‘If She Can See It, She Can Be It’

UM biologist's statue to be used in exhibit encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers

Tamar Goulet, UM professor of biology and an ambassador for a program designed to encourage girls to pursue STEM education and careers, is being 3D-printed. Her likeness will become a statue in an exhibit of women STEM leaders set to open in May in Dallas. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Tamar Goulet, a biology professor at the University of Mississippi, is having her body 3D-printed as a statue for a massive display of more than 125 successful women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in hopes of encouraging girls to consider STEM careers.

Last year, Goulet became one of 125 female ambassadors for a program by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Lyda Hill Philanthropies called the IF/THEN Ambassadors program. The name is a shortening of the phrase “if she can see it, she can be it.”

All the ambassadors’ likenesses will be part of a large outdoor display at Dallas’ NorthPark Center, slated for May 1 through Oct. 9. Each statue will have a biography and a press kit attached to it, with a QR code that can be scanned by visitors’ smartphones to learn more. 

“They’re not making great scientists through this program; they are making the great scientists visible,” Goulet said. “There are a lot of people doing great work. This opens doors for girls and for everyone to see what amazing and different trajectories women go into and are very successful.”

The professor believes the work is an important step in drawing attention to both the successes and struggles of women in STEM fields. It also can inspire changes and give hope to future generations of brilliant women. Women still face many obstacles, especially in STEM, she said.

“It’s just pervasive and it’s not going away anytime soon,” Goulet said. “We are in 2020. This is not 60 years ago. Women may now be able to wear slacks, but that does not mean the approach some people have to women in science has changed.

“We have to do something. This is a huge something, a very visible something.”

Since joining the Ole Miss faculty in 2001, Goulet has published many papers focusing on the symbiosis between cnidarians – including corals, octocorals and sea anemones – and their mutualistic algae. She teaches undergraduate and graduate-level biology classes.

She is the only person from Mississippi included among the very accomplished group of women. She never imagined she’d see herself turned into a statue but said she’s honored to be representing the university and Mississippi.

“It is a huge deal, and a tremendous honor,” she said. 

In October, Goulet, who is an accomplished marine biologist, put on a wet suit and goggles, grabbed a snorkel and fins, and underwent a 20-minute full body scan, which will be used to make a life-size statue. She hasn’t seen the finished product, but she said she loved the experience of working with those who are making her statute. 

So far, she also has been amazed by the strength of the group of ambassadors.

“It is phenomenal,” Goulet said. “When we had our initial summit and most of the ambassadors were present, I had never been in a room with so many talented, amazing women. Usually we are not the majority, by any stretch of the imagination. They did an unbelievable job in picking such a diverse group.

“Every time I meet with fellow ambassadors, I am in awe. They are all brilliant, interesting and personable.”

The exhibit, which features contemporary role models representing a diversity of STEM-related professions in the United States, from entertainment, fashion, sports, business and academia, will be displayed in the Dallas shopping center’s 1.4-acre CenterPark Garden. Each statue will be painted bright orange and will serve as a striking testament to female achievement. 

The project’s organizers say it is the largest 3D printing project of its kind, and the most statues of women ever displayed in one place at one time. It was inspired by a study that former U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios commissioned to look at publicly accessible statutes in the 10 largest U.S. cities, plus Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

The findings showed that fewer than a half-dozen statues of real American women are on display in the main parks or downtown areas of these locations. New York’s Central Park has more than 20 statues of male historical figures, but none of women.

Popular culture doesn’t do a much better job of portraying the contributions of women to STEM fields. Recent findings by Lyda Hill Philanthropies and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media suggest that just 37% of STEM professionals portrayed in television and film are women.

Having a fictional or nonfictional STEM role model increases the proportion of girls interested in getting a job in the sector by 20%, according to a 2018 Microsoft survey.

Goulet said the ratio of male to female Ole Miss students studying biology is close to equal. But she has had the experience of being part of a small minority within her field for her entire career, which has its challenges.

“My parents raised me to think that I could do whatever I wanted to do, but it has not been an easy path because all along the way, there have been struggles,” Goulet said. “It is a continuous struggle.

“When women win awards or get a grant, oftentimes colleagues say they’re ‘lucky,’ as if they’ve won a lottery, versus saying that they’ve earned it. Those kind of subtle language issues are still a problem.”

A media campaign to tell the ambassadors’ stories and make them as visible as possible in the news is part of the effort. As part of her work with the group, Goulet will connect with students in person and using various media platforms such as YouTube channels and network television programs. 

The mother of five also hopes to use her platform as an ambassador to let women know that it is OK to pursue both a family and a career. She has heard from students over the years who think that if they want to have a family, they need to give up their career or step back into a lesser role to focus on being a mom.

“Having five children is a very personal choice,” Goulet said. “It is not for everyone, but my point is (that) you can lead a research lab. You can be a research-active faculty member and still have a family.” 

Her graduate students call her a strong role model. 

“She is a very supportive and inspiring mentor,” said Akacia Halliday-Isaac, a UM doctoral student in biological sciences from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. “She works hard to be a positive representation to women scientists as well as providing her graduate students with as much experiences and opportunities as possible.” 

Savannah Draud, a graduate assistant in the Department of Biology, said she’s the first woman in her family to go after a degree in science and research. She sees successful women such as Goulet as a major inspiration. 

“She shows me every day that there is a place for me in this community and that my ideas are valuable,” Draud said. 

The first time she spoke with Goulet, Draud requested that she be her adviser, not just because of Goulet’s understanding of coral reef biology ecology, but because she was open and honest. It was also clear to the student that Goulet would push her to become the best version of herself possible. 

“Having been under her mentorship thus far, I can already tell that I am growing into a much more confident and scientifically inclined person,” Draud said.

“I strive to learn everything I can from Dr. Goulet to propel myself through graduate school and eventually into a career as a researcher and professor at an R1-designated university similar to the University of Mississippi.”