When Jessica Wade was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive the prestigious British Empire Medal, she stood out for being a young woman honored for her contributions to science.
Ironically, she was being honored for trying to change that.
Wade, 33, physicist based in London, has become something of a phenomenon herself in her very personal campaign to bring more girls to study and work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Wade has written more than 1,600 Wikipedia entries about long-ignored female scientists, and she has firm beliefs about how to support girls interested in the field.
Wade gained notice in her 20s when she began writing the Wikipedia biographies about female and minority scientists who never got their due — from employers, from other scientists, from the public.
As her Wikipedia entries climbed into the dozens and then into the hundreds, she spoke and wrote more about gender equality in science. She won awards and medals and was cited by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.
However, not all of Wiki-world was happy with her. Several of her entries were deleted by other Wikimedians, as the most influential contributors and editors are called. She told TODAY.com that they said a handful of the women she wrote up were not all that well-known.
Wade says that’s the problem.
One example was Clarice Phelps. Wade heard about the young African American nuclear chemist and wrote a Wikipedia bio describing her work on a team that discovered a new periodic table element at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
The Phelps entry bounced on and off Wikipedia as critics deleted it and Wade defended it. Wade won in the end, and Phelps’ entry is back on Wikipedia for good.
Meanwhile, Wade’s own Wikipedia entry — written by others — has grown to 10 printed pages.
As Wade pursues her effort to make sure female scientists are known, she also has beliefs about how to make sure the next generation gets the support it needs.
She said girls don’t need “whiz-bang” experiments at school assemblies: Visiting scientists do their show, pack up, depart and nothing changes. Instead, girls and students of color need to be coached and mentored about what to study and when.
“People assume girls don’t choose science because they’re not inspired,” Wade said in a recent interview. “Girls are already interested. It’s more about making students aware of the different careers in science and getting parents and teachers on board.”
Women make up only 28% of the U.S. workforce in STEM, according to the American Association of University Women, and only 1 in 5 current engineering or computer science majors are women. Women in STEM earn $60,000 a year, compared to $85,000 for men, the nonprofit group says.
“Ultimately, we don’t only need to increase the number of girls choosing science. We need to increase the proportion of women who stay in science,” said Wade, whose doctoral research at Imperial College London has been widely cited for advances in digital display technology for TV, computer and phone screens.
One key, she said, is better high school science teachers.
“We’re suffering a huge shortage of skills-specialist science teachers across the U.S. and the U.K.,” she said.
Wade said schools should make it easier for girls and students of color to apply for admissions, grants, fellowships and promotions.
She believes schools need to be upfront about their policies on bullying and sexual harassment, that universities must provide affordable child care on campus and that conference organizers should provide day care and grants for those with caring responsibilities.
Wade, who grew up as the daughter of two physicians and had supportive teachers at private schools, realized at a young age that most people were not as lucky.
“I genuinely believe that science is better when it’s done by diverse teams,” she said.
“It’s also important because we’re designing new technologies or new scientific solutions to global problems. We want the teams of people creating them to reflect the societies that they’re serving.
“Even if you don’t care about any of that, the world desperately needs more scientists and engineers,” Wade added. “Science can help solve the world’s biggest challenges — climate change, antibiotic resistance, emerging pandemic-inducing viruses.”
Looking back on her inclusion in the late Queen Elizabeth’s 2019 Birthday Honours list, Wade hopes young female scientists will become common at future ceremonies.
“It was pretty wild to be honored by the royal family,” Wade recalled. She didn’t meet the queen, but she did take her mother, Dr. Charlotte Feinmann, to Buckingham Palace with her.
Her father, Dr. John Wade, couldn’t attend, but Jessica Wade did her best to make it up to him.
“I took a Tupperware to sneak some royal sandwiches home to my dad,” she said.
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