Explanation of Site Content

September 27th, 2011

This site is an aggregate of work submitted by students in a Freshman Seminar (FSEM 100 F8 Beauty and Brains–Women in the Sciences) during Fall 2011 at the University of Mary Washington.  These students investigated and wrote about the lives of these women scientists.  These posts are an attempt to share their knowledge and interests.  Students are exploring the lives of these women, their contributions, and the impact and challenges that being female had on their careers.  These posts should not be used as primary reference material for any academic work (e.g., class paper).   A bibliography of relevant sources is posted as a reference guide for others.

The Final Comparison

December 10th, 2011

How do Mimi Koehl and Bill Nye actually match up?

Mimi Koehl studies biomechanics, which explains how systems and stuctures in nature function. A question that a biomechanic might ask would be: how does the human heart get blood to the rest of the body? Bill Nye, on the other hand, studies mechanical engineering, which explains the design and function of machines. A question that a mechanical engineer would ask might be: how does an airplane engine work, and can it be made more efficient?

Mimi Koehl does not have the fame and name recognition as Bill Nye does – the popularity of his television series has put him more in the public eye than her career as a researcher and a professor. However, she does have more awards from the scientific community than he does, which is a product of her ability to work in a lab more frequently than Nye. In the end, it appears that gender did not play a significant role in the lives of either scientist. And as Mimi Koehl herself said: “So much that’s written about women in science… focuses on the struggles. The flipside of the story is what motivates us to do science is exciting and intriguing it is.”

Regardless of career paths, both individuals have led remarkable lives, and both have earned their successes. Both scientists are good role models and encourage everyone to discover more about the world around them

Video Link

December 10th, 2011


This is a segment from Bill Nye’s show that explains how a tarantula walks without muscles. This is an example of comparative biomechanics, or the area of biomechanics that focuses on how structures in nature work.

A Male Counterpart?

December 10th, 2011

As part of an analysis of Mimi Koehl’s success, we should compare her to a male scientist to determine if gender plays a part in their respective accomplishments. I chose to compare her to William Sanford Nye, more commonly known as Bill Nye the Science Guy. Both have a background in mechanics and engineering, and were born around relatively the same time.

Bill Nye the Science Guy:

  • Early Life: Bill Nye was born on November 17, 1955, and raised in Washington DC. His parents, Jacqueline and Edwin Nye, were both veterans of World War II. His mother was haired as a code-breaker for the US Navy because of her excellent math and science skills. His father spent 44 months as a prisoner of war, and used sundials to keep track of time. His father fostered an interest in sundials and horology (the science of keeping time) in his son that Bill still carries today. Both of his parents encouraged Bill to pursue his love of science. Some of his interests as a child included sundials, bicycles, and airplanes; he was especially interested in knowing how things worked. His father recalled one summer day when young Bill stood for hours out in the yard trying to adjust the settings of his rubber band-propelled airplane in such a way that when released, it would fly in a circle and come back to him.
  • Education: Bill Nye attended the Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC after earning a scholarship. Sidwell Friends is a prestigious, Quaker-founded private school that attracts families from all over the country. Other notable students include Nancy Reagan, Japan’s princess Setsuko Chichibu, and President Obama’s daughters Sasha and Malia. He later earned his bachelors of science degree from Cornell University in mechanical engineering, and occasionally returns to his alma mater as a guest speaker. Nye also holds numerous honorary degrees from institutions such as Wilamette University, Renesselaer Polytechnic Institute, Goucher College, and Johns Hopkins University.
  • Career: After graduating, Bill Nye worked for the airplane manufacturing company Boeing, where he created and patented the hydraulic resonance suppressor (a device that keeps the plane stable when the hydraulics for the wings and landing gear are in use) for the 747 model, which is still in use today. He began his work as a comedian on the late-night television show “Almost Live!”, where he first came up with the idea for his Science Guy character. He later expanded on this character and used it to educate children in his popular show “Bill Nye the Science Guy”. Nye also served as the Vice President for the Planetary Society, the largest international organization for astronomy and space exploration. He was later promoted to Executive Director, where he remains today.
  • Achievements: Most of Nye’s recognition comes in the form of honors. In the academic world, he is a widely sought-after guest speaker for presentations and graduations. He has also held numerous guest appearances on television and is currently hosting his own show, The 100 Greatest Inventions. His work as Bill Nye the Science Guy has won him several Emmy Awards, for Outstanding Children’s Series, Best Writing in a Children’s Series, and Best Acting in a Children’s Series. Nye has patented a few of his own inventions, which include: a water-based microscope that is easy to build, specialized ballerina slippers designed to relieve stress from a dancer’s toes, and a machine that teaches people to throw a baseball with greater accuracy.

You can learn more about Bill Nye the Science Guy at his website.

Awards and Recognition

December 9th, 2011

Dr. Mimi Koehl has many achievements, including many awards from prestigious organizations in the scientific community.

Koehl was given a MacArthur Foundation Award  – commonly called the “genius award” in 1990 for her work in biomechanics. The MacArthur Foundation recognizes about 20 people every year for outstanding work in a variety of fields, including art, science, and entertainment. Here are this year’s winners.

In 2002, Koehl’s work with the Rasta Lobsta earned the Borelli Award from the American Society of Biomechanics, given for “outstanding career achievement”.

She has also been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, a government board of scholars dedicated to furthering an understanding of science and its application to the general welfare of humanity. The NAS has also chosen her to be part of a series of books for children, entitled “Women’s Adventures in Science”. You can read the first chapter of her book, Nature’s Machines: The Story of Biomechanist Mimi Koehl, for free here.

Additional awards that Dr. Koehl has won include: the Rachael Carson Award from the American Geophysical Union, the John Martin Award from the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography, the Muybridge Award from the International Society of Biomechanics, and recognition from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Did you know…?

December 9th, 2011

Mimi Koehl has written a book called Wave-Swept Shore: The Rigors of Life on a Rocky Coast. In this book, she details the sort of work she does in tide pools, and explains how marine life is capable of living in such a stressful environment.


You can read a few pages of her book here.


December 9th, 2011

After completing her education, Koehl began working full time as a biomechanist, instead of just researching as a student. Some of her more interesting projects include:

  • The “Rasta Lobsta” is a robot lobster designed to locate mines underwater by using the same method of smell used by actual lobsters:  with each flick of an antenna, lobsters drag particles from the water to sensitive hairs on the ends of their antennae, which process the smell of each particle. You can read more here.

  • Dr. Koehl has helped archaeologists understand how primitive birds may have flown. By building models of some uncovered skeletons and testing them in a wind tunnel, she was able to determine which models were most aerodynamic and therefore the most probable.

  • She has helped support the theory of evolution by providing evidence of preadaptation – when organisms are developing structures that are advantageous for one reason but evolve to be used for something else. An example of this theory is that early prehistoric birds may have developed small, fluffy feathers to help them stay warm and for use in mating rituals. Later, as longer and stiffer feathers developed, these animals were able to fly. Dr. Koehl ran a series of experiments to determine how early insects may have used their wings before they were strong enough to fly. Prehistoric insects had wings too small to fly, but that were very good for catching sunlight to keep warm, giving them an advantage over insects that did not have wings.

Did you know…?

December 9th, 2011

… Mimi Koehl was one of the consultants for Disney and Pixar’s Finding Nemo. She helped the animators understand how undersea plants like kelp moved naturally while underwater. Scenes like this one:

Are actually the combined efforts of biomechanics (and other scientists) and the animators. When the scenery looks good, the audience can focus more on the characters and the story.

(Source: The Pixar Touch by David A. Price. Read excerpts here.)

Video Link

December 6th, 2011


This video shows Dr. Koehl giving a speech at Bates College, discussing how she discovered her passion for science and advising students to always be open to new ideas.



December 6th, 2011


Mimi Koehl attended Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania from 1966 to 1970. Originally an art major, Koehl switched her major to the sciences after taking a general education class in biology that she says changed her life. After graduating with honors and a bachelors degree in biology, she furthered her education by earning her doctorate in zoology at Duke University. Koehl completed her postdoctoral research at Washington University.

In addition, Dr. Koehl has received numerous honorary degrees from several universities, and was made the assistant professor of biology at Brown University in 1978. She is currently a professor in University of California Berkely’s zoology department, where she has her own laboratory.

Early Life

December 6th, 2011

Mimi Koehl was born on October 1, 1948 to George and Alma Koehl. Although she was born in Washington DC, she was raised in Silver Spring, Maryland. Like many people, Dr. Koehl was largely influenced by her parents: her mother’s career as an artist, and her father’s job as a physicist had a large impact on her childhood interests. When she got older, she began her studies in college as an art student and was especially drawn to shapes and textures from nature.

Unfortunately, she did encounter challenges in her pursuit of science: both her mother and father discouraged her from studying science in school. Her father believed it to be too difficult for her, and her mother wanted Mimi to focus more on her social life and to be more lady-like. Adding to her difficulties, Mimi also suffered from dyslexia, a condition that would not be discovered until many years later. Undeterred, Mimi would spend hours studying while under the covers, eager to learn all she could.