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A Scientist-Turned-Designer Wants to Teach Girls to Wear Scientific Curiosity on Their Sleeves

by Agnes Constante /
A group of girls wear apparel from Atomic By Design clothing line.Courtesy of Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

Earlier this year, Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya set a goal to crowdfund $1,000 for a project to highlight women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that she felt had been eclipsed throughout history.

By the end of her campaign, “Beyond Curie” — a series of 35 posters — had raised more than $32,000 and brought people from all walks of life together, Phingbodhipakkiya said.

 Art from Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya's "ATOMIC by Design" project. Courtesy of Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

“Hearing from parents, teachers, scientists, and programmers about how much the project meant to them and how they wanted the women in their lives to be inspired by that same legacy inspired me to want to do more and find new creative ways to use the power of design to move people to action,” the 29-year-old neuroscientist-turned-designer and STEM advocate said.

Phingbodhipakkiya’s latest project is “ATOMIC by Design,” a clothing line and online community that aims to empower young girls to pursue their passion in STEM.

The project, targeted at girls between the ages of 12 and 15, features colorful tops, dresses, and accessories based on the 118 atomic elements and a community-building group for young girls to learn both online and in-person. The first series of looks is based on four elements: hydrogen, potassium, neon, and nickel.

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“After 'Beyond Curie,' I very much realized that collective power that emerges when a community forms,” Phingbodhipakkiya said. “So I started with the fact that I wanted to build a community of curious girls who own their individuality.”

She added that one of the reasons she decided to start a fashion line is because she felt many fashion magazines dictate what young girls should wear and how they should look. This, she said, perpetuates the message that appearance matters more than what girls know and believe on the inside.

“I wanted to flip the script on that and say, actually, when you go out in a piece by ATOMIC by Design, you want to be asked what you’re wearing because then you can drop some knowledge,” she said.

Last week, Phingbodhipakkiya launched a crowdfunding campaign for the project.

Project backers — depending on the amount they pledge — will also be eligible for a number of other STEM-related rewards, including greeting cards featuring women in STEM from Phingbodhipakkiya's “Beyond Curie” collection, a booklet about the elements in the collection, and a journal that guides girls in writing about what interests them.

“I think a huge part of why science doesn’t appeal [to girls] is ... because most of the images we see out there are of guys and men doing science, men succeeding in science.”

Those who pledge an amount for a piece of clothing will also be subscribed to “ATOMIC Squad,” an online community where girls can learn more about the elements and engage in monthly video question-and-answer sessions with women across the globe who work in diverse STEM fields, Phingbodhipakkiya said.

Among scientists scheduled to participate in the video chats are an environmental scientist who explores how water can be used as energy and a technologist working to create solutions for women in underprivileged societies.

“I don't want to limit young women to thinking that a career in STEM means being in a lab,” Phingbodhipakkiya said. “That’s not true. There are so many ways to make an impact with a degree in STEM, so giving them that breadth and depth with women in STEM is important.”

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The girls will also be invited to join a private Facebook group where they can connect with others and share resources. Phingbodhipakkiya plans to offer other rewards, such as monthly experiments girls can conduct with their friends. Each experiment would include an explanation of the science behind it, as well as three invitations for a “science sleepover” that girls can give to their friends.

The experiments aren't so much about simply giving girls something to do, but are more about helping them connect with their own tribe, Phingbodhipakkiya said.

“Personally, growing up, I loved science and I did experiments at home,” she said, “but I did them with my mom because I didn’t have a cool and trendy way to do it with my friends.”

Phingbodhipakkiya successfully met her fundraising goal less than a week after launching her campaign, which runs through Dec. 7. Excess funds will be used to establish “ATOMIC clubs,” after-school programs in schools serving low-income neighborhoods, Phingbodhipakkiya said.

 Group of girls hanging out wearing apparel from the ATOMIC by Design clothing line. Courtesy of Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

Her vision for the programs include inviting local scientists to talk to middle school students about their jobs, screening films and shows created by women in science, and having girls teach experiments they conduct to younger kids to allow them to better understand the material they're learning.

For young girls who may not be able to afford ATOMIC by Design, Phingbodhipakkiya created a free online resource called “ATOMIC Explorer,” which allows users to swipe through digital information cards about atomic elements. The elements are personified as women so that girls can start to see themselves in science, Phingbodhipakkiya added.

While women account for nearly half of the U.S. workforce in 2011, only 26 percent work in STEM fields, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Census.

“I think a huge part of why science doesn’t appeal [to girls] is because of the same reason why I started 'Beyond Curie' — because most of the images we see out there are of guys and men doing science, men succeeding in science,” she said. “But I think in order for empowerment to happen, there has to be self-actualization. And the hope is to do that with this project.”

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