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Utah chemistry professor among women honored in new Smithsonian exhibit

#IfThenSheCan—The Exhibit, 2022, Smithsonian Gardens’ Enid A. Haupt Garden, Courtesy of IFTHEN® Collection, by Hannele Lahti. (5).jpg
Posted at 4:02 PM, Mar 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-08 18:05:44-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A new exhibit on display at the Smithsonian is honoring over 100 women in STEM, including one Utah woman who is inspiring others as a chemistry professor at the University of Utah.

The "#IfThenSheCan" exhibit, presented in partnership with the IF/THEN initiative, created 120 life-size 3D-printed statues of women who are making a difference in STEM industries.

The statues can be seen in and around select Smithsonian locations in Washington D.C.

The exhibit is the largest collection of statues of women ever assembled together, The Smithsonian reports.

#IfThenSheCan—The Exhibit, 2022, Smithsonian Gardens’ Enid A. Haupt Garden, Courtesy of IFTHEN® Collection, by Farrah Skeiky..jpg

"We just know that to solve anything from COVID, to climate change to cancer, we're going to need all the minds at the table," explained Margaret Black, director at Lyda Hill philanthropies and co-founder of IF/THEN. "We know there's a gender gap in a lot of science fields and so we decided that the best way to do that is with through a culture shift, and really opening young girl's eyes to all sorts of amazing STEM careers that are out there."

One of the women featured in the exhibit is University of Utah professor Janis Louie, who specializes in organic, inorganic, and polymer chemistry.

"My area of research is in catalysis," Louie told FOX 13 News. "We're kind of the tool makers, so if you say hey, there's this cancer drug, and it is amazing, except it costs so much to make, we have to use these really toxic chemicals to get to it. My job is [to find out] how can you get there to the same product but take a shorter, safer way."

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Louie said she was especially excited to be a part of the IF/THEN program because she wanted to be part of the shift that inspires young women to have courage to try new things and make mistakes.

"We've learned by making tons and tons of mistakes," she said. "When you make those mistakes, those are not messages that are saying you don't belong here, that's actually a message saying you are exactly where you need to be, because you're learning and you're growing. For girls in particular, just tear it up, make those mistakes, because that's how you're going to get better."

While at the University of Utah, Louie said she's been able to see firsthand her impact in inspiring other girls by helping with community events to showcase careers in STEM.

"Since I've been doing it, there are more and more women and little girls that come and really [say], thank you, thank you for, for showing that women can do it," she said. "Then families also say thank you, my daughter now knows that it's okay that they can be smart, which blows my mind. Like, how is it not okay for girl to be smart but again, it just goes back to if she can see it, she can believe it and she can be it."

#IfThenSheCan—The Exhibit, 2022, Smithsonian Gardens’ Enid A. Haupt Garden, Courtesy of IFTHEN® Collection, by Hannele Lahti. (14).jpg

Each statue showcases a woman considered an innovator and role model in STEM, which range in fields from wildlife conservation, medicine, astronomy, and even online content creation. Each statue also features a QR code, where visitors can learn more about their personal stories and accomplishments.

The 120 women chosen to be represented in the exhibit also serve as ambassadors for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and IF/THEN. The ambassadors serve as high-profile role models for middle school girls around the country.

Black explained that while researching what kind of initiative to take on for Women's History Month, which is celebrated throughout March, they found that there are very few statues commemorating women who have made a difference in their communities.

"We learned that in the top 12 major US cities in their downtown areas, there's less than six women statues," Black said. "So it just struck us and we thought, here we are trying to change the visual world around us - [so]why not statues? Why not?"

#IfThenSheCan—The Exhibit, 2022, Smithsonian Castle, Courtesy of IFTHEN® Collection, by Farrah Skeiky..jpg

Black and Louie hope the exhibit helps to open a conversation and empower young women around the country to show that women have thrived in STEM careers for decades, helping to change the world as we know it.

"When a girl sees a woman successfully pursuing STEM career, and it's relevant, and it's cool, and they're having fun doing it, she's just more likely to imagine that STEM career for herself," Black said. "That's what this what this is all about."

The statues will be on display throughout the National Mall until March 27.