How a College Student Led the WikiProject Women Scientists

Emily Temple-Wood’s Women Scientist project is writing female researchers back into the conversation

Maria Goeppert Mayer
Maria Goeppert Mayer, co-winner of the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on nuclear shell structures. She is just one of hundreds of women added to Wikipedia by the Wikiproject Women Scientists Bettmann/CORBIS

Emily Temple-Wood's greatest accomplishment over the past four years while studying molecular biology at Loyola University isn’t mastering organic chemistry or passing the MCAT—it’s raising the profile of female scientists. A lot.

Back in 2012, Temple-Wood signed on for a Wikipedia edit-a-thon to celebrate Ada Lovelace, a 19th century mathematician regarded as the mother of computer programming, reports Caitlyn Gibson at The Washington Post. That’s when Emily, an avid Wikipedia editor since childhood, realized that the website’s coverage of female scientists was pitifully sparse. When she searched for biographies of women in the Royal Society, Britain’s pantheon of great scientists, she found few profiles of the organization’s female members.

“I got pissed and wrote an article that night,” Temple-Wood told Rita Chang at the Wikimedia Foundation. “I literally sat in the hallway in the dorm until 2 AM writing the first [Wikipedia] women in science article.”

That first profile about Ann Bishop, a British biologist best known for her work combating malaria, was the start of the WikiProject Women Scientists. Over the last four years, Temple-Wood and a cadre of nearly 80 other editors (and counting) involved in the project have helped increase the number of female scientists on Wikipedia from around 1,600 to over 5,000.

While a majority of those entries are still starts and stubs, the project has helped create over 600 full articles about women scientists, including six featured articles—the gold standard for Wikipedia entries. Over 30 others have gone through the site’s peer review process and 376 of the articles have appeared on Wikipedia’s front page.

But there is a dark side to Temple-Wood's work. The more Emily wrote about female scientists, the more harassing, sexually explicit, abusive emails she received from internet trolls.  

“I was just so frustrated,” she tells Gibson. “I was like, I need to do something productive with this rage rather than sitting around and being angry—that doesn’t solve anything.”

So a few months ago she decided that for each abusive message she receives, she will write another article. “Instead of just being like, ‘God, that ruined my day,’ instead of being blindly upset, I just focus that energy into something productive and satisfying,” she says. Sadly, Temple-Wood reports that she now has a backlog of 118 articles she needs to write in response to nasty emails.

Even so, the amount of work Temple-Wood has done so far has improved the visibility of women in science greatly. Siko Bouterse, director of community resources at the Wikimedia Foundation broke down Emily’s impact on the gender gap for the Wikimedia Blog:

She’s created hundreds of articles about women scientists, including articles that address multiple gaps in Wikipedia—it’s really important that she’s not just writing about white women scientists, she’s also working to address underrepresentation of women of color in Wikipedia and looking at other points of intersectionality as well. And perhaps most importantly, because we’re much stronger collectively than alone, Emily has taught and inspired others to do the same … When I was a kid, I could count the number of women scientists I was aware of on one hand. But I know our daughters are going to have access to so much more free knowledge about scientists who look like them, thanks to Emily’s efforts, and that’s really powerful.

While the rigors of med school might slow down her contributions to the project, Temple-Wood says she’ll keep doing as much as she can. “I would love for every single notable woman scientist to have an article on Wikipedia that is beautiful and comprehensive and complete,” she tells Gibson. “So we still have a lot of work to do.”

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