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Why scientist Dr. Jaye Gardiner draws comics to encourage diversity in STEM fields

The pancreatic cancer researcher at Fox Chase Cancer Center was recently named an ambassador for the American Association for the Advancement of Science's IF/THEN initiative, which promotes women working in STEM.

Dr. Jaye Gardiner. (Photo via LinkedIn)

This editorial article is a part of's Technologists of Color Month of our editorial calendar.

Despite her early admiration of science, Dr. Jaye C. Gardiner didn’t foresee a career in research. Today, though, she stands as a multi-talented philomath representing diversity in STEM for future generations.

Gardiner currently studies pancreatic cancer at Fox Chase Cancer Center in the Northeast as a postdoctoral researcher. She also cofounded JKX Comics, which uses art to promote science education, and draws portraits of diverse scientists for the Twitter account #UniqueScientists.

Earlier this month, the Chicago native was named an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) IF/THEN (aka If Then She Can) ambassador, an initiative that promotes women working in STEM fields “by empowering current innovators and inspiring the next generation of pioneers,” per the organization. Ambassadors mentor middle school girls via in-person events and media, including “personal press kits.” (Reminds of the mission of another local women-in-STEM pro, Wilmington’s own STEM Queen.)

Gardiner said she’s excited to bring JKX Comics and #UniqueScientists, two groups that focus on highlighting individuals who stand apart from the traditional image of a scientist, to her IF/THEN ambassadorship.

We chatted with the researcher about her work with AAAS, her science comics and her impression of Philadelphia since she moved here two years ago. Check out her responses, which have been edited for length and clarity, below.

### What does your involvement with AAAS look like?

Dr. Jaye Gardiner: If Then She Can looks to increase the representation of women in STEM. A study done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that women are not well represented in media, especially in STEM, but that there is a larger impact when women are represented in media. The most notable case is Dana Scully from “The X-Files” that ran in the ’90s — my generation watched “The X-Files” as kids and saw a woman scientist. They see a large uptick in woman scientists that were influenced by this fictional character.

So the idea of this whole collaboration, the IF/THEN ambassadorship I was selected for, is to elevate 125 women as high-profile role models and to help promote us in a lot of different media outlets in different ways. [Therefore] middle schools girls can see us and be inspired, because middle school is the age that they found for girls to start dropping off their interests in STEM-related fields.

The whole idea is that you can’t be what you can’t see. By promoting these women to an elevated status, hopefully we can encourage more women and a diversity of women into the future STEM workforce.

How has Philadelphia influenced your life and/or career?

Philadelphia is definitely different from the Midwest — the architecture that’s around, the urban planning. I’m from a giant city, and I am very used to city life. But everything is much more walkable here than it is in Chicago. Chicago is just so expansive. You can still get all of these really unique, different cultures in these little pockets that you can just walk through [in Philadelphia], and it can change. That’s really awesome!

I was part of an underrepresented group in grad school [at University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM)], and two of Macalester [College]’s central tenets are internationalism and multiculturalism. [Editor’s note: Gardiner attended the Minnesota institution for her undergraduate degree in biology.] That was something we all had to learn about, and they very much embraced. I had a friend from all over the world because of that, and our school was so diverse. The settings of these two places are in Wisconsin and Minnesota, which as a whole are not naturally diverse.

Moving to Philadelphia has been absolutely fantastic for me. I love being on the subway and hearing five different languages, and no one bats an eye at it. That’s something that I greatly enjoy — [plus,] just being so close to museums like the African American Museum or the Museum of the American Revolution, Betsy Ross’ house, learning more things about this country. I love the overall atmosphere and having that outside of my work makes me feel more balanced, which in turn will benefit my work, even if it’s not directly me doing science.

Dr. Jaye Gardiner speaking to a class. (Courtesy photo)

Any special projects you’re working on?

[JKX Comics], the group I cofounded, finished a big project in May where we won $2,000 from the UWM business and arts school, and we worked with seven different scientists that are all different in background, race, sexual orientation, the research that they do. We had people that study the inside of stars to people that looked at hibernating squirrels — so just a really wide diverse group — and we made individual comics for all of them.

Then we held an event on Free Comic Book Day, which was also the day that Wisconsin held their Saturday Science Outreach Program with science activities for the Madison community. We made posters of the scientists that we worked with and used the comic images that we drew to explain their science to kids.

We had all these kids that could hold a comic in their hand of an actual person, and then go talk to them about their science. That was a really spectacular thing.

Series: Technologists of Color Month 2019

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