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News broke earlier this week that Natalie Portman would not return for the third film in the Thor series, Thor: Ragnarok. But when her character, Jane Foster, was around, she made a Mjolnir-like impact on the lives of a group of young, science-focused girls.
That might sound like a far-fetched achievement for a superpower-free love interest who never soared to the heights of her comic book equivalent — the pen-and-paper iteration of Foster transformed into Thor herself in 2015 — but Portman’s physicist directly inspired a group of young girls pursuing science and engineering careers who call themselves STEM Women on Fire.
“To see her leave is really sad for me,” says 17-year-old Ashley Smith, of Flemington, N.J., who helped create the group’s website, and hopes to one day find a career in engineering management. “I really liked her as a character and as an actress, especially knowing that she does have a passion for science.”
STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) Women on Fire was formed by the 10 winners of a contest created by Disney and Marvel, in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences, in order to promote the release of 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. But the group is unsanctioned, and entirely independent of Disney or Marvel.
Rick Loverd, program director at the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a project of the National Academy of Sciences, helped create the contest. He had begun a working relationship with Marvel while arranging science consultations on the scientific aspects of Thor. For instance, the crucial Bilfrost Bridge, which transported Thor to Earth, was given a scientific explanation.
Loverd says the idea of a wormhole was tossed out first by a Stanford physicist named Sean Carroll who moonlights for the Science and Entertainment Exchange, but “the creative team at Marvel thought wormholes were way too ’90s.” Instead, Carroll suggested an “Einstein-Rosen bridge,” a term Marvel immediately thought had a catchy name. Then they asked what it was.
“‘Well … it’s a wormhole,’” Loverd recalls Carroll saying.
Perhaps more importantly, Carroll also inadvertently helped flesh out Portman’s character at that consulting session. He suggested to the filmmakers that the film’s story might make more sense if Portman were a physicist studying Einstein-Rosen bridges, rather than what she was in the comics: a nurse.
“What’s incredible about that is it’s an example of the science working organically with the story, making both arguably better,” Loverd says. “An opportunity to have an astrophysicist character out there who’s also a lady, who could potentially get girls — and, by the way, boys, too — excited about what their career in quantum field theory could look like, is a win for science.”
Two years later, when Thor: The Dark World was about to be released, Marvel and the Science and Entertainment Exchange came up with a promotional contest. Titled “The Ultimate Mentorship Adventure,” it was geared specifically to girls who were interested in science. The contest required each of the girls to send in a video about themselves, and to interview a female scientist or engineer. To make this possible, Loverd opened up the exchange’s list of women in STEM fields to contestants.
Normally that database was for connecting screenwriters to scientists, but when over 1,000 said they’d be willing to talk to young girls for the contest, a long list of potential female mentors was created, each of whom was willing to chat with young girls about how to make it in male-dominated fields.
Marvel created a website for the contest. “Seeking the next Jane Foster!” the homepage proclaimed. Portman appeared in an embedded video and encouraged young girls to enter. “The truth is, I really do love science,” Portman says in the pitch. “Marvel created a program that will give you a chance to explore science, meet amazing scientists and mentors and even get some time in front of the camera yourself.”
“I clicked on the link, and I thought I was going to an article about Natalie Portman and her science projects, and it took me to the contest instead,” Smith says. “I couldn’t believe that there were actually opportunities like that out there for girls.”
She decided to enter.
For her contest entry, Smith found a nanotechnology grad student at Cornell. “That hour I spent on a Skype call with her was amazing in itself.” But what was even more amazing: she beat over 400 other young girls to become one of the 10 winners granted a whirlwind tour of laboratories and movie shoots around Southern California.
Though the group had no official name, STEM Women on Fire was created almost as soon as the girls met for the first time. “We all hit it off right away,” Smith recalls, although she also remembers being intimidated by their videos, which she felt made them seem more experienced than she was.
The winners visited Dolby Studios, Underwriters Laboratories (one of the contest’s sponsors), along with Disneyland, Marvel’s soundstages, and the premiere of Thor: The Dark World. But the locations they toured weren’t the biggest attractions. “To be able to talk to all the different women that they had available to meet with us and explain their journeys is what made it really empowering,” says Smith. “I want to run my own company some day, and do all these amazing things like these women are doing.”
After returning home it was hard for Smith to be around non-STEM friends, whom she says sometimes have a hard time matching her enthusiasm for, say, the installation of a new CNC router in the school’s engineering room. And at the same time, she said dealing with the boys in her robotics group could be a trial — they’re loud.
Not so with the nine other girls who won the Ultimate Mentorship Adventure. The bond they’d formed turned out to have taken root. Rather than just keeping up on Facebook, they sought out ways to socialize online as though they were in the room together. “We would meet monthly via WebEx,” Smith explains, referring to software typically used for corporate meetings. In one such meeting, they came up with the idea to expand.
“We were the ones who had won the contest, and we wanted to continue forward with this, and give other girls the opportunity to hear the stories that we got to hear,” she continues. “Not only were the girls able to publicly disseminate the interviews they’d already performed with female scientists all over the US, but thanks to the expansive list of names they’d received, they tracked down more, and published those correspondences on the STEM Women on Fire website as well.”
Some STEM Women on Fire members have also occasionally used the site itself as a blogging platform. In a post by member Jordan Taylor, she talked about the effect her California trip had had on her life — mostly it gave her a confidence boost, and a newfound need to “keep my head down to a considerable size so that it will still fit through doorways.”
Smith experienced a similar confidence boost. Before the contest, as a freshman in her school’s robotics program she had a hard time keeping up with the guys. “They kind of pushed me more to the back of the group, but four years later, I’m the president, so I must have done something right,” she says, beaming.
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