Physicist writes 900 Wikipedia entries to boost diversity in science

A physicist from Imperial College London is on a mission to bust what she calls the "big misconception" about scientists.

Dr Jess Wade started to create and edit Wikipedia pages at the beginning of 2018 to "better represent women and people of colour" on the online encyclopedia.

She's now amassed a portfolio of more than 900 new pages but says the project is about more than the numbers.

Speaking to ITV News on International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Dr Wade said: "Something magical can happen if you stumble across a profile that looks a bit like you.

"You realise you could be like that too".

Research published last year by the Department for Education showed girls in England are substantially less likely than boys to consider taking STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at A Level.

The data showed the proportion of boys whose favourite subject is in a STEM field is almost twice that for girls.

Dr Wade, who was last year awarded a British Empire Medal for services to gender diversity in science, says Wikipedia is well placed to offer "global and gender balanced" information.

She hopes this could encourage more people to pursue the subject.

"Wikipedia is used so much in education, in the media, and in scientific research.

"So it's more important than ever that wiki has more representation of women and ethnic minorities in science.

"Having the personal life section makes it [science] accessible - it inspires people to think this could be me."

The 32-year-old Londoner is currently working on her post-doc at Imperial College. Credit: Imperial College London

According to Dr Wade, a physicist who researches polymer-based LEDs, science "has a problem coming across as human".

The 32-year old said: "When you’re at school you have a big misconception that there’s one type of scientist - an old white man - and it’s completely not the case.

"We need to get away from those misconceptions."

In her own words, Dr Wade says: "I spend my free time trying to better represent women and people of colour on Wikipedia.

What started as a one woman project just two years ago has now become a much bigger phenomenon.

Dr Wade says the project has started a global conversation about diversity in science, she now works with people worldwide who translate the English wiki entries into other languages.

She told ITV News: "It's about working with others around the world to recognise what a huge platform it [wikipedia] is.

"It's bigger than that. It's more about talking about it, working with people around the world who translate the Wikipedia pages from English into other languages".

Dr Wade believes diversifying science "makes it better for everyone".

"With more people working in science and engineering, we can solve bigger global problems".

Mathematician Gladys West was one of the first Wikipedia profiles Dr Wade put together. Credit: Adrian Cadiz

The daughter of two scientists, Dr Wade said she too has learnt "so much" about her subject from her submissions to Wikipedia.

She said: "I’m constantly shocked at how often people say 'there aren’t enough women in science' - there are so many to talk about."

Asked about some of the highlights from her 900 Wikipedia entries so far, Dr Wade reeled off in an instant a list of female scientists and scientists of colour.

One entry - from the start of her project - is Gladys West, an African American mathematician known for her work on mathematical modelling of the shape of the Earth.

Another was Katie Bouman, the woman behind the first black hole image.

Dr Wade described Clarice Phelps, the first African-American woman to be involved with the discovery of a chemical element, as a "rockstar".

She added: "Writing her page was constantly inspirational".

The project is not without its difficulties, however, as entries to Wikipedia have to be "notable" enough to make it onto the platform.

Scientists who have not been written about struggle to make it onto the site as Wikipedia required "inline citations" as a part of its verifiability process.

Continuing the project to raise the profile of lesser known scientists and continue the conversation around diversity in the field is essential to Dr Wade.

"Inundating the internet, having a platform with content contributed by experts - wiki is more important now than ever before," she added.

The physicist says she's always keen to hear more suggestions of women and people of colour working in science to add to Wikipedia.