In recent years, the share of STEM degrees earned by women increased at all levels in the United States; however, representation varies greatly across the board, with women still being underrepresented in mathematics and physics across the nation. 

Media portrayals have the potential to either reinforce or challenge gender stereotypes in STEM; two William & Mary students are combining arts and sciences to encourage participation by women in mathematics and physics. 

A physics and film & media studies double major, Lily Szalay ’24 wrote a film script on Lise Meitner, the Austrian-Swedish physicist who co-developed the theory of nuclear fission. Shivi Royal ’27, a computational & applied mathematics & statistics major, aims to redefine the meaning of “girl math” with her book focusing on the biographies of 25 female mathematicians.

In the past few years, women earned over half of STEM bachelor’s degrees conferred at William & Mary, slightly exceeding the national figures. W&M women students in STEM have the opportunity to both receive and provide mentorship and support.

William & Mary’s grounding in the liberal arts and sciences encourages creativity in advancing knowledge. For instance, according to the W&M Office of Institutional Research, the proportion of William & Mary graduates double majoring in a STEM and arts or humanities subject has been growing in recent years; pursuing a STEM major with an arts or humanities minor is also an option.

‘Miss-placed credit’: Lise Meitner and nuclear fission

Headshot of Lily Szalay
Lily Szalay ’24. (Courtesy photo.)

Szalay remembers thinking, “I have the opportunity to study two things: Why not study two things that I’m passionate about?”

With assistance from the Charles Center, which supports a variety of mentored research opportunities for undergraduates, she developed her film script as a way to connect her two majors. 

“Miss-Placed Credit: The Untold Story of Lise Meitner and the Discovery of Nuclear Fission” intentionally focuses on a trailblazing – but less celebrated – figure in physics.

“Film is a way of telling stories,” said Szalay. “There are lots of stories in the STEM field that need to be told, especially about women scientists.”

Meitner, a contemporary of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, began studying physics at a time when women weren’t even allowed to attend college. She then became the second woman to get a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna and subsequently moved to Berlin where she audited classes taught by Max Planck.  Meitner went on to become a full professor of physics before losing her lectureship position due to the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws and ultimately fleeing Nazi Germany for Sweden.

A longtime collaborator of Otto Hahn, the chemist who won the Nobel Prize “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei,” Meitner didn’t get due credit for developing the theory of nuclear fission, which she had formulated with her physicist nephew Otto Robert Frisch.

Szalay, whose script targets an adolescent audience, conceived her project as a tribute to Meitner, casting her as a role model for girls who may feel intimidated to go into STEM fields.

Her script starts with Meitner as a young girl, described by biographers as very observant of the world around her and always carrying a notebook around.

“I wanted to start from that to show young girls where she started and how far she got,” said Szalay.

Szalay has her own role model: a mentor from the W&M “Mentoring for careers in physics” program, which connects undergraduate women with women working in physics and engineering.

Real-life role models have a proven positive effect on how women in science are viewed; in their absence, media portrayals can help too.

“When I think about women in science being represented by the media, one film that comes to mind is ‘Hidden Figures,’” said Szalay, who noted the oversight of women’s contributions in “Oppenheimer.”

 “‘Hidden Figures’ was really big when it came out, but I’m not sure that much like that has continued to be made.”

Reclaiming the term ‘girl math’

Royal, too, remembers the impact from the “Hidden Figures” movie.

“But then I saw this ‘girl math’ trend,” she said. “It’s not a good standard to set, especially in young children today.”

This social media trend humorously focuses on creative ways to justify personal spending: For instance, any purchase paid for in cash or with preloaded money is considered free. 

Shivi Royal '27 shows her book "Redefining Girl Math"
Shivi Royal ’27. (Courtesy photo.)

This trend is nothing more than a joke for some; for others, like Royal, it only perpetuates stereotypes about women’s mathematical abilities.

Her book, “Redefining Girl Math: 25 Trailblazing Female Mathematicians”, aims to set the record straight, covering over 16 centuries of women mathematicians: from fourth-century scholar Hypatia of Alexandria to present-day scientist and author Eugenia Cheng, whose declared intent is helping reduce “math phobia.” 

Having a calculus background allowed Royal to better understand and contextualize achievements by women mathematicians.

“It definitely helped because then I could convey those ideas so that everybody could understand what they did,” she said.

As a Sharpe Community Scholar, Royal believes in helping society through research. With a group of fellow Sharpe Scholars, she is helping create an open-source curriculum aiming to increase elementary school children’s interest in science and mathematics.

Math anxiety impacts students’ ability to learn and perform, with critical consequences for the future STEM workforce. For Royal, corporations using the “girl math” trend in advertising are capitalizing on women’s perceived weaknesses.

Gender discrepancies in mathematical confidence can dissuade women from pursuing STEM fields. With her book, Royal wants to reach out to schoolchildren and young teenagers, but also adults such as teachers.

“The women I wrote about had an impact on their society and encouraged others to study mathematics,” she said.

, Senior Research Writer