Bringing scientists’ stories out of the shadows

When asked to name a scientist, most people’s first pick is Albert Einstein. Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur and Thomas Edison also come up. But many people can’t name a scientist at all.

When asked to name a living scientist, 72 percent of Americans came up blank in a 2021 survey. Among those who could name one, the top pick was Anthony Fauci, then director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, followed by astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, a mechanical engineer and host of the 1990s TV show Bill Nye the Science Guy.

So many more scientists deserve to be known, even if they never become household names. As journalists, we here at Science News are fortunate to be able to connect directly with scientists to get the scoop on their latest work, gain expert perspective and spot trends.

We increasingly try to spotlight scientists who should be better known, including early- and mid-career scientists who we feature in an annual series of profiles called the SN 10: Scientists to Watch (SN: 12/2/23, p. 17). We also connect with researchers, public health officials and citizen scientists around the world, as well as those in demographics underrepresented in science, including women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Bringing to light scientists who haven’t been spotlighted previously requires detective work, especially with scientists from the past. In this issue, we profile Emma Rotor, a math teacher from the Philippines who played a key role in groundbreaking weapons research that advanced the Allied cause in World War II. Our detective on the case was Erwin R. Tiongson, an economist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and an amateur historian with a keen interest in Philippine-American history.

Emma had moved to the United States in 1941 with her husband, Arturo Rotor. Arturo was a renowned physician, author and musician. It was easy to find documentation of his activities. But the only mentions of Emma were as a supportive presence in the background, Tiongson told me.

“Growing up, I already heard so much about Dr. Rotor because my mother was a college literature professor,” Tiongson said. “I always thought there must be more to Mrs. Rotor.” He started digging and found a newspaper article saying that Emma was part of the Manhattan Project. He scoured lists of participants — no luck. Then he came across Emma’s name in a citation of research on the proximity fuze, a new technology that radically improved the accuracy of Allied munitions. Emma had worked as a physicist for a group at what is now the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Tiongson’s research ultimately led him to relatives of Emma’s in the Philippines with vivid memories of Tita Emma. One grandniece recalls her father asking, “Tita, did you work on the bomb?” No, Emma replied. “I worked on the fuze.” Emma Rotor’s story is the most recent in our Unsung Characters series. We’ll continue to connect our readers with scientists from the present and past who are worth knowing today.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

From the Nature Index

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