Introducing the Unknown Faces of Science

Posted May 31, 2018 7:46 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — You already know about Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Bill Nye. Now the founders of Caveat, a performance space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, want to introduce you to the scientists you probably don’t know, like Rosalind Franklin and Frances Colón.

As hosts of the first Underground Science Festival, that began Wednesday and continues through June 6, running concurrently with the World Science Festival, Kate Downey and Ben Lillie are using comedy to shine a light on the achievements of those history has overlooked. Frustrated by years of science events dominated by older white men, they said they began developing the festival earlier this year.

The stories are common. An all-male slate of professors for a “Women in Math” panel at Brigham Young University in February. (There’s an entire Tumblr page dedicated to advertisements for all-male panels.) The essayist Jim Holt talking over Veronika Hubeny, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Davis, while he was moderating a panel of six men and just one woman at last year’s World Science Festival. Infighting over the extent to which gender inequality should be addressed at last year’s March for Science in Washington.

In March, an author named Candace Jean Andersen led a social-media search to uncover the identity of the lone African-American woman seen standing amid a group of men in a photograph from the International Conference on the Biology of Whales in Virginia in 1971. Her name was Sheila Minor Huff, and she went on to work with government officials on wildlife and environmental projects.

It’s the achievements of people like Huff that Lillie, a particle physicist who started organizing science-related storytelling events in 2009, and Downey, who has worked as a theater director and a museum tour guide, are interested in bringing to a wider audience with the Underground Science Festival. And as they started working on the lineup, they enlisted Raj Sivaraman, a comedian and microbiologist, and Maryam Zaringhalam, a scientist, to help with the programming.

“People love to watch comedy, and I think people are also wanting to learn about things,” Sivaraman said. “It’s sort of like eating healthy vegetables and getting something that tastes good along with that.”

So comedians are an integral part of the festival. “Rosalind Franklin’s Revenge” will be hosted by the stand-up comic Jacqueline Novak. The show, whose title refers to the molecular biologist who discovered the double helix structure of DNA, will feature writers and performers who will discuss some of the others whose contributions to science have largely gone uncredited.

Ariel Dumas, who used to work in a neuroscience research lab, will take part in a special version of “Literati,” an existing show at Caveat, in which she and three other comedians will play satirical scientists alongside Lynn Brunelle, a former writer for “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

“Comedy is useful in educating anyone about anything,” Dumas, who is also a writer for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” wrote in an email. “Laughter lights up those neurons.”

There will also be some serious events, like “The Racist History of Math” on June 6, which will explore how math education has varied throughout various civilizations and cultures. Sivaraman has firsthand experience in dealing with microaggressions in the science field — one in particular has stuck with him as he’s tried to make people laugh.

“Once I got a postdoctoral job, I had a faculty member come up to me and verbally say to my face, ‘I don’t know what the deal is with all these Indians that are applying for jobs in my lab,'” Sivaraman said. “And then he did this weird accent. I thought, ‘This is kind of screwed up.'” An organization focusing on the contributions of women to scientific fields, 500 Women Scientists, will host a Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon on Saturday, led by Zaringhalam. The goal is to create or alter existing Wikipedia pages to more equitably reflect those contributions.

“I can think of a bunch of my personal role models who aren’t represented on Wikipedia,” Zaringhalam said, naming Frances Colón, who she said was “a neuroscientist by training.” She was “the highest ranking woman scientist of Hispanic descent in the State Department,” Zaringhalam said. Although Colón was a former deputy science and technology adviser for the department from 2012 to 2017, she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

Other events include “Science Wake: Eulogies for Failed Theories” (June 6) and “Academic Stand-Up,” (June 3), which will deliver research-inspired stand-up comedy.

As for this year’s World Science Festival, it seems to have made an attempt to address some of the past criticisms about underrepresentation. Several of its panels are either being moderated by women or feature multiple women. There is one event titled, “Lab Tours for Girls: We Are Women. Open The Door.”

But for Downey and Lillie, there is still plenty of work to do.

“There is a large group of people that already love going to science events,” Downey said. “But there is an even larger group of people that doesn’t like going to science events. And those are the people we are trying to capture.”

And why not make people laugh along the way?

“Comedy is a very effective tool for both analyzing things as well as knocking things off pedestals,” Lillie said.