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Jessica Wade: Physicist and Author of Hundreds of Wikipedia Entries About Women Scientists

When AAAS member Jessica Wade is profiled in the media, the write-ups tend to take one of two forms; they either focus on her work to advocate for greater diversity in the sciences or they home in on her physics research. However, like the mirror-image molecules Wade studies in her lab, there are two sides to her career that both work to advance science.

Jessica Wade. Thomas Angus, Imperial College London

Wade is currently completing her post-doc at Imperial College London in the Department of Physics and Centre for Plastic Electronics where she has been studying the use of polymers as semiconductors. In this role, she is Wade the researcher.

On the other hand, there’s Wade the advocate. Over the past two years, Wade has worked tirelessly to promote diversity in science, shining a light on the often-unsung role of women researchers. Among her advocacy efforts, Wade recently gave a TEDX talk on the subject of diversity in science.

Wade also works to promote diversity in science by addressing the shortage of Wikipedia posts about women scientists. There are some 1.5 million biographies on English-speaking Wikipedia, but these entries show a strong gender bias. Most biographical entries are about, and written by, men. The fact that women are underrepresented both as subjects and writers of Wikipedia entries was first brought to Wade’s attention by Alice White — a historian of science and Wikimedian in Residence at the Wellcome Collection. Wade was then motivated to write Wikipedia biographical entries about women in science, which she started doing in 2018.

Her first Wikipedia entry covered AAAS member and climate researcher Kim Cobb. Wade had met Cobb at a conference and was impressed with her and her work.

“I thought she [Cobb] was so incredible,” said Wade. “I went to check if she had a page, and she didn’t. So, I was just horrified.”

Since this first Wikipedia entry, Wade has personally written hundreds of posts covering women and other underrepresented scientists for the online encyclopedia. Her favorite post so far is on the African American mathematician Gladys West, whose work aided the modeling of the Earth’s shape and led to the modern Global Positioning System (GPS).

“The response has been amazing,” Wade said about the public’s response to her Wikipedia writing. While she hopes this excitement about women in engineering and science continues, she acknowledges that there is still a lot of work to do. Wade argues that, going forward, if Wikipedia is going to be one of the ways societies document history, biographical entries need to be impartial. “We need the contributions of men and women to be recognized equally,” said Wade.

Wade hopes her own efforts will inspire others to help write more entries. For the portion of Wikipedia page representing men and women to become equal, “we have to make 300,000 to 400,000 entries,” according to Wade. “I can’t physically do that. So hopefully we’ll get other people to start editing and talking about and realizing that is an important thing to do.”

Mirroring Wade the activist is Wade the researcher. In her lab, Wade has been investigating the unique properties of organic polymers that have chiral properties.

Chiral molecules are molecules sharing the same atoms but occur in pairs of mirror images of one another. Think of these molecules like a right hand and a left hand. Each hand has five fingers, but they are mirror-images of each other. For instance, the chemical responsible for the smell associated with both lemons and oranges, limonene, is chiral. The atoms composing limonene are arranged in one form in lemons, and the mirror image form in oranges. The result is two unique smells.

Due to the fact that it can produce such different effects, chirality is being investigated by material scientists, physicists, chemists and biologists, Wade among them. Wade’s research focuses on using chiral structures to create light-emitting diodes that give off circularly polarized light. Her research is promising for many applications, including highly efficient television displays and printable solar panels. Printing solar panels, Wade says, would also allow for a cheap energy source that could be used without connecting to an electric grid, which means applications for developing countries.

“I find every single aspect of physics fascinating, even the ones I don’t want to study,” says Wade. “But I do much prefer the ones that have real world applications, which I guess is why I work now in materials.” 

Both sides of Wade’s career — her physics work as well as her activist work — aim to advance science, albeit in different ways. Both kinds of work, however, she hopes will lead to real-world applications.

Her advice to women entering into scientific careers is straightforward: find mentors, sponsors and others that will help navigate careers and advocate for them. On being an advocate, she advises scientists to “call out bad behavior and find a network of allies who have got your back. Nominate women and minorities for fellowships and prizes. Support each other and amplify quiet voices.”

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Nathan Gilles

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