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The Rise of the Nerd Birds: When Geek Chic Goes Girly

My first day of cosmology class and I was late. I could see, through the slit window in the door, that the only woman in the university lecture room – my best friend – had saved me a seat. Bracing myself, I slipped into the classroom and ignored the hairy eyeball glances of the nerd elite as I took my place.

“This summer I was at a conference,” the professor began. “I ended up running into Bill Nye.”

“The science guy?” My friend and I shrieked in tandem. We were impressed. Our cosmology comrades were not. Perhaps not our most intellectually impressive hour, not perhaps the best foot to start on during the first lecture of your advanced level astronomy course. But as we continued to squeal in delight, reaching inaudible octaves save only bats could hear, we reserved our right to be smart. To be excited. And to be girls.

When pitching a science show to a network, and on hearing the host will be a woman they suggest it should be for kids (that happened, to me, last month) or when super smart ladies are mostly portrayed as neurotic social outliers (think Amy Fowler in Big Bang Theory or Leah Dunham in Girls – though let the record show I adore Girls), it’s time to break the “Nerd Bird” mold. With nerd culture on the rise (many thanks to hipsters, Big Bang Theory, the Internet and let’s just throw Carl Sagan in there for good measure), the mainstreaming of it – the geek chic factor – remains predominately male. Among the Dr. Brian Coxs, Dr. Bill Nyes and Dr. Whos, there are amazing women – curious, smart women – deserving to share the limelight. In fact there are so many, that it felt a shame to pick just ten. To get started (blog, tweet and add away), here are just some of the Dr. Quinn rocking, Anne of Green Gables worthy, Tom Lehrer listening, Ira Glass coveting, by the power of GreySkull(!) women that you should know. Nerd chics (like what I did there?), meet “Nerd Birds”:

Pippa Goldschmidt – An observational astronomer turned writer of short-stories, fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Goldschimdt just published a critically acclaimed book, ‘The Falling Sky’ about a woman who understands the entire universe. Awesome. Garnering awards and residencies, Goldscmidt blogs on the interaction between science and literature. Nerd Chick, we salute you.

Maria Tatar – From Peter Pan to Grimm, Tatar is world famous fairy tale expert and an intellectual polymath, connecting psychology, history, anthropology (the list goes on), bringing to life the stories behind stories. Professor at Harvard, author of a library of books (each one will blow your mind), she is revered across disciplines, gracing even the bookshelves at NASA, for being one of the most interesting thinkers of our generation. She is.

Amanda Palmer. You may know Amanda for her music or for her time as part of the punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls but we know as a bundle of nuclear artistic energy. She’s rocked the theater world, was a judge of the ignobel awards, mentors emerging talent and her innovative approach to financing the arts just got her a Ted Talk. Not to mention she’s changing the music world as we know it. Oh, and if that’s not nerd chick reason enough, she plays a Kurtzweil keyboard.

Gia Milinovich – Behind every great man is a woman – icky phrase at best, eh? Gia however is seated directly beside her physicist husband Brian Cox. A self proclaimed professional dork, this writer, TV presenter, prolific tweeter and supporter of women in science holds her own in tv and online. She’s a natural deep water stream of topics, offering ever generous, thoughtful and sharp insights into current affairs, life, science, film, archeology, personal experiences and universal themes. “Nerd Bird”, we like the cut of your jib.

Ariella Lehrer – Women don’t play videogames? B*$%#&@^#%. This woman’s making them. Lots of them. Currently CEO of Legacy Games, Lehrer creates games based on the biggest tv shows – Law&Order, ER, Twilightzone to name a few – and has been generating games and gaming content for 30-years. Oh. And if that’s not impressive enough, Lehrer holds a PhD. in Cognitive Psychology. Play on, “Nerd Bird”.

Maya Tolstoy – a marine geophysicist, think Jaq Cousto with excellent style who does Ted Talks and may save us from tsunamis one day. Tolstoy studies sea floor earthquake and it’s impact on marine life. Contributing to our knowledge of tidal triggering, she was featured in James Cameron’s Aliens of the Deep. Tolstoy is a modern day sea-deep explorer. Ahoy “Nerd Bird”!

Heather Knight – Knight, a model engineer (we mean that in both senses of the word, she used to model) runs Marilyn Monrobot Labs in NYC, creating socially intelligent robot performances and electronic art. Awesome. In addition to a TED Talk, in 2011 Knight made Forbes List for 30 under 30 in Science. 0110001 “Nerd Bird”.

Sarah Sze – graduating summa cum laude from Yale and fellow Mac Author genius grant (we’re just saying, she’s a smart cookie), Sze is an artist who transforms everyday objects into massive, humble immersive sculptural landscapes. Sze’s work is constructed all by hand combing playfulness, precision and curiosity to turn the mundane extraordinary. US Rep for Vince Biennale in 2013, you’ll be able to see this “Nerd Bird”’s work in 2016 on the walls of NYC’s 96th street subway.

Dr. Mae C. Jemison – well-rounded doesn’t seem to cut it here with this trained dancer / choreographer, chemical engineer, scientist, physician, teacher and astronaut, who speaks fluent Russian, Japanese, and Swahili, as well as English. Oh, and just to top it off this “Nerd Bird” glass ceiling breaker paved the way as the first African American woman in space. Fun fact: half of the eight astronauts-in-training were chosen this year are female. According to journalist Kelly Schwartz, it is “the highest percentage ever selected in one group by NASA.”

Molly Stevens – Professor of Biomedical Materials and Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences at Imperial College, her company RepRegen is leading the way in regenerative medicine. Using innovative bio engineering to help regenerate damaged bone and muscle inside patients’ body, Stevens is helping the body to heal itself. Stevens was the first woman to receive a Royal Pharmaceutical Society medal, works with children’s charities. This “Nerd Bird” is – essentially – helping all of us become superwoman.

You can read more from Jessica Fox on her blog.

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