Sonoma County students using art to highlight women in science

A student-led art project to be installed at the Petaluma Regional Library highlights the work of women in math and the sciences.|

To see more work from Together Above All, go to:

The names and faces of scientific luminaries — some household names, others less well known — float across the black background of the mural: Nobel Prize winner Tu Youyou; Rosalind Franklin, a pioneer in the study of the structure of DNA; and botanist Janaki Ammal.

If their works, or even their names, are unfamiliar to passersby, that is OK with the artists. This is meant to be an engaging piece of art, the kind where someone might walk by and ask a companion: “Who was Chien-Shiun Wu?” or “What did Gladys West do?”

“Basically our main goal was to educate the community,” said Emma Chen, a senior at Maria Carrillo High School, as well as a co-founder of Together Above All, a student-run nonprofit arts and science education group.

The goal in creating the mural was two-pronged: Educate the community about contributions made by women in a variety of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, but also encourage girls to get engaged in the sciences.

The artists wanted to let girls dream of seeing themselves in positions of power and learning in the sciences.

“With the mural, we wanted to inspire other young girls to pursue careers in STEM fields because growing up. both Emma and I haven’t really felt any support going into the STEM field,” said Teresa Liang. She is a 2021 Carrillo grad and co-founder of Together Above All.

“We wanted to encourage other girls to follow their passions through our mural. We wanted to spread that message.”

Together Above All started a couple of years ago as a kind of art project. Friends and art course classmates got together to paint a giant thank you mural for first responders after 2019’s Kincade fire. The main piece was gifted to the town of Windsor. Reprints were donated to scores of firehouses.

Then they retooled their focus. They would use art to promote science.

"The purpose behind it kind of changed over time because at first we wanted to use our art to spread whatever message that we wanted to spread, but later on, as we were working on our scientist mural, (we) wanted to direct our group toward helping the underprivileged and the underrepresented to pursue careers in STEM,” Liang said.

It was a natural fit. It turns out that the larger collective of artists, about 17 originally, were also big into the sciences.

Deep into the coronavirus pandemic, they launched an online summer science course for younger students. They reached out to area schools and targeted fourth- through sixth-graders, hoping a few might be interested.

The idea struck a chord. Forty kids showed interest. But the fledgling group could only accommodate 25, so they plan to expand it next summer.

But throughout it all, they painted.

“Teresa and I got together and wanted to do a mural for women in science,” Chen said. “We tied into our nonprofit to get more support, and we kind of merged the two projects together.”

So, while the group crafted a syllabus and curriculum for what they deemed a “test run” summer science course for younger students, Chen, Liang, as well as Carrillo students Rachel Ding and Jonathan Liu, started work on a mural 8 feet high and 32 feet long.

The focus would be women in science. The art would put their names, their faces front and center.

“We tried to not only choose women who are really significant in STEM fields, but also women of color, so we have a lot of diversity of different groups on there,” Chen said.

If passersby don’t know who Janaki Ammal is, the artists aren’t keeping score. But they are trying to tackle that problem.

By the time the massive piece is installed at the Petaluma Regional Library in the coming months, the artists are set to add QR codes that will take visitors to the Together Above All website where they will find information and biographies on the scientists in the mural.

The library, at 100 Fairgrounds Drive, is undergoing some preparation work so that large mural can be installed, said library spokesman Ray Holley. Meantime, the massive mural is being housed in eight different pieces in Chen’s garage in Santa Rosa.

Liang, who is heading off to study computer science at UC Irvine in the coming weeks, said inspiration from the piece comes from a place of knowing. Underrepresentation of women in her science classes has been a constant theme in her studies so far.

“Especially in the computer science field,” she said. “For math and chemistry or, general science and physics, it was pretty much half and half for girls and guys, but in my computer science classes especially, there weren’t that many girls. There were around 7 out of 30.”

And that can feel weighty sometimes, she said.

“I guess just more diversity in the field and bringing more women into the field can bring more perspective,” she said. “And it feels a little overwhelming only being one out of the seven women in the class.”

And why are these scientific luminaries seen in spherical bubbles? That was purposeful, Liang said.

"In chemistry we learned that bubbles are usually a sign of a chemical reaction,” Liang said. “And so we wanted our mural to kind of convey the message of women in STEM making a change in their fields.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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