'The Bearded Lady Project' exhibit opens in EMS Museum and Art Gallery

Matthew Carroll
November 06, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Whose face do people see when they imagine a scientist? Ellen Currano thinks she knows, and she’d like it to change.

Currano, a paleontologist and Penn State graduate, is one of the driving forces behind “The Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the Face of Science,” a documentary film and photographic initiative highlighting women in science and drawing attention to issues they face.

A traveling art exhibit featuring photographs from the project now is on display in the Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum & Art Gallery in 018 Deike Building.

The exhibit features portraits of paleontologists in the field and their laboratories. While they conduct a wide range of research, the scientists have at least one thing in common — they all know the challenges of being a woman in a historically male-dominated field.

“It is rare to see women featured as scientists,” said Currano, who received her doctorate in geosciences from Penn State and is now an associate professor at the University of Wyoming. “We hope through our project, and seeing these accomplished scientists in action, young women will be inspired to pursue a career in geosciences or other STEM fields.”

Most of the women featured in the portraits chose to be photographed wearing fake facial hair.

Currano and her partners on the project, filmmaker Lexi Jamieson Marsh, and photographer Kelsey Vance, were partly inspired by historical photographs of bearded paleontologists in the field. For Currano, facial hair became a symbol of the inequalities and prejudices that exist in the field of paleontology.

“If you don’t see someone who looks like you doing what you want to do, it can be discouraging to continue,” said Gabriella Rossetto, a paleontology graduate student at Penn State. “The project is showing girls there are tons of women who are working in science, showing girls it can be them one day.”

Currano and her collaborators traveled across the country over the course of two years, interviewing and taking portraits of more than 100 scientists working in the field and laboratories.

Two Penn State graduates are featured in portraits: Currano and Kate Bulinski. Bulinski received her bachelor's degree in geosciences in 2002. She is now an associate professor of geosciences at Bellarmine University.

According to the project’s website, the exhibit seeks to celebrate adventurous women who choose to dedicate their lives to science and to educate the public on inequities that have historically existed in geosciences and other STEM fields.

“It’s challenging the face of science and challenging the historical perspective on who a scientist is,” Rossetto said. “We are just scientists who happen to be women. We want to be taken seriously and not have our gender be a factor in our science.”

The exhibit covers the impact women have had on paleontology, from Mary Anning, an 19th-century amateur fossil collector who made several important discoveries but struggled to receive full credit for her contributions during her lifetime, to a senior thesis written last year by a Penn State graduate student.

Also on display are academic papers written by the scientists featured in the portraits. Their research ranges from work on ancient algae and dinosaur fossils to isotope analysis in laboratories, said Julianne Snider, the museum’s assistant director for exhibits and collections.

“We’ve included publications each of these people have done, and they’ve done a lot,” Snider said. “This is proof these people are real scientists. They are all accomplished.”

The exhibit opened on Nov. 1 and will run through May. The museum and gallery are open during the week and are free to the public.

The Bearded Lady Project is also the subject of a documentary film that was screened at Penn State in October.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated January 16, 2019