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Public art illustrates women at work in science and math

STANFORD -- What image pops to mind when you hear the phrase "woman scientist"? It's probably not exciting or glamorous.

According to Dusa McDuff, an eminent mathematician at the State University of New York-Stony Brook, the visual images of scientists, in general, and women scientists, in particular, not only are very badly done, but are dull, dull, dull.

"The collections of gray photographs of eminent scientists, mostly male, that line the walls in many of the universities around the country simply don't capture the essence and excitement of the field," McDuff objects.

That is why she is actively encouraging an innovative public art project that Pamela Davis, artist-in-residence at the University of California-Los Angeles is pursuing at Stanford. Working with a small grant from the Sloan Foundation, Davis intends to produce a large number of multimedia images of women scientists and mathematicians. If her plans come to fruition, a year from now the campus will be decorated with a series of posters bearing her pictures. They will range in size and be selected to fit into each location, she says.

"This is an example of art in a utilitarian mode," Davis said. "It is designed to address the problem of attracting and retaining women in the sciences by creating images of women that show what their lives and work as scientists is like. It will challenge society's stereotypes in a novel, honest manner using input from the scientific community itself."

The fine art project is a starting point, says Margaret Symington, a graduate student in mathematics who is one of a group of women students on campus who are collaborating with the artist. "If it expands, it could be extremely powerful. There are a lot of reasons why people do or don't go into a particular field. The images in the media indoctrinate women against careers in science. So the idea is to fight images with images," she said.

The artist was attracted to Stanford by the fact that nearly one in four graduates in mathematics are women, compared to about one in 10 that is a more typical ratio for the sciences. "Stanford has been making a real effort and has produced a number of very good women graduate students in mathematics in the last few years. Now they have to do something about getting more women on the faculty, but I know they are trying," McDuff said.

"It is very important for us, as professors, to encourage more women to go into physics. And art that illustrates the nature of physics and makes physicists less alienating to people can be quite helpful," said Shoucheng Zhang, a physics professor who also is supporting the project.

According to Davis, a lot of resources are currently being invested around the country in getting young girls interested in science careers. She conceives of her effort as a complementary one that will address some of the attitudinal issues that tend to discourage qualified women from continuing with these subjects when they reach the university. "Studies have shown that the notion of fitting in is an important factor in how students, particularly women, choose majors," Davis said.

The fine art images that Davis creates will be stored electronically, so they can be easily disseminated through desktop publishing in a variety of forms and sizes at low cost. This will allow the images to be adapted for different locations.

The artist is looking for people who would like to be involved, who have ideas for images, who are willing to help with logistics, and who have equipment or facilities that can be helpful in producing the computer-generated images. To participate, call Margaret Symington at 324-2141 or email her at margaret@cauchy.

"The visual images that people have make a lot of difference. Images can change the way people think about things. That is why this project is important," McDuff said.



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