What's to Come
- How I found the ladies of Harvard College Observatory
- Source materials: secondary versus primary
- Brainstorming your topics
- The Proposal Project
It all started with a photo, shared on Facebook
Margaret Hamilton wrote the code that allowed astronauts to safely land on the moon and take off again. Image Credit: Wiki Commons
As curator for my publication's social media, I look at what posts people engage with and then go looking for more. The summer before I was meant to start my thesis (on another topic!) I posted a story about Margaret Hamilton and it received more likes and shares than anything I'd ever posted before.
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was the first woman to earn a PhD in computer science. Image Credit: Wiki Commons
Then I posted a story about Mary Kenneth Keller, a Catholic nun and computer scientist. While at Dartmouth, "Dartmouth relaxed the rule barring women from its computer center, which allowed Keller to help develop the computer language BASIC. (Before BASIC, only mathematicians and scientists could write custom software; BASIC allowed anyone who could learn the language to do so, making computer use accessible to a much larger swath of the population.)" This story also captured attention and I realized something important: people want to read about the accomplishments of women in STEM fields.
I also realized that conversations about pulling women and young girls into STEM fields today ignored the epic work women have already done. The fact that I kept tripping over stories of women from science history served, in my mind, to counter the narrative that women today had to break into a world they'd never really been a part of. So, I started looking for a central figure around which to build my work. I found Cecilia Payne and the wonderful Harvard Computers.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) was the first woman to earn a PhD in astronomy from Harvard University. Her dissertation, to this day, is considered to be one of the most important works in astronomy, but few people know who she is. Image Credit: Wiki Commons
Many today credit Cecilia with discovering the composition of the stars. That may or may not be the case as there were so many noteworthy astronomers working on this question. The nature of science and research is one of cumulative efforts and incremental progress. And while the head of Princeton's observatory and famous astronomer Henry Norris Russell received the credit for this discovery at the time, he was a big fan of Cecilia’s work. When asked who should be groomed as his replacement at Princeton, Russell replied that the ideal replacement “alas, is a woman!, -- not at present on our staff.”
How did I get started?
- Preliminary (and somewhat superficial) research: I read every article I could find in the popular press. I visited all the astronomy websites and used Google as my guide in the early stages.
- I looked for books (there weren't many) and started trying to understand the topic.
- I read Cecilia's autobiography, and then I reread it and read it again.
- I visited the local science museum and talked to an astronomer to get a feel for what I needed to learn to write intelligently about a topic that is incredibly complex (and I barely understand).