Celebrating the Grandmothers of STEM

Astrophysicist Carol Jo Crannell, mathematician Annalisa Crannell, and Iolanthe Good, three generations of women who love STEM. Image: Ximena Catepillan.

It’s not strictly mathematical, but Grandma Got STEM is one of my favorite blogs. It’s a collection of stories about grandmothers and other older women who have or had careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Rachel Levy, the Harvey Mudd mathematician who started the project, explains her motivation this way:

Perhaps, like me, you are tired of hearing people say “how would you explain that to your grandmother?” when they probably mean something like “How would you explain the idea in a clear, compelling way so that people without a technical background can understand you?”

You may also have heard the saying “That’s so easy, my grandmother could understand it.”

I would like to counter the implication that grannies (gender + maternity + age) might not easily pick up on technical/theoretical ideas.

Levy has a few posts about famous women scientists from the annals of history, but most submissions are from people who are themselves, or whose mothers or grandmothers are, women in STEM. Some have had illustrious careers as top-level researchers making major breakthroughs, and some are teachers and lab technicians. I think it’s really important to highlight the contributions of women in all sorts of science and technology careers, not just the few who end up winning Nobel Prizes, and that’s one of the things I particularly appreciate about this blog.

The sheer number of posts on the blog is a reminder that while women are still not equally represented in most STEM careers, there are an awful lot of us out there, and there have been for a long time. I also love the multi-generational entries, including one about a STEM grandmother whose grandmother was also in STEM!

There are quite a few mathematicians featured in Grandma Got STEM. I find the most moving entry to be the one about Mary Ellen Rudin, written shortly after her death in March. It includes a quote from her colleague Gloria Mari Beffa: “After talking to her one felt lucky to be a mathematician, her excitement so contagious and her support so strong you felt you could do extraordinary things.”

I chose to highlight Grandma Got STEM today because it is my maternal grandmother’s 88th birthday. She was a medical technologist in the 50s and 60s, and I wrote a post about her in March. Preparing that post gave me an opportunity to talk to Grandma about her career in a way I had never done before, and I’m grateful to have had that opportunity. Happy birthday, Grandma!

Levy is always interested in new posts, so if you or someone you know is a “STEM-ma,” I’m sure she’ll be happy to take your submission.

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