Women in Science – 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World – Rachel Ignotofsky
As part of Digital Science’s celebrations for Ada Lovelace Day, for the month of October we are running a series of blog posts where inspiring women and men in STEM are sharing their personal stories. Anyone can get involved and we encourage you to read and share your thoughts using the hashtag #WiSTEMspotlight
I first came across Rachel’s beautiful work while searching for science-themed illustrations. Out of the many images that appeared in my browser, Rachel’s unique style and subtle marks immediately grabbed my attention. I soon found out that she had recently released a book highlighting the contributions from pioneering women in STEM related disciplines! With Ada Lovelace Day around the corner, we interviewed Rachel to find out more about the inspiration behind her wonderful book.
Below is my Q&A with Rachel Igonoftsky, illustrator extraordinaire!
How does one become an illustrator, and how have you developed your own unique style?
I have been drawing ever since I could remember! I knew I wanted to attempt to make a living doing it, and around sophomore year of high school, I started to prepare a portfolio to go to college. People don’t often appreciate how challenging it can be getting into a good art school – it takes a lot of work outside of your high school art class to get in. During this period, I was attending a human anatomy class; I found these classes fascinating and started to incorporate what I learned into my artwork.
I went to Tyler School of Art for a degree in graphic design and got a job right out of college at Hallmark cards. But, like many artists, the thing I really wanted to do was focus on topics I felt passionately about! As children, we gravitate to what we find interesting; as adults, we do the same thing, but also understand the importance of topics that are important – I wanted to find a happy balance between the two. After many a late night session working on passion projects about science, I quit my job and committed myself to creating educational artwork. My illustrations are tools to help people learn the right way – while having fun! Now, as an author and illustrator, I use my work to promote scientific literacy and education in general.
You come from an artistic background – what inspired you to delve into the world of science?
Growing up, I watched Bill Nye the Science guy and The Magic School Bus. While watching these programs, you can’t help but fall in love with learning – you want to grow up to be Ms Frizzle! As you mature, you better realize the importance of knowledge; the power it possesses to solve our problems and move the world forward.
In my high school anatomy class, I remember being in awe as I learned how blood is pumped by the heart around the body; how food is digested; and how everything works on a cellular level. Knowing this information, I now felt like I could make better choices in my life. It takes a combination of science and history to learn about the mechanics of the world we live in and my goal is to empower people to make educated decisions. Art is one of the most powerful tools for learning, and I believe my work, and visual information generally, can help inspire and teach future generations. It’s a fundamental part of how we’ve learned for thousands of years.
Why do you think great visual aids are an essential component of learning? Did this help you develop an interest in complex subjects as a youngster?
I struggled with books when I was in elementary school; I was slow to start reading. As a result, I was tested for dyslexia. I also developed migraines because of exotropia. But, as soon as I discovered cartoons, all of a sudden, reading was fun and easy! I would read the illustrated Odyssey; World’s Greatest Artist; and plenty of illustrated books about great feats of engineering, history, and science. This gave me the confidence to pursue technical topics – for the first time I was ‘a smart kid’.
People learn in all sorts of different ways – illustration is unique because it can tell a story instantaneously at a glance. With this tool, I can take dense, and complex information, and make it accessible and fun! Tell a story in a unique way; make it beautiful, and you can engage a whole new audience.
Women in Science is your first book, and I notice that you’ve done some descriptive educational illustrations – why did you decide to do such a large project focused entirely on science, and what’s more, why choose pioneering women?
I was thinking a great deal about why a gender gap still exists in science and engineering, and I truly believe that one of the best ways to fight against gender bias is by showing young woman strong female role models. To know someone else has already walked a certain path shows you that it can be done. Female scientists have played major roles in shaping the modern world, but many have landed in obscurity. I want my illustrations to shine a light on their accomplishments, and to play a part in making remarkable women household names.
So Ada Lovelace day is coming up, do you feel there is something unique about her? Why is important that we celebrate her life?
Besides the fact that she’s the first ever computer programmer, it is her resilience that we can all learn from. When she saw Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, Ada knew she wanted to work with him developing his projects. At first, he didn’t want to work with her, he was too busy to mentor a 17-year-old girl, but Ada wouldn’t take no for an answer! She sent him her notes on the Analytical Engine, unsolicited, and the rest, as they say, is history. That paper is now one of the most important documents in computer science history.
Do you have any advice for those looking to follow in your footsteps?
Draw every day, then draw some more. Figure out what you want to say, and what subjects you are passionate about. Work on your dream project as though it was your full-time job – then make sure you put it up on social media so the whole world can see it!