Washington’s parks and squares are full of statues of presidents and generals on horseback. Look for statues of women, and you’ll find far more allegorical images than depictions of named subjects.
The women depicted in these striking orange, 3D-printed statues represent a wide range of careers: computer scientist to large carnivore ecologist, immunologist to rocket scientist, roboticist to climate change researcher. Each statue is equipped with a QR code that shares the subject’s backstory. What they have in common: They were all selected as Ambassadors by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Lyda Hill Philanthropies for being trailblazers in their fields, and role models for the next generation of women in STEM.
We wondered where these women had been inspired to pursue a career in science — especially the ones who grew up in the D.C. area — and asked those who have lived and worked here if they’d tell us about their favorite STEM-related museums or places.
Answers have been lightly edited for length.
The National Arboretum: With plants in season year-round, it’s a great place to go to be reminded of how much there still is to explore and learn. The David M. Brown Planetarium [in Arlington, temporarily closed]: Although none of my degrees are space-related, I still like looking at the stars. The National Inventors Hall of Fame: Learning about people who created new things inspires me to consider my world and what I can create. — Afua Bruce, computer engineer
I’m an archaeologist and there are dozens of great archaeology-related places in the D.C. area. I’m not very good at picking favorites — they’re all special for different reasons. The Smithsonian is awe-inspiring, of course, but I also really love the smaller archaeology centers in the DMV for their more human, accessible scale where the history and science relate to their particular place and community. The Alexandria Archaeology Museum in the Torpedo Factory is one example. I learned so much there about artifacts and archaeology as a graduate student volunteer. — Becca Peixotto, archaeologist
Air and Space and the Albert Einstein statue are my go-tos, along with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and National Museum of Women in the Arts [closed for renovations until fall 2023]. Technology development only makes the world a better place if it does so for all of us. As a mother of Black girls, it’s important to me to place technology in context of creativity and society. — Cori Lathan, neuroscience and aeronautics
My favorite spot is the National Zoo. It’s a place where my kids were always eager to go, and where we as their parents were eager to go, too. My vision of the zoo was enlarged by the stories about the tradition that started in the 1890s of African American families visiting the zoo on the Monday after Easter, since the White House Easter Egg Roll was not an option for them in segregated Washington. Ironically, the American Association for the Advancement of Science [where Malcom now works] ended up taking science to the White House Easter Egg Roll during the Obama years. — Shirley Malcom, ecologist
The elephant in the Natural History Museum is one of my favorite STEM-related objects in the D.C. area. Whenever I think of the Smithsonian, I think of that elephant, and how awed I was as a child by its size and by being able to see it close-up. I also loved the audio guides that were installed at the base — it felt special picking up a “phone” and getting instant information in such a “modern” way. This was long before Google existed! — Kim Swennen, computer scientist
My favorite STEM-related places in the D.C. area are the National Aquarium and the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, both located in Baltimore. At the National Aquarium, you get to learn about the importance of biodiversity and caring for ecosystems and environments to protect the animals, plants, and other marine life that live there, while being able to interact with the sea animals, like jellies and horseshoe crabs. At the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, you get to see lifelike wax figures with cool lighting, sound effects and animation highlighting African American inventors and scientists. This helps young people see that the STEM field is for everybody that comes from different walks of life and ethnic or racial backgrounds. Sometimes seeing an example of a STEM role model is what some youth need to know that they can pursue their dreams in STEM, despite their humble beginnings and early hardships. — Joyonna Gamble-George, health scientist
My favorite STEM-related place in D.C. is the African American Museum because of the brilliant architecture. The unique building required ingenuity, technical competence, and vision. I am able to see the museum from my office window in D.C. and was able to witness it being built. — Chavonda Jacobs-Young, agricultural scientist
I might be a little biased, but the “Sea Monsters Unearthed” exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History! As a young child, I always knew I wanted to be a paleontologist, but I hit a rough patch while taking difficult geology courses during my sophomore year [at Southern Methodist University]. Thankfully, my mentors and professors brought me on board to help clean fossils and be a part of creating the exhibit called “Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas” that would be displayed in the Natural History Museum. Helping to create this exhibit was a wonderful experience that helped me get through depression and impostor syndrome. It reminded me that I do belong in STEM. I now pass by the exhibit on my way to work as a contract fossil preparator in the museum’s FossiLab. — Myria Perez, geologist and paleontologist
I absolutely love the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The museum space itself is fantastic, and I find it very inspiring to see artwork done by women through the ages; it’s a gift to be able to see the world through their eyes. I also adore the Natural History Museum. Going there makes me feel like a kid — exploration and discovery around every corner. Also, I think the Library of Congress is so cool! It blows my mind that things I’ve written, like my PhD dissertation, are there. — Wendy Bohon, geologist
I would take them to Artechouse for opportunities to interact with art and tech together, showing that technology can be used for entertainment and enjoyment, or the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I love going to the culture exhibits and playing ‘How do you think tech helped here?’ or ‘What would you invent to help the activities there?’ with kids. — Afua Bruce
The Natural History and Air and Space museums are great. I believe the Natural History Museum still has the ‘Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World’ exhibit. I’m less familiar with the National Zoo, but they also have exhibits that talk about the research/conservation work they do. For a kid that’s excited by the academic science enterprise, the National Academies is a gorgeous building that sets an impressive tone for scientific legacy. — Jessica Taaffe, cell and molecular biologist
I would take them to the National Museum of American History’s “Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” exhibit and show them girls featured in child labor and as scientists. — Charita Castro, social science research
I would take them to the visible FossiLab in the Deep Time Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. I would show them the process fossils go through before going on display and into the museum’s collections. I would explain what happens at the various fossil preparation stations and point out the tools that help us prep and conserve the specimens. I was a summer intern at the Natural History Museum, where I worked with Dr. Kay Behrensmeyer, a pioneer in the field of paleontology. We studied the taphonomy (death and burial process) of ancient marine reptiles called Ichthyosaurs from the Jurassic coast of Southern England. This was special to me because the specimens included some of those found by the first female paleontologist, Mary Anning (my inspiration and hero). — Myria Perez
The Air and Space Museum. Because my father had been an engineer at Boeing, it was particularly special to walk around the museum with him. I remember being able to tell, even quite young, that it was important to him that we connect with the science behind the exhibits. His love of science and engineering is one of the reasons I ended up pursuing it. I remember there being a seemingly endless set of resources and experiences around flight and space, and so much of it hands-on. It also puts into context scientific advances in the field, so you could really appreciate how far we’ve come in such a relatively short time. I plan on going back with my partner when we come for the statue exhibit. I can’t wait to show him exhibits that I still remember from when I was a kid. — Kim Swennen
When I was a student at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, the place that cemented my love of science was a field trip to Hershey Park, an amusement park in Hershey, Pa. My physics class spent a day there applying our physics class lessons on speed, energy, and force while experiencing it firsthand on roller coasters. We were tasked with designing methods that we could test in the form of experiments and solve physics-based questions. For example, we had to create a method that would calculate the speed of a roller roaster at the bottom of a hill, or determine which roller coaster ride produced the most energy because of gravity when we rode that ride. This field trip allowed me to see how STEM can be found in everyday, real life. I thought that was something cool and I wanted to do more of it when I grew up for a career. — Joyonna Gamble-George
The Children’s Museum of Virginia in Portsmouth. It was a place I went to on many field trips as a child, and it was an opportunity to let my imagination run wild while also learning. — Ciara Sivels, nuclear engineer
I grew up in Columbia, Md., and Waynesboro in south-central Pennsylvania, and coming into D.C. showed me a world beyond the cows. Only 20 percent of my high school went on to any form of higher education. I loved coming into the Museum of Natural History and grew up on the dinosaurs and gems. And the amazing art museums like the Hirshhorn showed me that science and art could coexist. — Cori Lathan
I remember coming to the Natural History Museum as a child and being stunned at the T. rex skull. The first picture I ever took was on that trip of that exhibit! I used to come to D.C. on school field trips, and now I take my kids to D.C. to visit the same places that I went, as well as to other newer exhibits like the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. — Wendy Bohon
The 120 statues can be found at the Natural History and Air and Space museums, the Arts and Industries Building, the Smithsonian Castle and the Enid Haupt Garden through March 27.