500 Women Scientists: Returning to Facts Over FictionFeatured

The Frustration in the Scientific CommunityActivism is the assertive actions a person or group of people takes to bring about political and social change. Unsurprisingly, this has been on the rise from many communities since the 2016 election, particularly among women. More and more, we see people in high paying, highly skilled positions take on roles as volunteer activists. Some are motivated by what they see as injustice toward women, and some by the degradation of belief in facts and science over fiction.500 Women Scientists has taken this to the next level by using the hopelessness created by injustice and misinformation to bring together an organization of female scientists that are taking things in their own hands. I had the opportunity to speak with Francesca Bernardi (@francescab) and Liz McCullagh (@lizlanger), both of whom are on the leadership team at 500 Women Scientists. They spoke in detail about the organization’s belief in bite size accomplishments leading to big change.Setting Big Goals500 Women Scientists was founded by Kelly Ramirez, a microbial ecologist, and Jane Zelikova, an ecosystem scientist, in 2016. Immediately following the election that year, the two wrote an open letter “reaffirming [their] commitment to speak up for science and for women, minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA.” They set the lofty goal of getting signatures from 500 women scientists and ended up reaching it within hours of publishing the letter - activism at it’s finest. Francesca joined the organization after finishing her PhD in Mathematics and becoming a postdoc. “I was looking for an outreach opportunity and reached out to Jane and Kelly. I asked to join and ever since then, I've been working on partnerships,” she says. Liz had a more personal connection with her friend, Jane, and learned about 500 women scientists through social media. She is a neuroscientist by training and has always been interested in ways to support women in STEM and Jane’s organization seemed like a great opportunity. Along with being a local coordinator, Liz has been working on a new platform. “We developed this platform called Request a Woman Scientist, where you can go and search women in various disciplines across STEMM. It is a good resource to find women of various expertise to diversify.”Both were inspired by the organization’s mission of serving society by making science open, inclusive, and accessible. Building Small ProcessesWhat is particularly unique about 500 Women Scientists is their approach to achieving their big goals. They believe that real change comes from, “small groups, not large crowds,” and do so through their Local Pods. According to their website, “Local Pods are where members meet regularly, develop a support network, make strategic plans, and take action. Pods focus on issues that resonate in their communities, rooted in our mission and values.” Liz is a pod coordinator herself, for example, and says that her group focuses particularly on outreach for middle school girls who may be interested in STEM. “We partnered with an Expanding Your Horizons conference, which is a hands on, one day workshop where girls come and get to work with scientists to do hands-on projects and build things to learn about STEM throughout the day,” Liz says.Changing and developing the way people think about women in STEM is a topic that requires personalized attention and patiences. National campaigns and press are not always able to reach niche groups and they don’t always address their unique issues. This allows for facts to become distorted as information passes from channel to channel. With pods, 500 Women Scientists is able to address these problems at their roots and plug communication leaks right away. “The more we interact with our local communities, the more our local communities can identify women and underrepresented minorities as people who are considered scientists,” says Liz.What We Can DoFrancesca and Liz provided some really interesting and unique thoughts on their own learnings and advice for women in STEM. The first was concerning what they learned about inclusion in the efforts with 500 Women Scientists. Liz mentioned that the most important thing she learned was to be open to learning more. “I think that the more you acknowledge how much you don't know, the better understanding of things you get and the more you can learn. There's always going to be an area in which you have something to learn,” she says.Francesca added, “I think this has given me a very substantial opportunity to talk to people in different situations from all kinds of backgrounds that care about different things because of who they are, and where they live, and where they were raised, and what their field is. Which, otherwise, would have been a lot more difficult to come around.”This further applies to the organizations approach that small groups can make the biggest changes, not large crowds. The easiest way for people to slip through the cracks (in terms of information, influence, or simply political attention) is to generalize them into groups in which they don’t fully fit. The local pods that 500 Women Scientists uses reduces this problem by creating groups using nuances like age, upbringing, etc. to provide the best resources.Francesca also mentioned that it is important to acknowledge the difference between diversity and inclusion. Hiring people from diverse backgrounds into roles in which they may not usually be welcome is not the same as truly making sure they are included. It is important to consider respect and cultural development beyond just recruitment. Both Francesca and Liz advised that it is important to do something about frustration in order to calm it. Whether it is in the wake of the most recent elections or just a part of being a woman in the workforce, frustration about a lack of respect, opportunity, and recognition is widespread. Taking on the role of an activist, no matter the issue, can be a therapeutic experience.-Francesca is a Dean's Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Mathematics at Florida State University. Her research focuses on improving wastewater filtering systems. She is from Italy and moved to the U.S. in 2013 to enroll in the Ph.D. program in Applied Mathematics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While at Chapel Hill, she also received a Graduate Certificate in Women's and Gender Studies focusing on women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. She joined the leadership of 500 Women Scientists in 2018. She is the co-founder of Girls Talk Math, a free Math and media camp for female and gender non-conforming high school students hosted at UNC Chapel Hill, at the University of Maryland at College Park, and at UCLA. Find out more about Francesca at or follow her on Twitter @fra_berni.Liz is an auditory neuroscientist and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at The University of Colorado Anschutz. She is soon to be an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University where she is interested in exploring how animals and humans use the brain to find the source of auditory information in their environment. She is on the leadership team for 500 Women Scientists where she helped create the "Request a Woman Scientist Platform". She also advocates for parents in STEM fields through #SciMomJourney and a lactation support group called "Milk and Cookies" that she cofounded on her campus. Lastly, she supports young girls in STEM by running Expanding your Horizons conferences. Check out her website for more information and follow her on Twitter @ZaarlyLiz.
Thanks so much for sharing this with us! I love how the idea of pods was based on whale pods, and I’m so impressed with how many pods there are around the world. I just joined the SF Bay Area pod and am excited to see what comes next!
This is amazing.