One of my daughters is head-over-heels crazy about science. Honestly, this kid reads physics dictionaries for fun. Believe me, that’s a passion I am always looking to fan. However, finding female role models in STEM isn’t always easy. So when I learned that Rachel Ignotofsky had a book coming out that celebrated fifty of the most fearless pioneering Women in Science, I immediately became very interested. I requested (and received) an early copy that I shared with my daughter, Elizabeth.
Not only is Women in Science beautifully illustrated, it’s filled with an incredible amount of information. Each spread is packed with factoids about a woman scientist, alongside a full page bio, detailing her story and accomplishments. Plus, there’s a timeline, glossary, statistics about women in STEM, and more — all illustrated, of course.
We were so moved by the book, we had to meet Ms. Ignotofsky. Fortunately, she’s local to us, so Elizabeth and I hopped in the car and met her to talk about her book, comics, and why it shouldn’t be a surprise that women can be beautiful actresses while also working on torpedo guidance systems …
GeekDad: Tell me about your background.
Rachel Ignotofsky: Basically, as a kid, I was really interested in science. I watched Bill Nye the Science Guy, The Magic School Bus, all that kind of stuff. When I was really little, maybe around elementary or middle school, I played with the idea of becoming a doctor, but then I realized I like this art thing WAY better. But I kept that interest in science with me as I went into art school and when I began making stuff, [I went to the subjects] I was interested in as a kid. I still think they’re important as an adult. When I was a little kid, like second or third grade, I was really, really slow at reading. I was on the slow track and it wasn’t until I started reading cartoons and comics like The Far Side and these illustrated Odyssey books and that’s what got me really wanting to learn a lot; seeing that I could approach subjects that were for the smart kids because I was a smart kid too. I just needed some more pictures — and that’s really what got me going. And as I got older and started thinking about what I wanted to do and say with my artwork … I just wanted to make stuff for all the “little me”s out there, which would be useful and change people’s perceptions and be part of a greater conversation about things I feel passionate about.
GD: You mentioned The Far Side was important to you. Are there other comics you draw from? And do you still watch cartoons?
RI: I got really into Sandman in high school and I still follow up with all that stuff – I really like it. These days, I really like Gary Baseman. When I was a kid I used to like to read these books called World’s Greatest Artists, they were biography books that had little cartoons in them about different artists throughout history and I would spend hours with those. I would watch a lot of Bill Nye the Science Guy, like obsessively, and a lot of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. That wasn’t educational, but it certainly affects my aesthetics. The Magic School Bus — I watched that and I wanted to be Ms. Frizzle when I grew up. Now I watch Adventure Time and some things on Adult Swim, just because I love cartoons.
GD: How would you describe your style? And are there any artists that influenced you?
RI: I went to the Tyler School of Art for graphic design and they taught us if you’re going to do art that it needs to say something and nothing is there to just be pretty. I just started drawing and I put the information first. My research is what drives what I do. I look at all the information, I read up about it a lot and then I start building off that, creating a composition, figuring out how I’m going to get all the words in there, and then I draw around them. I don’t really feel like there’s an artist who’s inspired my aesthetic, but the information is what really inspires it. I watch David Attenborough documentaries and I get so jazzed, I want to draw a bunch of animals. That’s kind of how it works for me. I think, for me, it’s always been about the content first.
GD: So you went to school and then what? You worked in the corporate world for a bit, right?
RI: I had a 9-to-5 job, working at Hallmark [Cards], I was making greeting cards. I would come home from my job and I would just want to do something that I was really interested in. So I started making as much as I could. I started doing this work based on human anatomy. I started making posters because I think it’s important for people to learn about the human body and know how things work. One of the big turning points for me and when I realized I was on to something and this is something I really needed to dedicate myself to, [was when] I got an email from a dad who had a daughter with cystic fibrosis and he was using this piece I did about the respiratory system to explain to his daughter why she had to use a respirator at night. She was a four year old and all the other artwork out there was scary and this [poster I did] with all the smiling faces and a happy little diaphragm pushing up the lungs explained to her why she needed a respirator to help her sleep. He wrote me and I realized I was on to something. It’s important work. It wasn’t just something I enjoyed doing for myself. It was important work for other people to use and help educate and learn. People need this – to have fun, to have this whimsical science to interact with.
I would come home at night and stay up until two in the morning, creating more and more artwork. I started selling posters in my shop, but I always wanted to make a book out of everything. It’s almost like you do small things so you can do the big project later, as opposed to just doing this big thing and no one sees it. I was building up an audience. I was exploring to see what people wanted me to draw and what I wanted to draw. For Women in Science, that came about because I have a lot of friends in education and we would talk about what’s going on right now. Statistically, girls are not going into STEM fields. They aren’t graduating and getting STEM jobs. Why are science and math seen as a boy’s club still? I thought it was just because we aren’t taught about [women in science] in school. I don’t remember being taught about anyone other than Marie Curie when I was in school. Or maybe in women’s history month you learn a little more. But after that, it’s like … it’s mostly guys you learn about.
I think that by having a bunch of strong female role models by making that information fun and cool and easy to interact with and accessible, people could start to change their minds about what they’re capable of and by pointing out women, kids can say “I want to be like you when I grow up.” I think that’s really important. So I started drawing posters for fun. The response I got was insane. I got emails from teenagers saying “I’m obsessed with Jane Goodall! Thank you so much for making a Jane Goodall t-shirt, I wear it to school and I tell everyone I’m going to work with chimpanzees when I grow up!” And I get messages from moms and dads who decorate their nurseries with my posters, so kids will grow up asking who these people are, so I can help make them a part of everyday life. So now, there’s a nursery somewhere with Rosalind Franklin and Valentina Tereshkova on the wall. That’s amazing! That kid is going to grow up and say “Oh, Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space.” Think about that, how having female role models can transform the world we live in and what we think is normal.
GD: Why do you think science has always been a passion for you?
RI: I’ve always had an interest in science and it’s one of the things I enjoy the most. I get a kick out of learning about all this stuff when I’m making it. I think there’s a huge problem with scientific literacy in this country. I believe you can catch more flies with honey. So, if I can draw something cool and fun and has information where people can learn — that’s where it is. That’s how you can get people excited, whether you’re an adult or a kid, you need to know certain things about how this world works. I want to talk about that stuff. I think everyone should think about the skill set they have and and what they can do with it to make the world a little bit better. My skill set is drawing and I thought this was a small thing I could do, to draw some cool pictures about some awesome women, and get more adults and kids talking about them.
GD: Are you still working for Hallmark?
RI: I quit my job just over a year ago. I quit because I was doing a lot of freelance and making enough from my Etsy shop that I thought “Why work for someone else?” I was making things that were fun, but not what I wanted to make and I wanted to be my own boss. I felt like I could do more good in this world being my own boss and just making the things I wanted to make. I felt like people wanted to see it and I wanted to make it and now all of my projects are self-motivated. I’m working on [Women in Science], I’m writing my next book now, and I have a few more book ideas. It’s amazing. People are begging for it, there’s a need for it. They want to be able to share with kids, this important information in a way that’s not so dense.
GD: Let’s talk about the book. There are 50 women in the book, what were your criteria for choosing the finalists?
RI: I wanted it to be a breadth of history, from ancient times to modern, so we have Hypatia all the way up to Maryam Mirzakhani, who just won the first Fields medal a woman has ever won in mathematics. That happened two years ago. I also wanted a diversity in the types of sciences these women were working in. We’ve got everything. We have marine biologists, we have astrophysicists, we have chemists, social scientists, and doctors who are helping to cure cancer. It shows that, throughout history, women have contributed so much. I can’t stress that enough – how much these women have contributed and how overwhelming it is when you are learning about it. I could have filled this book up, probably, three times over, but there are only so many pages!
GD: When you began making your edits, were there any women you really agonized over cutting out?
RI: I think Sally Ride is one of the ones I agonized about keeping out, but I felt like people, especially in this country, already knew about Sally Ride. I wanted to talk about Valentina Tereshkova and Mae Jemison, who are two other female astronauts, who have done such amazing things. Especially Mae Jemison, I wanted to talk about what she did after her flight into space. She’s started foundations and she has the 100 Year Starship program and much more — she’s still impacting the entire world, right now. The other woman I had a tough time cutting was Janaki Ammal, who was an amazing botanist who transformed sugar cane. She was one of the first women to work in the Indian government. She was born in the late 1890s, grew up in the early 20th century in India, and was a woman scientist and a woman with a career was very impactful and it was difficult to take her out, but I did end up getting both of them [Ride and Ammal] in the back of the book!
Elizabeth Banks: Of all the women, do you have one that you like the most or is a hero to you?
RI: One of my favorites is Katherine Johnson. There are two reasons she’s my favorite. One, I love her story. If you don’t know who she is, she’s an African-American woman who started working at NASA during the space race. She was a computer before there were real computers, but she worked as a secretary. Being a computer, at the time, was a man’s job and being a secretary was a woman’s job. Women weren’t allowed in any of the meetings. But she asked “Is it against the law for me to be in the meetings?” and they said “No,” so she said “I’m in this meeting now!” That started her entire career and she started calculating trajectories and launch windows and basically wrote the first textbook on space. The other reason I like that story is because, as I was writing the book, it was about to be sent to the publisher in a month’s time. I checked my email and my editor said “You need to look at the news.” Johnson had just been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom a month before the book was going to go to print, so I drew something very quickly to talk about it. So she won the Medal of Freedom for her lifetime work at NASA, where she was first seen as just a secretary to getting the highest honor you can get for your work. It shows you how amazing these women are and that they just say ” I want to do the thing that I love the most, I’m going to make you let me do it, and I don’t care what you say.” That changes the world.
GD: When I was reading the book, I was surprised to learn that Hedy Lamarr was involved in torpedo guidance systems. In your research was there anything that really blew you away?
RI: The Hedy Lamarr story is so good, especially because she is known for something else. It shows we can all be more than one thing. You can be a beautiful, glamorous actress and also be a genius scientist. You’re not limited to being one thing at a time. I think one of the most “wow” things I found out was about Mary Anning. She found an entire dinosaur skeleton at age 12. [The first complete ichthyosaur.] That was shocking to me. I was amazed that a girl who was only 12 years old could make one of the greatest discoveries in paleontology. Another one would be Sau Lan Wu, who discovered the Higgs boson. It’s amazing! You should listen to her speech that she gave at a graduation at Vassar. She talks about her entire life. Her mom was completely illiterate and worked as hard as she could to get her kids an education. She traveled from China to here on a boat with nothing. She had a little piece of cake and the clothes on her back and Vassar provided her everything — room, board, education. She made three major discoveries — after she said “I’m going to make three major discoveries” — and then she did it!
Another one, is Rita Levi-Montalcini. She was in hiding in Italy while Mussolini was in power and she was Jewish and the Holocaust was happening in tandem. In Italy, you couldn’t work in the sciences if you were Jewish. So she hid in the countryside with her parents and started doing her research in her bedroom with chicken eggs she would get from the neighbors and made her own instruments from knitting needles to dissect chicken eggs. She started doing all these experiments on embryonic chickens and that’s how she started her nerve research and how she discovered the nerve growth hormone. She said without that experience, she wouldn’t have won the Nobel prize. It’s amazing, sometimes their discoveries are not as unbelievable as how they got there. These women, despite being persecuted, or being allowed to have a job, or an education, they said “I’m still going to do this anyway.” I read about them and feel so indebted to them and want to thank them for working so hard to make our lives a little better in 2016.
GD: This is your first book, talk about the process, was writing tough for you as an illustrator?
RI: The writing was much harder than the illustrating. I’ve been drawing since age four. Drawing, for me, I’m someone who learns visually. Writing has been difficult my entire life. I was a slow reader, tested for dyslexia, but I thought it was important for me to say things the way I wanted to say them. I “braved up” and decided I was going to write the whole thing. I really took the time to research it correctly and wrote everything over and over and over again and I think I did a really good job. Now, I’m writing 500 words a day, so it shows — if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen if you put your nose to the grindstone. I just want to say to all the little kids out there — pay attention in your writing classes, they really are handy later! But the project showed me what I was capable of and it transformed me into a confident person who can articulate everything I want to say about this world.
GD: What’s up next?
RI: I’m working on another book. It’s going to come out in 2017, in September. Another “Women in … ” project, it’s very different from this one and I’m learning a lot. I only take on freelance projects I believe in these days. I work for cancer foundations, I’m working on a documentary of a Holocaust survivor, I’m working on initiatives for young girls in education. I’m at the point where I always wanted to be, where I only work on things I believe in and I really value the messages that I’m saying. This has been my dream since I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to draw books. So for now, I’m educating the world about women in science and history!
Women in Science is available beginning today from Ten Speed Press.
Disclosure: GeekDad was sent a copy of this book for review purposes.