How ‘The Bearded Lady’ at Penn State sparks conversation about women in science fields

“The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science” exhibit runs through Feb. 22 at Penn State’s Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery.
“The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science” exhibit runs through Feb. 22 at Penn State’s Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery. Photo provided

A unique exhibit within the Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery at Penn State hopes to start conversations and recognize women in science. Called “The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science,” the photography exhibit features female scientists from different places, many of whom are wearing false mustaches or beards.

“The message we are stressing is that the women represented are hardworking scientists who conduct research in a variety of settings (outdoors, in laboratories, in museums, at universities, in federal agencies) and produce and publish top-notch work,” Julianne Snider, assistant director of the Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery said via email. “All the women represented are geoscientists. Their research is focused on various areas of paleontology and they study a wide variety of fossil forms from microscopic to dinosaur-size and everything in between.”

The birth of ‘The Bearded Lady’

One of the co-creators of “The Bearded Lady Project,” Ellen Currano, graduated from Penn State in 2008 with a Ph.D.

The inspiration for the project came much later, however, when Currano was having dinner one night with a longtime friend, filmmaker Lexi Jamieson Marsh. At a meeting earlier that day, Currano had had an idea that was ignored until a male colleague said it. They discussed what it was like to be women in male-dominated fields, and Currano joked that maybe if she put on a beard she would be taken seriously.

They talked more, Currano said, and Marsh — who is also interested in science — began talking about going out into the scientific field and filming Currano like that. Later that night, Currano received an email. What if they actually did that, Marsh wanted to know — recruited female paleontologists to put on beards and be filmed, interviewed and photographed in their professional settings?

A documentary filmed by Marsh, “The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science” debuted last year, and the complementary photography exhibit has traveled around the country.

Project aims to start a conversation

While there can be an aspect of humor attached to the project, the mission is twofold, Currano said: claiming a legacy for women in science, particularly in the black-and-white photography style that are often seen in scientific textbooks and photographs in science buildings on college campuses, and starting conversations about equality in the scientific field.

Along with Currano, who is now an associate professor in paleobotany at the University of Wyoming, the exhibit also features a photograph of Kate Bulinski, a Penn State geoscience graduate who is now an associate professor at Bellarmine University, according to Snider.

Currano stressed that the project wasn’t done as a negative reflection of her time at Penn State — she loved her time in graduate school, she said, made friends, and enjoyed working with her professors. But at the time she attended the university, there were few female science professors for her to look up to.

One thing that Currano enjoys about the exhibit are seeing the “absolutely stunning” details in the photographs, taken by professional photographer Kelsey Vance. “You can just sit in there for like five minutes taking in just every little detail, of the women, of the settings they’re in,” Currano said. “They’re just gorgeous photographs.”

Vance and Marsh spent about two years traveling on and off to different places, photographing and talking to the scientists who had agreed to be a part of the project.

To take the photographs for the exhibit, she used a large format camera like those that were commonly used in the 1800s to take black and white photographs.

“It had a lot of historical significance to the project,” Vance said.’

Bringing the project to Penn State

Gabriella Harris, a master’s student in geosciences at Penn State, first learned of the project at an annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. Later, when Harris saw the documentary, she found she could relate to the women in it and enjoyed hearing their stories. So with the help of the geosciences faculty and the EMS Museum and Art Gallery, she sought to bring both to Penn State.

“I would hope that seeing the portraits and seeing the exhibit would help other women just to know that there is support for them and that and that there are a lot of people succeeding and publishing and doing a lot of great things,” Harris said.

A screening of the documentary, along with a panel discussion by female scientists at Penn State, was held in September. In addition to the screening, Harris, who serves as the outreach coordinator for Penn State’s chapter of the Association of Women Geoscientists, also organized a recent event for middle and high school students that was centered around the exhibit and learning more about the diversity of study and opportunity in paleontology.

Jennifer Baka, an associate professor of geography, was one of the Penn State scientists on the panel. Baka, who has a child, felt that one of the key takeaways for was that women can have a family and an academic career, and commended Penn State and the college of EMS for making strides in promoting a supportive environment for women who choose to have a family. She also commended the dean of the college for taking an interest in the project and attending the documentary event.

Being a part of the panel also sparked an interest for Baka in combating gender stereotypes. In the spring semester, when she’ll teach an undergraduate course on energy policy, Baka plans to bring her students to see the exhibit so they can think about underrepresentation of women in the sciences and “who’s at the table and who’s not” in their prospective field.

“I was really inspired by this event, so I’m really, really glad that they brought here,” Baka said.

If you go

What: “The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science”

When: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday through Feb. 22

Where: Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery, University Park

Info: thebeardedladyproject.com