stitching away during a presentation at a conference may think she’s distracted but she says knitting actually keeps her more present in the moment. Her craft has also been a refuge from emotionally draining news binges.

“There was a time when I would go on Facebook at night and read one bad thing after the other. It was so disappointing,” said Arjes. “Now, I’ll do an hour of knitting instead and fall asleep with a more positive outlook. Then I can get up in the morning and tackle everything.”

Research has suggested that knitting and crocheting could have health benefits. Arjes hasn’t had a chance to examine the primary sources herself but, anecdotally, she believes it – while still encouraging others to check the science for themselves.

Her favorite part of knitting is designing patterns because she enjoys creative expression and seeing her vision grow piece by piece. This process has helped her mature as a researcher as well. Arjes has learned coding during her post-doc and her confidence in her ability to master this skill was boosted by an article posted in the March for Science knitting group, which explained how reading and writing knitting patterns is analogous to basic coding. Although not yet ready to take this on herself, Arjes said she would love to see an enterprising coder teach a coding class for knitters.

Whether or not others join her in openly advocating for science, Arjes urges everyone to consider and embrace its inherent value.

“To the best of our abilities, we should base what we feel on actual evidence that’s out there and not just something that somebody tells us or that someone shares on the internet,” Arjes said. “When you hear a fact, go back and look at the original source. Know who did what and why their work supports their conclusions.”

Media Contacts

Taylor Kubota, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-7707, tkubota@stanford.edu