In Depth

If She Can See It, She Can Be It – Promoting the Next Generation of Scientists

If you were wandering around the museums of Washington D.C. during March, you may have seen a number of bright orange statues. These statues belong to the #IfThenSheCan exhibit (short for “if she can see it, she can be it”).

Of all of the statues of historical figures in the U.S. only 7% are female. For example, out of 150 statues in New York city, there are only 5 statues of women. This lack of female representation was the inspiration behind this exhibition. The concept was to produce authentic and relatable images of women in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields to highlight successful female role models for young girls, and to open their eyes to possible careers in STEM fields.

The idea for the exhibit was the brain-child of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, (who partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to select a cohort of female role models from across the STEM fields, to help inspire middle school girls via the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors program.  These role models then became models for the statues. Total 120 life-sized, 3D printed statues were put on display in Smithsonian Institution museums.

One such role model is Dr. Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins. Dr. Jenkins’ Ph.D. research was on ways to reduce the accidental capture and entanglement of sea turtles and dolphins in fishing nets, for which she was awarded an NSF graduate Fellowship. In fact, she was first African American woman to get a Ph.D. in marine science from Duke University. However, she was also passionate about using art to help inspire about science, and with the help of a minor in dance, she entered the AAAS “Dance Your Ph.D.” competition winning second place. Through this, Dr. Jenkins realized how powerful participatory practices such as dancing can be for science engagement and science communication. By participating in the If Then She Can exhibit she was able to use another medium of art and to engage and inspire others about science.

Dr. Jenkins is currently an associate professor at Arizona State University in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, where she still works on marine conservation and conservation technology, as well as the human side of ocean conservation issues. One of her recent projects investigated reducing waste in the seafood supply chain — not only the waste of by-caught marine species, but also water and fuel used to capture, produce and ship fish to U.S. markets. She is also embarking on a project investigating modern-day slavery and human abuses in fisheries and how electronic monitoring might be used combat this serious issue. 

But she’s also looking into the role of science dance in social change.

Her statue was in the Sant Ocean Hall of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, which for her was particularly special, as the Natural History Musuem was a location that she had loved as a child: “I loved it because there was so much information, layer upon layer, I felt I could visit every day and still learn something, and the idea that my statue was in that place that was so pivotal for my career as a scientist, it was unbelievable.”

It was while she was taking a photograph of herself and her family with her statue that she really got to see the impact of these exhibits.

“While I was standing there with the statue, taking a picture of it with my dad, some people came up to me, a black family, and they asked “Is that you? It looks like you?” and I said “yes, it’s me” and they suddenly crowded around me, they were so excited for me, even though I didn’t know them at all. Then they asked “are there other black scientists … black women scientists in the museum?” I think that this is the point of the exhibit. Not just that they saw an orange statue, but they saw me, a black woman, in this museum, - they made that connection and got excited about it!”

Dr. Jenkins was inspired by her childhood visits to the Smithsonian, it’s her hope that perhaps other young girls visiting the museum, will not only be inspired by the fabulous exhibits of ocean life, but will see her statue - a Black woman who is engaged in meaningful marine science - and will think “if she can be a marine scientist, then so can I!”

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