Emily Temple-Wood has written approximately one Wikipedia article every ten days since she was 12 years old, totaling around 330. The work of the 21-year-old undergraduate, studying molecular biology at Loyola University of Chicago, unabashedly exposes sexism—and in the process, has exposed her to some of it. Temple-Wood’s output has made her the target of Internet trolls: Emboldened by anonymity, they deluge her inbox with cruel emails about her body, intelligence, and sexual decision-making.
Until recently, Temple-Wood simply ignored them. When their numbers jumped recently (she receives dozens a week), she finally responded: For every harassing email she receives, she has pledged to immortalize another female scientist on Wikipedia. It was a simple, elegant solution to a problem: Fight ignorance with enlightenment.
All told, Temple-Wood’s impact on Wikipedia’s gender gap in science has been praised as “epic” by Siko Bouterse, a former Wikimedia Foundation staff member. “Most importantly,” she told the Huffington Post, “Emily has taught and inspired others to do the same.”
Nautilus caught up with Temple-Wood to chat about her passion to showcase women’s contributions to science.
What prompted you to write your first article?
I actually started writing by writing a mean article about my sister. “Sophie Temple-Wood is a butthead, she stole my stuffed animal and kicked me.” It got deleted. Then I saw some things in the media about Wikipedia and how really dedicated volunteers created it, so that shamed me into contributing more productively.
Besides female scientists, what else do you like to write about?
I write about weird injuries, weird ways that people die. Someone posted an article I wrote a few years back in Cool Freaks’ Wikipedia Club (a Facebook group for fellow Wikipedia fans) about dying while having consensual sex. It includes a pope, which is probably my favorite part. Pope John XIII. I write about medicine, too. I write about reproductive health and womens’ health.
What effects do you see your articles having on others?
My mom always says, ‘What would you do without the Internet?’ and I always answer that I would’ve probably written a book that like five people would’ve read. When people find out I’ve written Wikipedia articles, they ask if I’ve written about specific topics they care about. Usually the answer is no, because there are 5 million articles on Wikipedia, and I’ve written a few hundred of them. But when it does happen, it’s really amazing. There’s a rare genetic disorder that my family has, and I wrote the article on that disorder, and my grandmother read it. It’s amazing to see the personal impact my articles have on people.
How has writing these articles affected you?
Learning about all these women scientists have kept me going—they’re a huge source of inspiration. Actually, one time, one of my professors talked about the geneticist Barbara McClintock’s page, and I was like, ‘Have I heard about Barbara McClintock? I wrote that page.’ That was surreal.
How many articles have you written since you began this latest project?
Since the start of this project, I’ve written about 40-50. But I have a backlog [laughs]. It’s at like 120-something right now. I have a lot of catching up to do.
Do you respond to the emails you get?
Not usually. Occasionally I will respond with this one Internet gif: http://beesbeesbees.com/. Otherwise I don’t respond, because I don’t want to give them any ammo. I’ll call my mom, or call my boyfriend, and talk about how crappy it is, or whatever, and then I write an article and feel better.
Do you hate your trolls, or pity them?
I think that depends on the day and it depends on the troll. Intellectually, I very much pity them. They’re wasting their lives; I think I’m not wasting my life, so that makes me feel pity. On the other hand, it’s very upsetting to have people talk about you this way, so that manifests itself in feeling upset and angry at them. It’s emotionally draining, and I know a lot of people who get harassed on the Internet worse than I do, and they’d say something very similar.
Are your trolls threatened more by your Internet presence or your prospective career in science?
Definitely the Internet. No matter what field other women I know write about, they get flak, just for existing on the Internet. It sucks, but you deal with it how you can. You can curl up and cry—which is a pretty viable option. But once you’re done crying, you can fight back.
How would you respond to studies claiming to show cognitive differences between men and women in their ability to do STEM?
That makes me really angry. There are studies that show that women are conditioned to act in certain ways, and that comes out in our brain architecture. There are the confirmation stereotype bias studies—if you tell women, “a lot of women struggle with these things,” they do worse on a math test than if they just do the test.
How has it felt to receive media attention for your work?
It’s been super weird. I don’t do what I do for attention, obviously, so it’s been very weird to have people noticing what I do and think it’s cool. Because I’m a total geek, you know? I took my life philosophy from an 11th century French monk, Bernard of Clairvaux! He once said something that goes like this: “There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.”
For me, Wikipedia is a labor of love. I’m seeking knowledge to give it to others, so it’s weird to get recognition. I love that quote so much, it’s my desktop background. It’s just the geekiest life philosophy ever. It’s weird to get attention for what I do, the sheer geekiness of it. But it’s nice, because now I’m getting to spread the word of women scientists, spread the word for people to join and write about them. That’s my lifelong goal, to get people to care about women scientists.
Susie Neilson is an editorial fellow at Nautilus. Follow her on Twitter @schmeilson.