Dr. Imogen Coe is the inaugural Dean of Science at Ryerson University, a respected scientist working in the area of cell biology, and a leading champion in the area of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Imogen is a frequent speaker and panelist at conferences and events across the world and has brought a great deal of awareness about EDI matters to myself and countless others.
As a gay mathematician without role models, I’ve always looked up to Imogen as she helped pave the way for myself and others to stand up and speak out on EDI issues. She’s worked tirelessly for six years as Dean to bring fresh perspectives on items such as equitable faculty hiring practices, running inclusive conferences, and showcasing EDI STEM heroines and heroes. When the movie Hidden Figures (about African-American mathematicians and scientists at NASA in the 1960s) came out, Imogen hosted a screening of the film for faculty, students and staff at Ryerson. I have great memories watching the movie with my husband and a diverse swath of colleagues from across campus.
If you haven’t seen it, check out Imogen’s TEDx talk on EDI in STEM.
Endings are beginnings
Imogen has been Dean of Science for six years, and she decided not to seek an additional term as Dean. Having completed nine years in administrative-type roles at universities, I fully respect her decision. A scientist of her calibre and advocate of her profile has many career options.
While visiting colleagues on my sabbatical this past year, I thought about some kind of personalized gift I could give Imogen as a token of my respect and admiration. I’d heard about the card deck STEM: Epic Heroes, which portrays famous scientists, mathematicians, and engineers as superheroines and heroes in a card game. Limetown Studios in Brazil, headed by Amanda Duarte, were the artists who worked on the cards. Below are two of the cards, featuring famed mathematicians Emmy Noether and Alan Turing.
I discovered on Limetown’s website that they do commissioned portraits. I reached out to Amanda who said they could make a superheroine-type card for Imogen. The final result is fantastic.
How the portrait unfolded
I sent Amanda source material about Imogen, including a link to her TEDx talk, a video about her research, and links to her Twitter account where Imogen frequently posts. I also sent these two images, one of a younger Imogen and one as the Dean I’ve come to know.
From there, Amanda came back with two sketches representing places the portrait could go.
I liked the first image (on the left), so we worked with that one. Amanda came back with the final sketch, which added facial features and other details. The artists added some cool imagery (the molecular chain between Imogen’s hands) taken from her papers.
I asked for phrases “EDI” and “women in STEM” to be somehow incorporated into the picture. Amanda came back with the final portrait, adding colors, and I was so impressed by the high quality of their work. Notice the superheroine-type EDI badge on her lab coat!
I posted the image and some background on Twitter, and to my joy and relief, Imogen loved it:
Why superheroines matter
Our culture is saturated with movies and television shows portraying heroic male superheroes. From Captain America to James Bond to Rick Grimes, men are the default for fierce, influential leaders who routinely save the day.
Scientists are rarely viewed as heroines or heroes, although movies like Hidden Figures and The Imitation Game are great recent counterexamples. I wrote a short story about the famed historical mathematician Emmy Noether, where she has to help save the future world from destruction. For me, this was a way to honor Noether and give her agency she was often denied in life.
My goal in commissioning the portrait of Imogen as a superheroine was not only to pay homage to her but to showcase an amazingly talented woman in STEM that people might not otherwise know. We need more of that in our culture. Young girls will continue to be inspired by Imogen and the women in STEM like her, who are forging a path for them to dream and be whoever they want to be.