Updated: Jan 25
Meet Nina Chhita, the creator of the popular @nina.draws.scientists
If you love history and you are fascinated by women in STEM, you definitely want to meet Nina Chhita, the creator of the popular Instagram account @nina.draws.scientists. If you're not following this account, stop what you are doing and follow it right now, because Nina Chhita is a talented writer. She's also a scientist, and she does these amazing illustrations of the stories you don't know about women in STEM. In this episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast, we discuss fascinating and diverse scientists, Nina's process for researching and creating posts about them, and what's next for this content creator.
From developmental biology to medical writer to freelance writer and illustrator -- Nina's Adventures in Learning
[00:56] Dr Diane: So, Nina, one of the things I like to ask everybody when we start is if you can just tell us a little bit about your own adventures in learning. I know that you were a medical writer in Vancouver until recently. You're now a freelance writer, an illustrator, and you do @nina.draws.scientists. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got there?
[01:15] Nina: So it's been a little bit of a journey, but I have always loved art, so whenever I was trying to learn anything, I always had to draw it out. For some reason, it made a topic stick in my head, and even at university, I would draw out all of my lecture notes. And then when I moved to London, I wanted to discover a little bit more about the people who lived in my city and the fact that you could go to different sites and there would be these blue plaques saying, this famous person used to live here. So what I would do is try to draw that historic person and visit the actual site and take a picture of my illustration with the blue plaque in the background. And it was a great way to get to know my city. Eventually, though, I started to gravitate more towards scientists and more towards women in science.
Along the way, I realized that people didn't know the stories and the contributions that women had made to science, and I was really enthused by sharing that untold story. -- Nina Chhita
[02:26] Dr Diane: So you have a degree in biology, is that correct?
[02:30] Nina: Yes. So I started with biology and my masters in developmental biology. My working career has been in medical education as a medical writer, originally for a whole range of materials, but more recently within public health and education.
[02:49] Dr Diane: Okay, great. And I'm wondering, did you always have an interest in science as a kid, or is this something that came on as you got older?
[03:00] Nina: That's a really great question. I think I more had an interest in art, to be honest. And I definitely had a very big interest in biology and the medical side of sciences. So that's why I ended up pursuing that area more.
How did the blue plaque tours launch an Instagram sensation?
[03:24] Dr Diane: When you were doing your blue plaque tours, was there a particular person that sort of ignited your imagination, got you excited and made you think, I need to share this with the world, I need to create an Instagram account?
[03:37] Nina: There wasn't a particular scientist, to be honest, but there was a particular moment where I was really shocked that people didn't know about the scientist Rosalind Franklin. I know these days there's a lot of articles and books about her, but while I was working at one of my previous jobs, we were right around the corner where Rosalind Franklin used to live, and I had gone there and visited the site. But then at the same kind of time, we had a Christmas quiz and people didn't know who Rosalind Franklin was. And I was really shocked that they didn't know who essentially discovered the structure of DNA. And that kind of led me onto my Instagram journey, really. That was a big turning point for me.
[04:32] Dr Diane: Who are some of the scientists that you think have been overlooked by the men in their lives in terms of the contributions they made that maybe we don't know about?
[04:43] Nina: There's several stories, and I think part of it is they haven't actually been written into history, so they may have been celebrated and really respected in their day, but then as time has gone by, we've forgotten to write them into our stories. In particular, there have been some around the 17th and 18th centuries where you had scientific couples working in science and the man who was working in a particular area would get the recognition.
How do you decide who you're going to feature on the Instagram account?
[05:27] Nina: It's really an organic process, so it could be someone that I was particularly drawn to their story for some reason or another. It could be what's happening today in the news, so I'll try and make it relevant. And also there are some barriers there because it will be people that I can actually find information about. So it's a combination of all of those. I also tend to gravitate more towards the biological medical side because that's my background and I've got quite a solid base knowledge in that area and that's another factor. So you will find that I don't focus on physicists, for example, as much as I probably could have.
What goes into the research? How do you research these women, especially if they haven't been written into history?
[06:25] Nina: That has been a process because when I first started, I had never really done historical research, so I would literally just Google something, find an article from the Internet, usually Wikipedia, but it has evolved.
I've realized that I can really lean on biographies. And these days, there are a lot more biographies about women in science. There could be more, but there are definitely more than when I started in 2017. And when I was living in Vancouver, I was really lucky to live near a great public library. So I would get these books out at the library because cost is a huge barrier. And then I've also started looking into historical journals, and they'll often have articles written by historical researchers that are open access, so I can lean on those. And another thing which I've discovered through this process is we can go visit archives for free, which is incredible if you're in a certain area. So right now I'm in the UK. I can access the British Library for free. I can visit the National Archives for free. If they happen to have a collection about a certain person, I can go into those archives. And I'm also really happy to find digital archives about someone. And it's essentially a collection of papers about someone's life. And you can see their own handwriting, their own signature. It's quite a special moment, really.
[08:09] Dr Diane: Oh, that's really exciting. And I know that there are challenges, of course, because for so long, women scientists and diverse scientists, non white scientists, were pushed to the background. And so to find that information has got to be a real challenge and a labor of love on your part.
[08:32] Nina: Yes, and I'm really pleased to see that there's more research going into these women, especially, I think, since 2016 when Hidden Figures came out. That was a huge movement for the history of specifically black women and STEM.
[08:52] Dr Diane: Absolutely. And I know from my point of view, I have used your account in informal education in the children's museum. I use it with programs I do for teachers now because it's accessible and it's something that they can use, and I trust the research that you've done. I'm also excited because there are picture books that are starting to come out that teachers can use as well, biographies, things like that. Stories that weren't told before. There's Emily Roebling, who was the real force behind the Brooklyn Bridge, which I thought was just a fascinating story that her husband was pretty much sick in bed for the ten years that this bridge was being built. And she went back and forth and got the bridge built.
There's Bessie Coleman. In the field of flight, we all hear about Amelia Earhart, but Bessie Coleman did really cool things. And so to be able to find these stories and tell them, I think is important. And I think also to start including females as lead figures in children's books with an interest in science.
Jasmine Warga just came up with a book that I think is really cool, called A Rover's Story, and she's fictionalized the Mars rover but the lead scientist, she is an AAPI woman and she's just amazing. And so you hear her story sort of interspersed throughout it, and it's just a matter of course that she's the lead scientist. And I think that more and more of that needs to happen from my perspective on bringing girls into STEM.
A look at the artistic process used by Nina Chhita for @nina.draws.scientists
How do we involve more girls in STEM related fields?
[10:39] Nina: Oh, that's a really difficult question. I think there's a lot that we could be doing right now. A couple of initiatives that I have seen is a big drive to get more girls, young women, into coding. So here in the UK, there are a lot of coding academies and teaching people at an early age.
I also think we can start showcasing role models in a real organic and subtle way, almost, whether it be putting posters up of different characters, different figures in our classrooms, having maybe paintings available, seeing a person in your everyday life. And when you don't know who they are, you end up looking up who they are, what they did. So really having different areas to immerse ourselves in, the people who shape science, that does have an effect, I think.
What is the importance of STEM role models?
[13:17] Dr Diane: You talked about role models just a moment ago. Did you have any scientific role models when you were growing up? Or any artistic role models, or do you have any now?
[13:27] Nina: I think that's really come with time. When I was younger, I didn't have a specific person who was there, and that informs my story a little bit because I always saw, I always thought that science wasn't for me or art wasn't for me, and I never really connected with that until it was later in my 20s, probably. And after I've done my degree as well.
[13:57] Dr Diane: I totally resonate with that. I'm older than you are and I remember coming up and I liked biology and I liked physics, but I didn't like chemistry. But that's a whole other story. At the time, really, the only way to go into a science field, at least the way it was presented to me, was you had to go to one of our military academies, which, I'm sorry, that was not for me, or you had to become an engineer. And again, that's not the way my brain worked or not the way I thought my brain worked. And I didn't have those role models that showed me that a woman could do these things, because these stories weren't really known.
And certainly not the nuance of what being in STEM means now, because it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be a coder or that you have to be an engineer. There are so many different elements for what to do with a STEM career now, and I think that what you're doing is helping to sort of raise awareness of some of that as well.
[14:57] Nina: Oh, absolutely. I am really surprised to see people, for example, researching the nutritional benefits of Tofu [Dr. Yamei Kin, see Instagram reel above]. It's such a diverse field and I do wish I had exposure to that when I was younger. But also, I do feel like I have, although my journey has been quite winding, I have learnt a lot along the way.
What makes science collaborative rather than a team sport (and why are so many body parts named after male scientists)
[15:22] Dr Diane: That's great. I'm currently reading An Immense World by Ed Yong. I don't know if you know that book, but he's looking at animal senses, which I find absolutely fascinating, but there was a section where he's talking about different muscles and they're all named after somebody. I couldn't tell you what muscle is what at this point, because the names meant nothing to me. But I did sort of start going and looking at them like they're all white men. All of these muscles are named after white men. And I found myself thinking, that can't be a great way for us to be learning biology and anatomy. And I think you had done, did you do an instagram at one point that focused on that? Can you tell us a little bit more about it? Because I thought about you when I was reading that chapter.
[16:12] Nina: Yeah, there was a study, I think it was in 2021, where they actually looked at all of the body parts and saw that a high proportion of them were named after a scientist, and very often named after a scientist from the UK, US, Italy, Germany, and very few named after women. It's not very scientific as an approach. I feel like it doesn't accurately represent where a body part or what a certain muscle does. And another thing, it falsely represents science, because we always think of science as this lone person. But it is really these small steps and a lot of people working on things over many years and a lot of people from different parts of the world. So it is a very Western and also false way of presenting things. [see Nina’s Instagram Post]
[17:18] Dr Diane: Well, that's sort of what it struck me, especially because as I'm reading the rest of the book, so much of the science is, as you just said, it's teams of people working across the world and sharing data and sharing research. No one person is coming up with the answer
[17:36] Nina: Absolutely. And even when we talk about the scientific revolution, there's a fantastic book, I think it's called Horizons: The Global Origins of Modern Science [James Poskett]. And the author goes through how the scientific revolution within the UK and European countries was very contingent upon other countries. So they used knowledge from Polynesian travelers, knowledge that had been built up from Islamic scientists as well.
[18:07] Dr Diane: Right.
[18:08] Nina: And we always forget that story is never told or written about. And it's a one dimensional way of presenting science.
[18:19] Dr Diane: And I think that we've got to get to a point where we're sharing that richness of the story. We learn more. And I think it sticks better when we understand science in the context of the greater world and not just from our own country or racial point of view.
[18:35] Nina: Absolutely. I completely agree there.
So what makes a good scientist?
[18:39] Dr Diane: So what makes a good scientist?
[18:43] Nina: Someone who's curious, absolutely curious. Someone who wants to make a difference and someone who is very aware of the potential of science. I mean, science can solve so many or be the solution for so many of our issues and challenges going on today. But I do think having that curiosity that drives you is so important.
[19:14] Dr Diane: Well, you just hit on one of the things that I say about four year olds, which is that they're natural scientists. I ran a preschool for years. And that curiosity that you're talking about is what drives that age range. They want to know about their world. They want to know about science. And I think getting back to that conversation we had earlier about how do you keep girls involved in STEM, I think structuring your school so that you continue to raise and reward curiosity is probably a huge part of that as well, to ask those questions, dig, make mistakes.
[19:52] Nina: That's so true because four year olds are always asking Why? Never lose that ability to ask why and probe into something.
[20:01] Dr Diane: And I think that sense of wonder is, as you said, it's what drives a scientist. You carry that kind of almost childlike wonder. I want to know why this is happening.
[20:11] Nina: There's so much to learn when it comes to science.
Women in Antarctica
[20:15] Dr Diane: I was thinking about you when I was in Antarctica last month. It was a bucket list trip of a lifetime. And there was an [Antarctic Ambassadors] poster that they had that I was fascinated because you hear about Shackleton, you hear about Byrd, you hear about the men who were out exploring, and they actually had a poster on the ship about women in Antarctica, which I thought was really cool. Now it's only like, five women who are listed, but I did find myself sort of thinking, wow, they'd make a really good focus for Nina, for @nina.draws.scientists.
And what I thought was interesting was in the 1930s, the first woman set foot in Antarctica with her husband, and she had to get special permission to actually get onto the continent because before that, you had to stay on the ship. And she was part of his scientific expedition, and so she was working with him and seeing if I can find her name. Her name was Caroline Mikkleson, and it was in 1935, and she was accompanying her husband on the M/S Thorsharn to Antarctica, which I thought was just kind of really cool.
[21:33] Nina: That's amazing. I also think back about the experience that she would have had even to find the right clothes to wear, accessing bathrooms and all of these challenges.
[21:50] Dr Diane: Right. Because there were no bathrooms. And in terms of clothing, I mean, that was part of what was daunting to those early explorers to begin with, as some of them thought, oh, I can wear wool, which was a terrible clothing choice for Antarctica, because once it's wet, you're wet for months. And then others were like, oh, I'm going to wear furs. And while I don't advocate furs in general, for their time and their place, it made a lot of sense, and it's what helped them survive as they were doing what they were doing.
[22:20] Nina: I did hear about a group of Argentinian women who went, I think it was to Antarctica, but I'm not 100% sure on that.
[22:31] Dr Diane: Argentina, actually, before the treaty was signed, that made Antarctica a place of science and peace, at least for now, Argentina and Chile were competing to carve it up. And so Argentina sent women to live on this piece of Antarctica, and their whole goal was to start populating it and to raise families. So can you imagine raising a family in Antarctica?
[23:04] Nina: The barriers, like, the extreme cold?
[23:10] Dr Diane: Exactly. It struck me as something that was just really interesting. And I know I've digressed, but I thought about you when I read it, so clearly I'm viewing you as a friend because I think about what would Nina do with this whenever I encounter a woman scientist. So I just thought that was kind of neat.
So who has fascinated you the most so far on your account in terms of the people you've drawn or created?
[23:35] Nina: I'm just thinking about that one. There are so many that come to mind. But I do naturally gravitate toward women of color, and particularly because I wasn't given those role models a lot when I was growing up. There was one in particular, a doctor that I've been reading about recently called Dr. Lena Edwards, and she was in the US. She studied at Howard University and I was listening to her oral interview, which is available for free online. How exciting. She herself is black, and she always knew what she wanted to do, and she was very determined to get there as well. And she was very determined as well to do good. She had a fantastic medical career, a thriving clinic, and after she had done all of that and she had raised her six children alongside being a gynecologist, she gave it all up and decided to found a hospital to help immigrant workers. And she worked on it for years. And the hospital is still existing to this date.
[24:58] Dr Diane: Oh, that is inspirational.
[25:00] Nina: Yeah. And I really want to do something to commemorate her, but listening to her explain her story in her own words, it gave me goosebumps. And hearing how what drove her was to help different communities and that's how she wanted to live her life was very inspirational to me. [links to another article about Dr. Edwards]
[25:30] Dr Diane: Oh, I love that. Thank you for sharing her story.
Nina's new series of reels:
[27:04] Nina: At the moment, I am trialing a new series called Mini Histories, and because Instagram has changed so much since I started, I'm gravitating or I'm adapting more towards reels now. So I am creating animations that are 90 seconds to try and introduce different scientists, if that makes sense. So it's just a little taster. I unfortunately do not have enough time in that 90 seconds to go much in depth, but I think it's a good idea to try and introduce people to a particular scientist. So that's what I'm focusing on now. I feel like with me every month is Women's History Month, so I haven't in recent years done anything specific for Women's History Month. And in the future as well, I would like to do more resources.
[28:05] Dr Diane: I appreciate that a lot because I agree with you that Women's History Month should be year round and should be integrated into the curriculum as you're teaching side by side along with the other cultures we were talking about. We should be learning about Black scientists and Latina scientists and Muslim scientists right alongside as we're doing the curriculum year round. So I appreciate that point about it's not just one month, it should be all year. In terms of sharing the other resources, do you have ideas for how you would want to do that?
[28:39] Nina: I am planning to start a website and I will be doing some coloring pages and longer stories about particular scientists, including the references that I've used. The downside to Instagram, or at least the way I have been using Instagram is I don't have a good format for sharing those references that I'm using. And some of them, for example, I think it was done by Harvard University, they had an oral history project specifically focusing on black women. And to be able to direct people to those resources where people are sharing their stories in their own words is really important. So I want there to be a good way that I can share.
What's next for @nina.draws.scientists?
[32:11] Dr Diane: So if you were to look into a crystal ball and five years from now, where would you see @nina.draws.scientists? What would be your dream?
[32:21] Nina: I want to make everything more colorful. Lots of bright colors, lots of different people in science, and I would love to start a shop and do lots of cards, stickers, and prints. So that's my current goal that I'm working towards.
[32:40] Dr Diane: Well, I know I and a lot of teachers out there would love to support you in that shop. So once you get it done, please let me know and we'll throw that link down as well. Nina, it has been such a joy to have you on the Adventures in Learning podcast today.
[32:59] Nina: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed this chat.
If you want to know more about diverse women in STEM, I highly encourage you to go check out @nina.draws.scientists on Instagram.