The Poster Project: Artist Takes On Scientists' Bad Rep

July 31, 2003

Wavelets are among the research areas featured on the 36 posters created by Pamela Kivelson Davis for "The Poster Project: Visualizing Women in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering." "Research is a process that involves collaboration," Kivelson Davis says of her goals for the project. "We thought that was very important because a lot of young women say they wanted to leave science because . . . their perception was that they would become isolated."
Katherine Socha

Quick-draw a mathematician! Chances are, if the artist is a 12-year old child, the drawing will be neither complimentary nor accurate. And this phenomenon is not new.

On January 3, 2001, the BBC News Online Service reported on a study conducted by Plymouth University (U.K.) that documented the poor image of mathematicians among children. One child went so far as to specify that "mathematicians have no friends, except other mathematicians, they're not married or seeing anyone, usually fat, very unstylish . . . no social life whatsoever. . . ."

It isn't only mathematicians who have a bad reputation among school kids: Other scientists and their disciplines come in for their share of negative stereotypes.

On January 12, 2003, The New York Times reported that computer science is very unpopular among girls: "Tech-minded teachers worry that programming is to this generation what math was to their mothers-a boys' club preventing girls from getting a foothold in the technological world." Computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University even have a name for this problem: the "Dave-to-Girl" ratio. As reported in the Times (May 22, 2003), innovative outreach and recruiting programs at CMU improved female enrollment to a remarkable high of 40% in the fall of 2000; today, however, the percentage of female undergraduate computer science students at CMU is slipping, with women making up approximately 32% of the class that will enter in the fall of 2003.

Pamela Davis Kivelson, artist-in-residence at the Stanford Humanities Laboratory (and former artistic director of the UCLA Science and Art Center), hopes to change all that by "humanizing the images of science and the scientist." With support and encouragement from mathematicians Dusa McDuff and Anthony Phillips (both of SUNY Stony Brook) and Karen Uhlenbeck (of the University of Texas at Austin), Davis Kivelson has created "The Poster Project: Visualizing Women in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering." This series of 36 vibrant posters features images of women scientists and of natural patterns, enticing viewers to see scientists and science everywhere. Davis Kivelson hopes the visibility of this project will improve science literacy and encourage more women and girls to pursue scientific careers.

"The primary goal of this project," she wrote on the Web site (, "is to change the intellectual and emotional climate surrounding the idea of scientific research in order to increase the number of women and girls who choose to pursue careers related to the physical sciences and mathematics, and to retain, at the high school and university level and beyond, women who have already chosen such careers." In a telephone interview, Davis Kivelson elaborated on what she hoped to achieve with the posters:

"One of the problems with becoming a scientist for young women and girls is that they imagine it's an ivory tower, isolated life, cut off from people. One of the objectives of the posters was to prove (as in the poster titled "Time and the Number Theorist") that proofs get made through conversation and through interaction with the community. . . . Research is a process that involves collaboration. . . . We thought that was very important because a lot of young women say they wanted to leave science because . . . their perception was that they would become isolated."

Twenty-seven of the posters picture scientists at various career stages. Among them are mathematician Uhlenbeck, UCLA astrophysicist Margaret Galland Kivelson (the artist's mother-in-law), biologist Rosalind Franklin (d. 1958), UCSD cognitive scientist Nili Mandelblit, Caltech computer science then-graduate student Eve Schooler (who received a PhD in 2002), and East Carolina University archeologist Elpida Hadjidaki. The remaining nine posters feature natural images related by text to scientific concepts; for example, colorful photographs of opals and butterfly wings are paired with a brief discussion of diffraction.

Among the many who have had a positive response to the posters is Bettye Anne Case, director of the Financial Mathematics and Actuarial Science program at Florida State University. "That women from the bench sciences and women from theoretical mathematics are all represented, and sometimes overlap, seems to mirror the direction that science is moving---away from tiny pigeonholes and toward shared larger ideas," she says.

The Texas Memorial Museum of Science and History (TMMSH) in Austin, Texas, featured the posters in a 2001 exhibit celebrating the accomplishments of women in science. Brent Lyles, director of public programs at TMMSH during the exhibit, explained that "the scope of the project was to present, in a finite number of posters, as broad a spectrum as possible of working scientists, with a focus on women. The presentation's purpose was to convey their work, and then through the photos, to portray a little bit of their personalities as well." TMMSH director Edward Theriot agreed: "I only wish it could have been up longer and that we could have used it as a centerpiece for telling other personal stories about scientists as people. I think that the exhibit was wonderfully diverse in its stories and was a great mechanism for personalizing science. Each poster focused on the scientist as a person and on their own goals in science and life."

The Poster Project, Lyles said, "benefitted the museum by allowing us to reach out to our audience . . . in new ways. . . . We accompanied the display with (1) a story or two about successful women scientists who have been affiliated with this museum and community, (2) hands-on materials, and (3) public programming that brought in prominent women scientists from the Univer-sity of Texas community to speak to the public about their lives and work."

The vividly colored posters combine in collage style photographs of the featured scientist, images related to her research and her life, and text that describes her areas of research. Margaret Kivelson's poster, for example, sets photographs of the scientist at different ages, from early childhood to the present day, like a constellation against a background of the Aurora Borealis; the colorful Northern Lights evoke Kivelson's research interests in the study of planetary magnetospheres.

The text descriptions, often contributed by colleagues of the featured scientists, are similarly imaginative. Daniel Freed of the University of Texas at Austin draws viewers into the poster "Mathematics: The Equations of Nature" with a series of questions: "Throw a ball in the air---where does it go? Put a pot on the stove---how does the heat spread? Blow a soap bubble---what shape will it take?" These questions naturally lead to a discussion of partial differential equations and geometric techniques, research areas of his colleague Karen Uhlenbeck.

Text on several posters also addresses life as a scientist. Jean Taylor of Rutgers offers advice to young mathematicians: "One of the most important abilities anyone can bring to mathematics is a willingness to question authority. . . . Mathematicians who make big strides do not accept received wisdom and the usual modes of thought. Instead they ask themselves, What if you look at it this way?" Related posters include "Mentoring," "Collaboration in Science," and "Families in Science."

The posters have been displayed at many locations, including the 2002 JDG Conference on Geometry and Topology held at Harvard University. Dozens of academic institutions, from Aalborg University to the University of Wyoming, have ordered posters. A recent important exhibit was at the National Science Foundation, under the Art of Science program, where Pamela Davis Kivelson gave an invited talk.

The PDK Poster Project can be accessed on the Web at Along with ordering information, the site provides links to resources for teachers, including biographies of many of the featured women scientists, and a link ( to other of Davis Kivelson's projects. For one especially interesting project, titled "Frustration and Curvature: The Orange Peel Carpet," the poster "What is Scientific Truth?" (showing a "carpet" made of curved orange peel) inspired the creation of a sculpture called "The Frustrated Icosahedron" (see The UCLA Chemistry Department will display the final version of the sculpture this fall. Meanwhile, Davis Kivelson hopes to find hosts for a 30-foot-long, two-dimensional image of the "Frustrated Icosahedron" that can be exhibited on the side of a building (dimensions can be scaled to the available building).

In another project, conceived as an outgrowth of the Poster Project portraits, Davis Kivelson is working with computer scientist Steve Zucker of Yale University to "visualize some of the possible connections between art and facial expression and recognition." Initial progress can be viewed at

In 2004, Davis Kivelson will begin work at the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning as director of the Arts, Perceptual Science, and Technology Program. "A principal objective of this position," she says, "will be to induce SCIL's various constituents to visualize and conceptualize knowledge in new ways and to use these innovative characterizations in the development of new approaches to learning." Also next year, Davis Kivelson will begin a formal affiliation with the American Institute of Mathematics, in Palo Alto; with AIM staff, she will develop an archive of images of women in mathematics and will seek funding for a plan to distribute the posters to grade school teachers at no cost. One of AIM's top priorities is to increase the number of women in mathematics, and in support of that goal AIM will become the host of the PDK Poster Project Web site.

Davis Kivelson developed the Poster Project with financial support from the National Science Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, and Allied Signal Corporation. Karen Uhlenbeck has also provided support, both personal and financial. Uhlenbeck used her contacts in the scientific community to publicize the Poster Project, and she provided funding for several displays of the posters, including at the January 2001 Joint Mathematics Meetings held in New Orleans.

It is crucial to change the image of science, making it relevant to the general public, Uhlenbeck pointed out in a 2001 interview. However, she added, "there are only a few ways to tackle this issue. The Sloan Foundation has a program supporting outreach: They supported the Broadway play Proof. There are . . . few books that genuinely explore the role of scientists." This lack of attractive images of science and scientists may partially be filled by works such as the Poster Project, Uhlenbeck suggested. When asked where she would like to see the posters displayed, she responded, "Everywhere! Airports . . . all over. It's popular imagery---it gives a different idea of scientists."

Uhlenbeck agrees with Davis Kivelson about the importance of discussions of the place of scientists, particularly women scientists, in society and about the isolation that many women scientists experience. Davis Kivelson, quoted on the Poster Project biographies Web site, said, "I think it's incredibly important to respond to these real issues through visual thinking, giving women the opportunity to represent their lives over time. Even a static image like a poster permits other women to have a more concrete sense of what it is like to have a life in research, or in a lab."

Pamela Davis Kivelson can be contacted at Some of her work can be viewed at the gallery Universal Concepts Unlimited in New York City and will also be included in the "Crowds" exhibition, slated to open at the end of 2005 and sponsored in part by the Stanford Humanities Laboratory. See for further information about this project.

Katherine Socha, an assistant professor of mathematics at Michigan State University, received a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in 2002. She was the co-author, with Barry Cipra, of "Mathematics and the Ocean," the theme essay for national Mathematics Awareness Month 2001.

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