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In Día de los Muertos Altar, Students Honor Lesser-Known Scientists

When you picture a scientist, what do you see? Perhaps a white lab coat and goggles? A “Bill Nye the Science Guy” figure — white, male and maybe a little socially awkward? As Durham Academy Upper School science teacher Dr. Uma Mahajan sees it, that tired stereotype leaves out an awful lot of scientists — representing a variety of racial, ethnic and gender identities, with lives full of color both inside and outside the lab.

That color (literally and figuratively) is on full display at the main entrance to the Upper School’s STEM & Humanities Center, where Mahajan’s students have built brightly colored ofrendas, or altars, to honor deceased scientists from a range of backgrounds. In the tradition of Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday known in English as the “Day of the Dead,” students have included photos and drawings of the honorees; details about their lives and contributions to science; and physical altar offerings that represent the scientists’ lives in some way.

Mahajan asked each of the 60-plus students in her Biology and Honors Chemistry classes to choose a scientist for the project whose work has not been widely recognized. She offered special encouragement to research scientists from groups that have historically been marginalized by the scientific mainstream, like women, non-white-Europeans, non-Judeo-Christians and people born to economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mahajan was inspired to bring the Día de los Muertos project to her classroom when an educator at another school posted a similar idea online. She had already shared with her students some of the materials from the I Am A Scientist initiative — which aims to show the multidimensionality and diversity of living scientists — and this project was a natural extension of that work.

“We started the year researching about these people, learning about their lives, for our students to get to know that scientists are not people who are just in white lab coats hiding in their lab, because that's the impression that people have,” Mahajan said. “Scientists can be rock stars, they can have a music interest, they can be rock climbers, whatever. They have a life outside of science. … Anything I do in my classes, I try and think, OK, how are we going to incorporate people who usually don't get the recognition for their work? So this was a beautiful way.”

A beautiful way, indeed. Upper School visual art teacher Anne Gregory-Bepler decorated the tables on which the ofrendas are displayed with vibrantly colored cloths, papel picado banners and marigolds. Gregory-Bepler also offered students who are enrolled in both her Explorations in Ceramics & Sculpture class and one of Mahajan’s classes the opportunity to create ceramic pieces to serve as offerings for their ofrendas.

Ninth-grader Kate Ryan researched marine biologist Ruth Gates, whose research focused on coral reef ecosystems, and created a ceramic reef for her ofrenda.

“She didn’t really know what she wanted to do,” Ryan said of Gates. “She went on a scuba diving trip in Malaysia, and that’s where she discovered her passion.”

Gates went on to serve as director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and was the first woman to be named president of the International Society for Reef Studies. 

“I really enjoyed this project. It’s sort of something new that we’ve never done,” Ryan said. “Instead of just learning scientific facts, we were able to learn about people who have become scientists and what they do in their field.”

Fellow ninth-grader Priya Aggarwal researched and paid tribute to astronomer Vera Rubin, who overcame obstacles thrown at her because of her gender and went on to confirm the existence of dark matter.

“Normally, I think of, like, Albert Einstein, those types of scientists,” Aggarwal said. “But we got to research so many interesting scientists who I'd never heard of before, and learned what happened to their work. … I liked listening to other people's [presentations] because I got to hear about more minority scientists and how they felt growing up.”

As she was planning the Día de los Muertos project, Mahajan consulted with members of DA’s Diversity, Equity and Engagement team and world languages faculty to get feedback and ensure that the project was culturally respectful. Kelly Teagarden ’04, one of the Upper School’s DEE coordinators, recalled her excitement when Mahajan casually mentioned that she was considering taking on the project.

“I was like, Uma, we have to do this!” recalled Teagarden. “A science teacher doing DEE work — what can we do to support you? … It’s amazing regardless, but it’s really cool that it’s a science teacher doing DEE work. And it’s also cool that it’s a class. So much of our DEE programming is assemblies and other things, so to have it embedded in an academic course is very important.”

Adding to the cross-departmental nature of the project were Upper School librarians Shannon Harris and Katherine Spruill, who offered students tips on researching with and citing scientific sources.

Junior Mark Caveney chose to focus his project on British physician Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S., because she reminded him of his mother and grandmother, both physicians. For his ofrenda, he brought a few surgical instruments used by his grandmother.

Caveney said he appreciated the creative freedom that Mahajan afforded students through the project.

“The ability to choose someone who interests me, research and learn about them, become passionate, then teach my peers about their excellence through the creation of a colorful and gorgeous physical ofrenda was engaging, logical and coherent,” he said. “Hearing all of my peers’ presentations, then seeing them all placed for the school to also view and learn about was magnificent.”

In Ceramics class, ninth-grader Kendall Turner created a replica Nobel Peace Prize medal for her ofrenda honoring environmental, social and political activist Wangarĩ Maathai, a Kenyan who was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Something I like about Dr. Mahajan's class is not just something that we just did for this project,” Turner said. “With a lot of things in her class, it's focusing on the different people who are scientists and steering away from the stereotype of a man in a lab coat — it's showing us that anyone can be a scientist.”