HerStory December 2018: Zaha Hadid

This month in HerStory, we’re delving into the engineering aspect of STEM. Our December recipient, and “Queen of the Curve,” Zaha Hadid, was born in Baghdad, Iraq in October 1950. Her father was an industrialist and a leftist activist, and her mother was an artist. Hadid studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut, and then went on to London to study architecture at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. She studied under such revolutionary architects as Koolhaus, Zenghelis, and Tschumi, and blew their minds with her waaaay out of the box approach to design. Zenghelis noted that they “called her the inventor of 89 degrees. Nothing was ever at 90 degrees.” (The desire to build without resorting to a 90 degree angle was, in fact, the driving architectural philosophy throughout her career). She worked for former professors Koolhaus and Zenghelis for a couple of years after graduation, after which she started her own firm and continued to bend the rules of architecture.

For a while, it seemed that Zaha Hadid was the most radical and remarkable architect that couldn’t actually get anything built. She wowed her colleagues and blew the minds of her students with über-ambitious-yet-unrealized projects, but was frustrated that, even with all of the praise, contracts were often awarded instead to “safer” architects and projects. Finally, in 1991, Swiss furniture firm Vitra contracted with Hadid to design a fire station on their campus. The resulting building was spectacular (and, before ground was even broken on it, was featured in architectural journals for its brazenness and uniqueness). All raw concrete and glass, it housed the fire company’s fire department for a short period of time before being given over to an exhibit and event space. This project broke the dam, and Hadid’s designs finally began to cross from the theoretical to the physical, and her visions began to be made into reality.

Hadid existed in a world that didn’t fully understand her art. Even after she began be to awarded contracts, her work was always at least a little bit controversial; that controversy lay in the sheer audacity of what she created. Her buildings were so far from the norm that they made some folks uncomfortable. In a NYT article in 2016, Michael Kimmeman stated that “…her buildings elevated uncertainty to an art, conveyed in the odd way one entered and moved through the(m) and in the questions that her structures raised about how they were supported…” In short, her work made people uncomfortable, and because of that discomfort, she (and her work) received some hefty criticism, even as she was lauded for her refusal to fit neatly into the box of traditional architecture.

In 2004, Zaha Hadid was the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize, the architectural equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. This occurred smack-dab in the center of a long list of prizes and awards she won, such as being made a dame by Elizabeth II for services to architecture in 2012, and winning the Sterling Prize (Britain’s most prestigious architecture honor) in 2010 and 2011. Even though she experienced a lot of “first woman to”‘s, Hadid did not consider herself to be a feminist icon, and preferred to be thought of as an architect, as opposed to a “female architect”. Although, in one interview, she grudgingly conceded that “if it helps younger people to know they can break through the glass ceiling, I don’t mind that (being referred to as a female role model).”

A bout with bronchitis in 2016 that turned bad resulted in the way-too-early death of Zaha Hadid. She had a heart attack at the age of 65. Her work continues, as some projects she had begun are still in progress, and her firm is still in existence. And the influences of her work can be seen in the world around us; think about Zaha Hadid whenever you see a building that curves and bends and seems to say “oh hell no” to right angles, think of her.

HerStory November 2018: Rosalind Franklin

This month, we’re diving deep into the very building blocks of life, as we honor Rosalind Franklin, whose research directly resulted in our understanding of how DNA is structured.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in July 1920 to a prominent British Jewish family. Her early education occurred in the best schools around, and she was described by an aunt as “alarmingly clever.” Her interests always leaned toward science and math, and she excelled in both. Although her family was liberal by nature (they were active in women’s suffrage and helped settle Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis, particularly the children who were able to get away), her father just wasn’t all that into encouraging his daughter to pursue academics beyond college. Fortunately for the scientific world, Rosalind Franklin just wasn’t all that into listening to what her father had to say about her life. 

She attended Cambridge College in the late 1930s, well before they awarded actual B.A. or M.A. degrees to women. Until 1945, women received “honors,” which served to qualify them for employment at a bachelor’s level. Yikes. 

As she furthered her studies (eventually, she was awarded actual degrees for her work), she also lived in London and, along with her cousin, volunteered as an Air Raid Warden. This was during WWII, and London was a volatile and sometimes frightening place. She did research for a coal concern, and was instrumental in discovering the properties and the porosity of coal, which helped in both coal use for fuel and as a filter for things like gas masks. She broadened her research and knowledge by studying X-ray diffraction and crystallography, at first applying those techniques to the further understanding of coal’s structures, but eventually working on the structure of DNA. She was the first to capture a photograph of the helical structure of DNA (Photo 51, referred to by one researcher at the time as “amongst the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken,”) and the first to posit that there were two forms of DNA, and that at least one of those forms was helical in structure. Throughout her professional career, she found herself at odds with her colleagues, mostly, it seems, due to her male colleagues discomfort with the kind of woman she was (bold, unapologetic, more interested in lively scientific debates than the expected decorum of the time).

Watson and Crick are widely lauded as the discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA, and for cracking the code on the secrets of life. Their seminal and important work was based directly on the work of Franklin and her research partner, particularly a back-channel view of the aforementioned Photo 51; without that glimpse, they might not have reached the conclusions they reached for quite a long time. Seeing Photo 51 flipped a switch in Watson and Crick’s brains, and opened up the pathway to the DNA model they were eventually able to build. Franklin published her own papers on the structure of DNA, but it was Watson and Crick who received the most praise, and it was Watson and Crick who eventually received the Nobel Prize. 

Franklin continued to work on further understanding DNA, and had begun researching RNA’s structure when she fell ill to ovarian cancer. Two years after her diagnosis and treatment began, Rosalind Franklin was dead, at the age of 37. Because Franklin was a woman, and because she was a woman who didn’t squish herself into the mold of what her male colleagues thought a woman should be (she was brash and argumentative, she was unconcerned with her appearance, all of the things that make men uncomfortable around intelligent women), she was subjected to not only gender bias but gender harassment, treated like an assistant when she contributed as a colleague, not given credit where it was definitely due. 

Our Rosalind Franklin-inspired colorway, The Miracle of DNA, is comprised of rich, unapologetic colors that echo the colors of Hanukah. Franklin was widely considered to be agnostic; in fact, as a child, when discussing faith, she remarked to her mother, “Well, anyhow, how do you know He isn’t She?” just to see what kind of a reaction she could get. However, she considered herself to be Jewish, culturally if not religiously. Throughout her too-short life, Franklin honored Jewish traditions, and this colorway is our homage to both her cultural heritage and her boldness. 

HerStory October 2018: Wangari Maathi

 It’s Fall, y’all, and even though the leaves are turning orange and red in our part of the country, we are all about green this month for HerStory, as we delve into the life and activism of Wangari Maathai and her founding of the the Green Belt Movement.

Born in Nyeri in rural Kenya in 1940, Wangari Maathai truly did it all. She was a pioneer in practically everything she did, and seemed to be collecting firsts: she was the first woman ever in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree; the first woman ever to chair a department at the University of Nairobi, and the first woman ever to become an associate professor there. She was also the first African woman to win a Nobel Peach Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” After earning degrees in America, she returned to Africa and became active in pro-democracy politics in her native Kenya. It was during her time chairing the National Council of Women of Kenya in the late 1970s that she began her work on what would become the Green Belt Movement, which was to become her most lasting legacy.

As she became more involved in advocacy groups such as the National Council of Women and the Kenya Red Cross Society (which she also directed) in Kenya, she realized that many of the problems she was seeing in her beloved home country were a direct result of environmental degradation. She was inspired to create a business that provided the seeds (see what we did there?) for the Green Belt Movement. Envirocare sought to connect ordinary Kenyans, particularly women, with the means to plant fledgeling tree nurseries, paying them to look after these nurseries. Even though Envirocare did not ultimately succeed, it was because of this work that Maathai was inspired and able to create the Green Belt Movement.

The Green Belt Movement was and is a grass-roots environmental organization with the goal of empowering people, mostly women, in rural communities to work at both environmental conservation and building their own food supplies toward more self-sustainability. This is achieved by community seed-planting and -stewardship, which in turn helps to build and protect soil and rainwater retention. Participants receive training and a small stipend for each seedling planted, and their community enjoys environment benefits from replenishing and rebuilding the soil. The main thrust of the movement is for communities to take control of their own destinies, by working together to address their specific needs. 

Throughout all of this, Wangari Maathai had a personal life, too: she married, had three children, and ultimately divorced. Readers of this letter will be unsurprised to learn that her husband wished for a divorce because she was difficult to control, and even went so far, in the divorce proceedings, to accuse her of adultery and state that the worry over that caused high blood pressure. The (male) judge ruled in Wangari’s husband’s favor, which inspired her to wonder, in an interview, if he was corrupt or incompetent. The judge THEN charged her with contempt of court AND SHE WAS FOUND GUILTY AND SENTENCED TO SIX MONTHS IN JAIL!!! Whaaaaaaaaa…..? Fortunately, her lawyer was able to spring her after only three days, but seriously??? Once she was out of jail, her ex-husband demanded she stop his surname, to which the seemingly salty and, we’re sure, fed up to her eyeballs Wangari responded by merely adding an extra “a” to the name, effectively changing it.

There is so much more to talk about with this amazing HerStory recipient (as there have been for every single one so far this year)… For instance, during her time at the University of Nairobi, she campaigned for equal rights for woman, and even attempted to form a union in the hopes of gaining more bargaining power. Although the union was thwarted, the seeds of equal rights were planted, and much of what she was pushing for was eventually adopted by the university. And, because of her ethnic heritage and advocacy for a democratic Kenya, a lot of what she tried to accomplish politically was thwarted once Daniel arap Moi was elected president in the late 1970s. 

In the 1980s, the government started attacking the Green Belt Movement, partly because it was such a democratic organization, and the government was swinging closer to authoritarianism (sound familiar?). As Maathai became more political and more outspoken against the ruling power, she was targeted by the government, called “a crazy woman” who ran a “bogus organization” run by a “bunch of divorcees.” Resolved to fight for democracy and fairness, she was arrested in 1992, after her name was discovered on a governmental hit-list, and after barricading herself in her house for three days. She took part in a hunger strike (along with other mostly-women protestors) shortly after being released from jail, and, along with her fellow protestors, was attacked by the police so forcibly that hospitalization was necessary. She was again called “a mad woman” by the president of the country (can you imagine the president of a country personally attacking a private citizen? Oh, uh… nevermind). Through all of this, she continued to fight for democracy and environmental stewardship, and helped to get the National Rainbow Coalition on the ballots and winning in Kenya. She was elected to serve in the Kenyan parliament, and founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya in 2003, fostering environmentalism in politics. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. We love her. Sadly, she passed away in 2011 at the age of 71 from complications arising from ovarian cancer.

There is so much we weren’t able to cover, because Wangari Maathai had a multi-faceted life that won’t easily fit into two pages. We encourage you to check out the Green Belt Movement (https://www.greenbeltmovement.org), read her books, watch the documentary on her (called Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai), and if you can, donate. Our colorway is inspired by her work in the Green Belt Movement, and we’re calling it Unbowed, after her memoir. 

HerStory September 2018: María del Socorro Flores González

Our September HerStory recipient just had a birthday (September 10, 1955 is her birthdate), so let’s all sing Happy Birthday, or Cumpleaños Feliz to her:

¡Cumpleaños feliz,

Cumpleaños feliz,

Te deseamos todo,

Cumpleaños feliz!

She’s yet another amazing heroine, whose mostly unsung work has saved thousands upon thousands of lives in the developing world. Yet another woman who saw a problem that wasn’t being addressed much in the greater world and decided to apply her massive brain power and heart to figuring out a way to fix that problem.

Dr. María del Socorro Flores González was born in San Buenaventura, Coahuila, Mexico, the eldest of five children. Her family was unique in that gender equality and education were important family values, and it’s said that her grandmother, a strong woman in her own right, was her biggest influence and champion. As long as María and her siblings were working to further their education, they enjoyed the full support of their family, and that was something that wasn’t all that common in the 1950s.

After getting her Master’s and Doctorate in science, specializing in immunology, at the National School of Biological Sciences of the National Polytechnic Institute in the 1980s, Dr. González conducted post-doctoral work in Paris. She then devoted the next twenty years to the understanding and study of invasive amebiasis, a parasite affecting the gastrointestinal system which is an endemic problem in nations that suffer from poor water quality such as her home country of Mexico. Hundreds of millions of people are affected every year by invasive amebiasis, and over 100,000 die because of the infection. Dr. González invented a diagnostic test that can be easily administered in and by countries that don’t enjoy the most technologically-advanced everything, and because of this discovery, many lives are saved every year. Infections that, in the time prior to her work and discovery, would have resulted in grave illness and death, are treated effectively. 

Dr. González recognized that, because of the populations being affected by invasive amebiasis, there had been a low priority in the medical research field to discover treatments and cures for this widespread disease. Dr. González’s greatest wish is that this will aid in the care and treatment of those greatest affected by this disease: folks with low incomes, who have been ignored for so long. We could all stand to devote more time, brainpower, and resources to those things/issues/people that are most ignored in our society, don’t you think? 

Our colorway this month is our attempt to make lemonade out of lemons; in other words, we’ve taken an image we found of amebiasis and turned it into this gorgeous colorway, which we’re calling Invasive Invaders.

HerStory August 2018: Seema Prakash

We are sharing our love letters for the HerStory Sock Club here, just in case you misplaced yours, didn’t get one, or want to check out what we send prior to signing up. Remember that there are many LYS’s that carry HerStory (listed on our front page), but if your local shop doesn’t, or if you love getting unicorn-encrusted mail from us, you can purchase a 3-month or year-long subscription from us here

As a child in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India, Seema Prakash became interested in science at an early age. She dreamed of becoming a pediatrician, after becoming enamored with Florence Nightingale, but even though as she grew, so did opportunities for women in India, the barriers to medical school were just too high. She attended an all-girls college in her hometown, earning her Masters in Botany before getting married and moving to England for a bit. During the early years of her children’s lives, she concentrated on parenting, but it was while in England that she began her journey on the work that would eventually land her on our 2018 HerStory list. One website we found stated that, in the end, she DID become a pediatrician of sorts, although to plants instead of human babies.

In the 1990s, her family moved back to India and Seema earned her PhD. Inspired by Bob Geldof’s activism in support of raising money for the famine in Africa, including the recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and the Live Aid concerts, she began working diligently on figuring out a less expensive way to clone plants. You see, before Dr. Prakash’s groundbreaking work, plant cloning was prohibitively expensive for most, and thus was reserved for the big dogs of farming: the corporate farms who could afford the large price tag associated with it (the medium in which cloning traditionally occurs (agar) is very expensive). Dr. Prakash, seeing that having access to cloned plants, which have a higher yield, are more resistant to environmental factors that affect lesser plants, and are easier to propagate, would greatly help impoverished areas (such as great swaths of India), experimented with other media in which to culture plant tissue. After lots of trial and error, she discovered that sterilized glass beads and liquid nutrients, which are inexpensive and easy to come by, are just what the doctor (aka Dr. Prakash herself) ordered. 

In the mid-1990s, Prakash founded a company to market this new way to clone, called In Vitro International Private Limited. (If you go to the website, know that it appears to not have been updated since the mid-1990s, and will show you just how far internet technology has come.) Her company is doing good works, pioneering different ways for small-scale farms to up their production and therefore better support themselves in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable way. The goal is a balanced growth, encouraging farmers to marry economics and ecology to support economic AND environmental sustainability for all. She has also created an education program for school-aged children, encouraging them to learn about plants and plant propagation through a “Plant Passport” program, with the goal of inspiring children to care about preservation and conservation.

We found ourselves very inspired by Dr. Prakash (although we also found that information about and images of her are hard to come by). Her efforts include creating a trust to ensure that rural farmers in developing countries have access to information and knowledge about economically-sustainable plant propagation free of charge; tireless advocation for women in agricultural and sustainable rural development work; and the introduction of technological advances to developing countries to introduce food self-sufficiency to parts of the world that have not yet achieved those goals, mostly because of economic and environmental disadvantages. We hope that this love letter, and the accompanyingly-inspirational colorway, Famine Fighter, that we created in honor of Dr. Seema Prakash teach you a thing or two about this amazing August HerStory recipient.

Speaking of Famine Fighter, we had so much fun creating this colorway! We did a massive google image search of saris, scrolling all around and mentally choosing colors to apply, and then we headed into the dye room and started playing. We have so enjoyed the creation of each of our HerStory colorways so far this year, but this one was particularly fun. Super-saturated silky blue and green and yellow, all in a skein of yarn? YES PLEASE!

HerStory July 2018: Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard

We are sharing our love letters for the HerStory Sock Club here, just in case you misplaced yours, didn’t get one, or want to check out what we send prior to signing up. Remember that there are many LYS’s that carry HerStory (listed on our front page), but if your local shop doesn’t, or if you love getting unicorn-encrusted mail from us, you can purchase a 3-month or year-long subscription from us here

We all know the feeling: you walk into your kitchen, prepared to start your day, and a cloud of wee annoyances lift off of an overripe banana on your countertop. Your kitchen has been besieged by those unruly, buggy little things we all know as fruit flies. But just imagine if you will, that you look at one of these wee annoyances and instead see the key to understanding just how genetics work. Imagine seeing the beauty and the possibility in a cloud of fruit flies. Well, that’s what our July HerStory recipient, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, did. She embraced (not literally, because fruit flies are teensy) the little buggers and figured out how genes control embryonic development.

Born in 1942 in Magdeburg, Germany, Nüsslein-Volhard was a precocious child, always interested in biology and the natural sciences. Her grades throughout primary school were mediocre, as she professed to not give time and energy to the subjects that didn’t interest her. She attended Goethe Frankfurt University in Frankfurt in the early 1960s, but found herself feeling unchallenged and bored, so transferred to the University of Tübingen when they debuted a biochemistry program in the mid-1960s. Tübingen housed the Max Planck Institute for Virus Research, and was host to visiting scientists from a variety of fields, which proved to be inspiring to our young researcher. While at Tübingen, she briefly married and gained a hyphenated name, but when the marriage ended in divorce, she kept both names, as she had begun to be published, and preferred the continuity of having the same name. Her PhD work led her to study molecular biology and genetics in more depth, but she found that the course of study she had chosen was limited and not as inspiring as she hoped. She moved on to cellular biology, and studied at the University of Basel in Switzerland for a time, learning more and more about how genes behave, and what effects introducing mutations into a developing embryo have. She moved back to Germany to continue her work on genetics, and in 1980, along with her research partner, published a paper identifying fifteen genes that compromise the fruit fly.

After publishing this seminal paper, in 1986, Nüsslein-Volhard went home, to Tübingen, Germany, and became the director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. She held this position for many years, and continued her work on genetics. Inspired by her genetic discoveries with fruit flies, she began working on isolating genetic structures of vertebrates, and began studying zebrafish.

Nüsslein-Volhard also began working on social, ethical, and philosophical issues in the sciences. She served on the National Ethics Council of Germany and became a leader on ethics and gender equality issues. Nüsslein-Volhard established the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation, an organization which seeks to promote gender equality in science by providing support and resources to female scientists. One of things that most inspired Nüsslein-Volhard to found this organization was the realization that, no matter how accomplished a female scientist was, at the end of the day, for many women, the burden of homemaking, otherwise known as the invisible workload, most commonly falls to women. Her foundation provides funding resources to help female scientists hire out that invisible workload. She has spoken on the ongoing difficulties women face in the sciences: how hard it is for women to balance research and family obligations, and the fact that this is the leading reason women are so underrepresented in leading scientific positions.
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard won the Nobel Prize Physiology and Medicine in 1995. She later reflected that it was a double-edged sword: she enjoyed the legitimacy and professional honor, but found it a distraction in many ways. She was torn between feeling the need to accept all invitations to speak and the desire to get back to work, and felt that there was a definite sexist slant to some of the reception to her award. Throughout her career, and throughout the careers of many women in fields that have been dominated by males, she’s had not only to do the work, put in the time, and make sure her work is exemplary, but also to fight against the sometimes-fragile male egos of her contemporaries.

She’s currently Director Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, and in her spare time, loves to cook (she’s even published a cook book!) and play the flute and sing. She continues to be a leader in the field of genetics, and even has an asteroid named after her. So, the next time you find yourself with some overripe fruit and overzealous fruit flies, take a moment before smashing them all to think about how these humble pests helped to further our understanding of how genes work, and inspired the career of a truly inspiring HerStory recipient.

HerStory June 2018: Valentina Tereshkova

We are sharing our love letters for the HerStory Sock Club here, just in case you misplaced yours, didn’t get one, or want to check out what we send prior to signing up. Remember that there are many LYS’s that carry HerStory (listed on our front page), but if your local shop doesn’t, or if you love getting unicorn-encrusted mail from us, you can purchase a 3-month or year-long subscription from us here

” Hey sky, take off your hat, I’m on my way!”

“Anyone who has spent any time in space will love it for the rest of their lives. I achieved my childhood dream of the sky.”

“If women can be railroad workers in Russia, why can’t they fly in space?”

“Once you’ve been in space, you appreciate how small and fragile the Earth is.”

-all quotes by June’s HerStory recipient Valentina Tereshkova

Every month, we get to spend a little time getting to know another amazing woman, and this month, our HerStory recipient is really out of this world. Meet trailblazer Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. 

Born March 6, 1937, Tereshkova grew up in a proletarian family in central Russia. Her mother worked in the textile industry, and her father fought in the Finno-Russian War of 1939-1940 and went missing in action. She left school at 16 to work in the textile industry and help support her family, finishing her education via correspondence courses. She became interested in skydiving at a young age, and joined her local Aeroclub, making her first jump at the age of 22. She fell in love with skydiving; she was hooked.

In 1961, after the successful launch of the Russian space program, the powers that be in the program decided that it was their patriotic duty to beat the Americans in any way possible, including being the first country to send a woman to the final frontier. There were over 400 applicants for this program, with the list of qualifications including: trained parachutists; no older than 30; no taller than 170 cm (5 ft 7 in); weighing no more than 70 kg (154 lbs); and, perhaps most important, ideologically pure. Tereshkova applied for the program and was selected, and, along with four other skydivers, began intensive training for space flight. In the final selection process, Tereshkova beat out her closest competitor, not because she was more qualified (her testing resulted in lower scores than the female cosmonaut she was pitted against), but because she was a better communist. It was all about the propaganda in Russia at the time, and Tereshkova proved herself to be the picture-perfect New Soviet Woman. She was a reliable communist, a factory worker from a humble background, and a ‘good’ girl, with the looks, charm, and attitude necessary for celebrity.

On June 16, 1963, after a two-hour countdown, the spacecraft Vostok 6 took off, carrying Tereshkova (call sign Chaika, or seagull) to space. She was the first woman ever to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, and she spent three days in space, orbiting the Earth 48 times. With a single flight, she logged more flight time than the combined times of all American astronauts who had flown before that date.

Upon her return to Earth, Tereshkova faced lots of criticism from a certain faction in the Soviet Air Force, with heavy-handed attempts to discredit her. She was called weak for experiencing physical discomfort while in space, and criticized for calling attention to an orientation error that could have caused her death upon attempted re-entry. Ultimately, her allies outnumbered and outmaneuvered her opponents, and she became a beloved fixture in the communist party and beyond, remaining an enduring Soviet hero to this day.  

After her space flight, Tereshkova had a rich, full, life, but she always hoped to once again leave the Earth’s atmosphere. She never made it back to space, although in 2013, when meeting with Vladimir Putin, she offered to embark on a one-way trip to Mars. Shortly after her trip to space, she married another cosmonaut, giving birth to her daughter, the first person to have both a mother and father who had been in space, a mere year after her space flight. She had a rich political career, working in the communist party as a prominent member. She received a graduate degree in engineering from the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy. She represented Russia, and Russian woman, at the Olympics, UN conferences, and the World Peace Council. Her marriage was ultimately unhappy, and it wasn’t until gaining the personal permission of Soviet Premier Brezhnev in 1982 that she was able to divorce her first husband. She later married for love, and had 20 years of happiness with her second husband before he passed away.

The quotes at the top of this love letter embody the joy and pride Valentina Tereshkova felt in space, and the deep impact it had on the rest of her life. She is now retired from most of her public and political life, living in a small brick dacha on the outskirts of Star City, a house with a seagull weathervane, commemorating the call sign of her flight in space, and still hoping, we are sure, to once again make it out of this world and into the deep of space.

As you honor our HerStory recipients by knitting with the yarn inspired by their lives, please be sure to share your projects with us. On Instagram, tag @knittedwit, and use hashtags #knittedwit and #herstory2018kal. On Facebook, make sure to join our Knitted Wit Knitalongs Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/knittedwitkal), to be inspired by what your co-HerStory knitters have made, and inspire all of us with your creations. We are halfway through our HerStory lessons for the year, and are daily inspired by the women we have honored so far. We hope this journey has been inspiring for you, as well.

HerStory May 2018: Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

We are sharing our love letters for the HerStory Sock Club here, just in case you misplaced yours, didn’t get one, or want to check out what we send prior to signing up. Remember that there are many LYS’s that carry HerStory (listed on our front page), but if your local shop doesn’t, or if you love getting unicorn-encrusted mail from us, you can purchase a 3-month or year-long subscription from us here

This month, our HerStory recipient is the scientist who discovered the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was born in Paris, France, in July of 1947. As a young girl, she was fascinated by the workings of the natural world. She’d spend hours observing insect behavior on family vacations, and quickly realized that she was destined for a life in the natural sciences. Once grown and schooled, she joined the Pasteur Institute in Paris in the 1970s, and worked on retrovirus research. In 1996, she became the head of the Retrovirus Biology Unit (later called Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit). For all of her work and dedication, Barré-Sinoussi won the Nobel Prize in 2008, along with the colleagues she discovered HIV with.
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi thought she’d have the typical life of a research scientist, specializing in retroviruses, doing the work, putting in the time. And that all would have created a wonderful life, full of good work on important diseases without a huge effect on her entire life. That is, until an infectious-disease specialist called the Pasteur Institute and asked her to look for a retrovirus in a new disease that had been wreaking havoc all over the world. This disease was AIDS, and her work on it would change her life forever.

Once she and her colleagues began working on the research into whether or not AIDS was caused by a retrovirus, that was it. She was forever inextricably linked to the disease. Discovering that AIDS was, indeed, caused by a retrovirus took a relatively short period of time, and since that discovery, Barré-Sinoussi has worked tirelessly with patients and doctors and other researchers to try to discover a treatment and pave the way for a potential cure for the disease. She spent time in San Francisco at the height of the US AIDS epidemic, holding the hands of AIDS patients as the disease took them further and further into illness. Over the years, she has befriended many AIDS patients and watched as they sickened and died. She threw her entire self into the study of the disease, and at points in her life, has told her loved ones that “I feel that I’m not my own personality any more. I look like a virus. My face is like HIV.”

In 1996, a therapy was introduced that completely changed the course of the AIDS epidemic. Not necessarily a cure, antiretroviral (or combination) therapy proved to be very effective in saving lives and curbing the effects of the disease. Although a huge relief, Barré-Sinoussi fell into a depression once this happened (as did many of her colleagues), as the relentless push against the virus finally lessened, and they were all left with a feeling of almost let-down. We are strange creatures, human beings; sometimes that which should give us the most joy opens our eyes to all we have lost, and we think that must have been what happened to Barré-Sinoussi: the weight of all of the lives lost to the disease pressed down relentlessly on her. She stepped away from the public eye for a while, and was able to find her way back to the good fight, once again working on a deeper understanding of the disease, and being a relentless advocate for those whose lives have been affected by the infection.

In reading about Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who is, to this day, intimately involved in fighting AIDS and advocating for those afflicted with HIV, we are once again touched to our very cores by these strong women in HerStory who have given so much of themselves to making the world a better place. For where would we be without them?

The colorway this month, inspired by the 1980s era, is called Prendre le Coeur (take heart). The colors are decidedly 1980’s Laura Ashley fabric and dresses, the message decidedly Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. Take heart, everyone, for there are people like Françoise Barré-Sinoussi working tirelessly to make this world a better place.

Remember to share your HerStory projects with us. Tag me @knittedwit, and use hashtags #knittedwit and #herstory2018kal. On Facebook, make sure to join our new Knitted Wit Knitalongs Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/572482266432576), where folks have been sharing their HerStory projects so far. We have so many fabulous women to talk about with you, and hope you’ve loved the lessons so far!

HerStory April 2018: Maryam Mirzakhani

We are sharing our love letters for the HerStory Sock Club here, just in case you misplaced yours, didn’t get one, or want to check out what we send prior to signing up. Remember that there are many LYS’s that carry HerStory (listed on our front page), but if your local shop doesn’t, or if you love getting unicorn-encrusted mail from us, you can purchase a 3-month or year-long subscription from us here

Every month, we are more in love with our HerStory subject AND the colorway we create to honor them, and this month is only different in that we literally cannot stop looking at and dreaming of the yarn. It’s so good that Shannon has already knitted an entire sock. We’ll share photos on IG after the 25th of the month, when she will surely be done with the second sock.

April’s honoree was a little heart-hard for us. We first heard about Maryam Mirzakhani when she passed away last year at the age of 40 from breast cancer. The fact that many Iranian newspapers, (and even the President) decided to share her photo, head uncovered, even though she didn’t live by religious law, was really striking. This was a woman who had blazed so many trails in her 40 short years on earth that it was deemed more important to honor her than respect long-standing cultural taboos surrounding the rules her birth society imposed on women.

Maryam Mirzakhani was born in 1977 in Tehran, Iran. She quickly began to amass what would be a long list of mathematical “firsts”: she was the first female student to receive the gold medal level in the International Mathematics Olympiad in 1994, and the next year, became the first Iranian student, either male OR female, to achieve a perfect score and win two gold medals. Her entire school and work career, she was blazing trails and breaking glass ceilings, y’all. After earning her BSc in Mathematics from the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, she journeyed to the US, to Harvard, for her graduate work. She was a relentless and inquisitive learner, and didn’t let the language barrier get her down. Her class notes were in Farsi; she communicated with her peers and professors in English. In 2004, she earned her PhD, and had fellowships at the Clay Mathematics Institute and a professorship at Princeton before finding her home at Stanford. It was there that she earned the singular honor of being both the first woman AND the first Iranian to win the prestigious Fields Medal mathematics prize (it’s like the Nobel prize, but only awarded every four years, and primarily to mathematicians under the age of 40).

Mirzakhani’s approach to math can be described as beautiful and (dare we say it?) crafty. When asked how she does her math thing, she referred to herself as a “slow” mathematician (others strongly begged to differ, changing the description “slow” to “deep”), and said that “you have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math.” Mirzakhani literally doodled her way through mathematical figuring, filling huge pieces of papers with squiggly doodles and jotting equations along the edges, something her daughter described as “painting.” Sounds pretty craft-adjacent, doesn’t it? She was known for her creative thinking and her ability to see the big picture, pairing seemingly disparate mathematical theories and approaches to solve long-standing mathematical problems.

The concepts behind what Mirzakhani studied make our brains literally hurt, but they also sound almost like magic. She studied the curves that sit on top of surfaces to understand the surfaces, things that are not bound by constraints of the REAL WORLD. What? In researching these theories and approaches, we were struck by the fact that the prevailing thoughts on mathematicians are that they are super boring and nerdy. In reality, after trying to get our heads around these concepts, it seems that they actually might be some of the most magical among us. It feels like it’s all a big leap of faith to even approach a mathematical problem like the ones Mirzakhani was able to solve.
Mirzakhani was known for her studies of moduli spaces (which is where we got the name for the colorway from). From what we can gather and understand (which is not a lot!), a moduli space is a theoretical space consisting of solutions for geometric classification problems. The goal is to have a fine moduli space, where there is a unifying factor among the problems. And… that’s about as far as we can go on that, because it’s all pretty high-level mathematic theorizing, and, as we’ve said before, “Dammit, Jim! We’re dyers and knitters, not mathematicians!” However, in the most basic understanding of moduli spaces, having a place where problems can more easily be solved by having at least one parameter in common sounds kind of dreamy, doesn’t it? Finding common ground and all that jazz. Even if we are off the mark on our understanding of these concepts, we’re feeling pretty good about it.

The colorway itself was inspired by the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, otherwise known as the Pink Mosque in Iran. Seriously, check out this photo (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mayhlen/8094768919/), and try not to be immensely inspired by the overwhelming beauty of this space. We are tickled pink, blue, and yellow that our yarn came out to so perfectly match this amazing place. The mosque was built in the late 1800s, and features stained-glass windows that let in beautifully-colored light that in turn plays with the brightly-colored glass tiles that adorn the walls and ceiling. It is one of the most stunning buildings we have ever seen, and made the absolute perfect colorway to honor the trailblazing, amazing, and mind-bendingly brilliant Maryam Mirzakhani. We hope you are as inspired and touched by this HerStory as we were.

Remember to share your HerStory projects with us. Tag me @knittedwit, and use hashtags #knittedwit and #herstory2018kal. On Facebook, make sure to join our new Knitted Wit Knitalongs Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/572482266432576), where folks have been sharing their HerStory projects so far. We have so many fabulous women to talk about with you, and hope you’ve loved the lessons so far!

HerStory March 2018: Tu Youyou

We are sharing our love letters for the HerStory Sock Club here, just in case you misplaced yours, didn’t get one, or want to check out what we send prior to signing up. Remember that there are many LYS’s that carry HerStory (listed on our front page), but if your local shop doesn’t, or if you love getting unicorn-encrusted mail from us, you can purchase a 3-month or year-long subscription from us here

This month, our colorway is a delightfully springy homage to the sweet wormwood plant, and our honoree is a real trailblazer who never forgot the importance of looking back while working for the future. 

Tu Youyou’s path to her place in HerStory almost reads like a novel of intrigue. A young medical researcher gets recruited into a secret cabal of scientists hell-bent on discovering a cure for malaria, to give the communist North Vietnamese army a better chance at winning the war they are embroiled in. Relying on traditional Chinese medicine and texts from hundreds of years ago, Tu and her team, known only as Mission 523, discover mentions of “sweet wormword,”or qinghao, which, once tested, proved to be an effective treatment of the disease that was wreaking havoc both on rainforest populations and on the NVA army. Decades pass, many lives are saved, the researcher lives in quiet obscurity, until, in the 2000s, the scientific community “rediscovers” her, and begins to recognize her remarkable achievement and contribution to medicine.

Tu Youyou was born, raised, worked, and did all of her research in China. Most of her work was done during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1960s and 1970s), a time when science was not held in high regard. In fact, scientists (and all intellectuals) were considered to be of a societal caste only one step above beggars, which were abhorred. They were known as the Stinking old Ninth, as in the ninth caste. But the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, understood the significance and importance of science, and when asked by the North Vietnamese government to help figure out a way to treat the malaria that was decimating their soldiers, he put together a secret task force, known as Mission 523 (it was formed on May 23rd, 1967, hence the name 523). 

Tu was quickly recruited. She was a research scientist, a pharmaceutical chemist who focused on traditional and herbal medicines. She spearheaded the effort to comb through the texts and visit herbalists all over China, testing herbs that ancient herbalists used to combat traditional symptoms of malaria. Hundreds of potential malarial treatments later, the benefits of qinghao were discovered. Through lots of trial and error (a deeper read of the ancient texts revealed that the herb needed to be steeped in cool, not boiling water, for instance), Artemisia annua was shown to be completely effective in animal studies. Once those primary trials were underway, she volunteered to test the compound on herself before moving on to human trials. The discovery of artemisinin has been instrumental in saving many lives that would once have been lost to malaria. 

In 2011, Tu was awarded the prestigious Lasker DeBakey clinical medical research award, and in 2015, she won the Nobel Prize in Medicine with two other researchers. As an interesting aside, in China, Tu is known as the “three noes” Nobel winner: no medical degree, no doctorate, and she’s never worked overseas.

A serious and modest woman (when she won the Lasker award, her response was “I am too old to bear this”), her work was initially published anonymously. It finally reached international audiences in the early 1980s, and in the early 2000s, the World Health Organization recommended the use of artemisinin-based combination drug therapies as first-line treatment for malaria. 

Her personal life took a backseat to her professional one. Her husband was “sent to the countryside” (read: to a labor camp) to work during the Cultural Revolution, and she had to leave her 4-year-old daughter at a local nursery for 6 months while she immersed herself in research. When she and her daughter were finally reunited, the little girl didn’t recognize her mother. “The work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life,” she said later. A woman of few words, she’s known for her passion for work and her drive, and there are millions of people alive today who wholeheartedly appreciate her sacrifice. Thanks, Tu Youyou, for being you.

Remember to share your HerStory projects with us. Tag me @knittedwit, and use hashtags #knittedwit and #herstory2018kal. On Facebook, make sure to join our new Knitted Wit Knitalongs Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/572482266432576), where folks have been sharing their HerStory projects so far. Thanks so much for taking this STEM-y journey with us – we have been thoroughly enjoying learning so much about these amazing and unsung women, and are just as excited about what’s coming up for the rest of the year!