Science project one small step for a girl...

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It all began with a photograph.

Last year, while doing research for a middle-school science project, 14-year-old Audrey Andrews – better known locally as one half of the culinary sister-act the Twin Chefs – stumbled upon a 1960s-era black-and-white photo of NASA computer programmer Margaret Hamilton.

“It was so powerful,” says Andrews. “It’s a simple enough photo, but there was something about that really made me stop and study it.”

The photo portrayed Hamilton, then only 33 years old, standing beside a stack of books as tall as she was. Printed inside those books, in endless columns of zeros and ones, was the entire computer code that allowed the Apollo 11 spacecraft to prioritize the thousands of necessary details required to land the Earth-made vessel on the face of the moon. The code was primarily conceived and written by Hamilton, who was eventually named director and supervisor of software programming for the Apollo missions and the Skylab science module.

“That photo really made an impression on me,” says Andrews, who remembered it several months later, after learning about the Star Seekers “Stem to Steam” Art Contest.

The brainchild of actor-director Lennie Dean, of Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse, the Star Seekers competition is a county-wide program in which middle school students are invited to create pieces of art inspired by any real-life female scientist. The inaugural contest was designed to coincide with 6th Street Playhouse’s March-April production of “Silent Sky,” a play about female astronomers at Harvard in the early 1900s.

“I was introduced to the Star Seekers by my science teacher,” Andrews says. “Our school took the idea and made it into a multi-classroom project. We were assigned an essay in English, assignments in science, and then the art project.”

Andrews said it did not take her long to recall the photo of Hamilton, and to choose the little known software pioneer as the subject of her project.

That said, Andrews admits she briefly considered another famous female.

“Julia Child could have worked as my subject,” she says, happily. “Julia Child was an amazing scientist, and cooking is definitely a science.”

Andrews says that’s one of the things she loves about cooking.

“There’s a real scientific process to preparing delicate foods, fish and things,” she says. “You have to know about textures and temperatures. It’s all about hands-on investigation and experimentation.”

As obvious a choice it might have been for a young chef to select Child as the subject of her competition entry, Andrews says the choice was no contest.

“I’d actually forgotten Margaret Hamilton’s name,” she recalls, “but I still remembered that picture. I did more research, which wasn’t easy, because she is a very private person. But as I learned more about her, I became very passionate about telling her story.”

After writing the research paper crammed with details about the life and work of Hamilton – who is now 79 years old – Andrews then had to decide how to tackle the art project that would be the focal point of her Star Seekers entry.

“I’ve always loved doing art,” she says, “but I’m not so strong in sketching. I’m more of a collage and texture and contrast artist. I knew I wanted that photograph to be featured prominently, and I wanted to include a bit of the computer code that’s in the books she’s standing next to – so I finally decided to do a collage.”

Of the dozens of entries representing various schools throughout Sonoma County, 10 were presented to a panel of artists and scientists, who rated each piece on a 1-to-6 scale in four separate areas: clarity of theme; creativity and originality; technical skill; and presentation. Each of those final 10 artists were invited to present their pieces to the judges and answer questions.

“They really went for it,” laughs Andrews. “They asked some tough questions.”

In the end, Andrews’ enthusiasm for her subject, and the focused simplicity of her art piece, won her the second place prize, and a check for $1,000.

“Star Seekers was such a highlight for me,” she says, “in that it was really creative in a different way. I definitely plan to keep doing art, especially collage. That’s an art form I find really interesting.”

Asked what she’s going to take away from the Star Seekers experience, Andrews says she expects to continue being inspired by the example of Margaret Hamilton.

“I know about wanting to do something and going after it,” she says. “She believed that, and I believe that. Once you find what you are good at it, you should do it, and you should never let anything stop you.”

Email david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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