Limitless: Celebrating women in science and condensed matter physics
by Daniel Inafuku
for Illinois Physics
On the side of a building on the campus of Sandia National Laboratories’ Science & Technology Park in Albuquerque, NM, a vibrant new mural celebrating women in science has just been completed. Limitless, designed by celebrated artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya and painted with the help of local high school students, is inspired by Illinois Physics Professor Nadya Mason and her work in the field of condensed matter physics. The mural is part of a series by the artist titled FINDINGS, created in partnership with the Heising-Simons Foundation (HSF). The series celebrates the contributions of women in science and examines the convergence of identity and community through a fusion of artistic and scientific lenses.
For Mason, Limitless represents something uniquely special.
“There aren’t that many women in physics. And there aren’t that many people of color in physics. So seeing the combination of science and community in one image and having something that represents my whole self—a variety of things that I and other people care about—is really meaningful,” Mason says.
Phingbodhipakkiya adds, “Art really has the power to shape perception. In every mural, I am depicting women as I see them in society—vital, luminous, and harnessing their power to fight for a more just world. My hope is that everyone starts to see women—especially women of color—that way.”
Telling stories of science and society
The FINDINGS murals are inspired by women scientists across a variety of disciplines. Through FINDINGS, Phingbodhipakkiya is expressing through painting the aspects of womanhood and community that are often omitted from discussions of science and how science relates to society.
Each mural illustrates a different scientific concept and reimagines it through its connection to humanity and womanhood. The murals’ themes span a wide array of cutting-edge scientific research in fields like climate science, nuclear and particle physics, quantum optics, and—the subject of Phingbodhipakkiya’s latest installation—condensed matter physics.
Phingbodhipakkiya, whose work has been featured in national media outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, Forbes, and Time magazine, is no stranger to science herself: before becoming a full-time artist, she was a neuroscientist studying Alzheimer's disease in older adults.
“My background in neuroscience drew me to using visual art as a means to communicate, because humans process imagery 60,000 times faster than written language,” says Phingbodhipakkiya. “Having a scientific background allows me to synthesize science’s core principles into storytelling and art.
“I’m trying to relate the ways that I see women in society with basic research principles. I wanted to cover scientific topics that are both pressing and mysterious. What is a black hole? What is dark matter? Why should we care? And who studies these things? I also wanted to reveal how science touches every aspect of our lives, from the applied physics of our trusty electronics to the scientific nuances of extreme weather events.”
and community to life
The FINDINGS murals are sponsored by the Heising-Simons Foundation, a California-based organization whose mission is to fund projects that advance sustainability, human rights, and education. HSF is committed to highlighting the contributions of women in STEM fields. For each FINDINGS mural, Phingbodhipakkiya collaborated with women scientists at institutions across the U.S.
Limitless depicts Mason’s cutting-edge research in marvelous detail. Mason, the Rosalyn Sussman Yalow Professor in Physics and the director of the Illinois Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (I-MRSEC), conducts research at the intersection of condensed matter physics—the study of solids and liquids—and materials science. In particular, Mason studies electronic transport—the way that electrons flow—in materials such as graphene, carbon nanotubes, and special materials known as superconductors.
In addition to her laboratory research, an important outreach goal of Mason’s research program is to connect what she studies to the real world.
Mason says, “For me, it’s important to use examples that connect people in a more visceral, immediate way to the science of the technologies that they use. How can you connect the things people already think about in their lives to the science of how these things work? How, for example, do you get from the stuff you dig out of the ground to the stuff we use for our electronics? What is it about a certain material that allows you to put a current through it and get from that to a phone?”
Unsurprisingly, Mason’s emphasis on real-world connections proved to be the perfect source of inspiration for Phingbodhipakkiya. Together, they brainstormed and conceived an idea that they wanted to convey through the mural: a phenomenon known as superconductivity, the ability of certain materials called superconductors to conduct electricity with zero resistance at very low temperatures. Superconductivity enables the transmission of currents with no resistive loss of energy. This allows superconductors to transmit more energy and generate more powerful magnetic fields than normal electrical conductors. Superconductors are integral to technologies such as ultrasensitive light detectors, magnetically levitating trains, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
In many superconductors, each electron pairs up with another electron in a special way. This pairing is special in that a given electron doesn’t just pair up with another single electron but interacts pairwise with every other electron in the system. By pairing up with neighboring electrons, electrons accomplish something together that they can’t do alone: the pairings enable materials to exhibit superconductivity.
This idea served as the basis for the mural’s unifying scientific concept: just as electrons come together to produce superconductivity, something that they can’t produce on their own, people can come together to produce something bigger and new.
Mason explains, “When electrons are separate, they exhibit normal behavior. But when the electrons pair up, they can do something totally different. In a way, this idea illustrates how, by working together, you can make something completely different from what you can make by yourself. You can think of this idea as an artistic analogy to people interacting, everyone connected pairwise to create something better.”
In Limitless, electrons are personified as women coming together to produce a state that would not otherwise be possible. The women reach out to each other across the vast ocean of the material in which they live, interacting with one another pairwise, just as electrons do in a superconducting phase.
Mason comments further on the design of Limitless, “We also thought about how it's not just the idea that individuals need to work together. But it’s also that idea that if you're different or not among the majority, it's especially important to have a group that you can work in.”
Phingbodhipakkiya notes, “Once we started talking about the parallels between the behavior of electrons, the way we see women in society, and how we've seen power manifest in our communities as women come together, the story of our mural just spilled out and wrote itself. It really is the spirit of our partnership—it's dynamism, brightness, and power that comes out in Limitless.”
Once the idea of the mural was conceived, Phingbodhipakkiya set out to find a home for Limitless, and finally settled on a space in Sandia’s Science & Technology Park. Sandia was a fitting location for Limitless as both Mason and the University of Illinois have close ties to the national lab. Painting got underway last month and was recently completed on a prominent wall of one of Sandia’s campus buildings.
One key element of FINDINGS is its community engagement effort. For Limitless, Phingbodhipakkiya enlisted the help of seniors from Technology Leadership High School, located in the Albuquerque area. The students volunteered for a day to help paint Limitless by hand, following the design of the artist.
Mason had the opportunity to speak with the students via Zoom during a break from painting. She shared with them her vision of art and science and encouraged the students to bring their whole selves to the work that they do.
Mason shared with the students, “I look at art and science very holistically, where everything is connected together. I don’t think, ‘On the one hand, I’m a physicist. On the other hand, I’m a woman and a person of color.’ I see these identities as part of the same whole. Who I am is what allows me to do everything that I do.”
Phingbodhipakkiya notes, “I think what the students took away from our conversation with Dr. Mason is that they can bring their whole selves to their work. As seniors, many of them are understandably stressed about what's next, but I think hearing Dr. Mason share how she found her way to physics was incredibly reassuring.”
Phingbodhipakkiya says each of the FINDINGS murals have been warmly received by many in their local communities, and Limitless is no exception.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and I'm so grateful,” she says. “There have been expressions of wonder, pride, and joy. A group of girls walked by our mural in D.C. and exclaimed, ‘This is giving me GODDESS VIBES and blessed me with 10 years of good skin.’ The Second Gentleman came by to visit and even painted a bit.”
Dr. Whitney Ingram, a physicist and electronics engineer at Sandia who stopped by during the painting of Limitless, noted, “I’m just so blown away by the work that’s been done so far. It’s beautiful! I can’t wait to see when it’s finished. I’m going to start commuting to work this way so I can see it everyday.”
Phingbodhipakkiya admits, however, that not all the feedback has been positive.
“There have also been questions such as, ‘Why aren't there any men? Where are the white people? Your mural is the talk of the town (and not in a good way),’” Phingbodhipakkiya notes. “But as an artist and an activist, I embrace the tension and the uncomfortable and sometimes blatantly racist and sexist comments that come with it. Without it, there will never be change. But that's the beauty of collaborations such as FINDINGS. They show us a future we might not yet be able to see.”
FINDINGS cross-country, online, and beyond
Over the past year, FINDINGS has taken Phingbodhipakkiya to different cities across the nation, from the big urban centers of Brooklyn, New York, and Washington, D.C., to the vibrant hubs of Seattle, Washington, and Denver, Colorado. Limitless is the seventh and most recent mural that Phingbodhipakkiya has completed as part of the series. Her FINDINGS journey will next take her to three more cities and three more murals.
And the journey doesn’t stop there. Phingbodhipakkiya is developing an interactive augmented reality application that will provide greater access to those who are unable to see the pieces in person. In the case of Limitless, users will be able to watch animations created by Mason and Phingbodhipakkiya and read content surrounding Mason’s research and journey through academia as a woman in science.
Daniel Inafuku is an Illinois Physics Ph.D. candidate and science writer. He performs scientific research in mathematical biology and mathematical physics. In addition to his research interests, Daniel is a science video media creator.