I recently completed a master’s degree in science communication and public engagement, and it was probably the hardest year of my life. The final hurdle of the course was a dissertation, and as soon as I knew we could choose our own projects, I knew mine had to be creative and practical. Research certainly has its place in science communication, but I could not spend another eleven weeks reading about what other people had done; I had to get out there and do it myself.
After months of toying with dissertation ideas, the eureka moment came during a week in which I made a tiny folded paper zine each day. I had watched a YouTube video of an illustrator explaining how to fold the paper, so I tried it out, and I loved every little zine I made. The love came from being able to make a zine about anything — I even made one about getting blisters from new shoes.
I also noticed how people were using zines to tell their stories and validate their experiences. As somebody who had struggled to express myself creatively before, I wanted to experiment with this medium both for science communication and for myself.
As somebody who had struggled to express myself creatively before, I wanted to experiment with this medium both for science communication and for myself.
For my project, I chose to make a zine about the Edinburgh Seven: the first women to attend university in the UK. They attended my university and they studied medicine.
After the initial research, I began to design the zine, and what had started as a storytelling exercise quickly transformed into a call to action — to ask people to examine how far we had come since these women matriculated, but also to look ahead and to know that the fight is not over. I began to realize how important it was to keep the stories of the past in consideration, because they are often still relevant to our lives today.
Personally, making the zine was an all-consuming experience. I grappled with narrative structure, illustrations (all of which I did myself), and balancing my own personal reflection and historical information. By the time I had printed my little zines and bound them with thread, I was sure they could be horcruxes were I a witch. I loved them, but I became increasingly nervous about the written dissertation and how “academic” this would be.
I loved [my zines], but I became increasingly nervous about the written dissertation and how “academic” this would be.
In contrast, when I talked to my peers about this little piece of my soul I was crafting in paper and ink, they told me how lucky I was to be doing something like this, something creative, something so nice. I began to compare my work to theirs, which seemed to me to be entirely different: spilling over with analysis, theory, and complexity.
My anxiety over the project only grew as time went by. I began to doubt how much this was a project about science communication and how much it was just me trying to force this creative feminist project to fit into the course. I worried the dissertation markers would recognize my circular peg in the square hole and know I was a fraud.
The section I feared most was the discussion, which was the chapter of the dissertation in which I had to justify my work and put into the context of wider science communication activities. This was my chance to prove that my project had achieved the universal dissertation goal to further science communication in some way, and to show that I had learned something in the process.
Before even beginning my dissertation, I had known the barriers and discrimination faced by women in STEM. They were often assumed to be less competent than their male counterparts and were consequently given less encouragement and mentoring. But as I developed the discussion chapter, a surprising parallel emerged: women in creative careers, and women who do anything traditionally seen as “women’s work,” were also having their experiences and hard work infantilized and trivialized. It became clear that there was an assumption being made universally that if something was not traditionally done by men, this was because men were better than whatever the task was, and it fell to women because they were less capable.
A surprising parallel emerged: women in creative careers… were also having their experiences and hard work infantilized and trivialized.
I came to realize that part of my anxiety surrounding the project, particularly that it would be disregarded for lacking academic integrity, was a product of both my own internalized misogyny about myself as a woman in STEM and about the project as a traditionally female-led art form, including the infantilization of my project that I was perceiving from my peers, whether they intended it or not.
At this point it dawned on me that the zine as a medium may not have been the primary attraction for readers; it was the story. You don’t have to be a woman in STEM to relate to the experience of the Edinburgh Seven; you just have to be a woman trying to exist.
You don’t have to be a woman in STEM to relate to the experience of the Edinburgh Seven; you just have to be a woman trying to exist.
My dissertation was ultimately well received. I successfully brought together feminism, science, and art, and though I had to endure self-doubt and misogyny, it was worth the struggle.
So now I know what to do next. I am going to make more zines to tell more stories, stories of women, non-binary people, and people in the LGBT community in history and those who exist now, and to encourage people to tell their own stories. To chip away with my own small tools at the barriers which still stand today between marginalized people and science and between marginalized people in science and art.