Science and literature normally reside at opposite ends of the academic spectrum, but when UCLA student Jessica Sherrill expanded her undergraduate physiological science major to double-major in English, she discovered intriguing overlaps in the histories of the two disciplines.

“I had already learned about important Victorian discoveries from a scientific standpoint, but studying literature provided a missing piece of the picture,” Sherrill said. “English illuminated the full intellectual context of who knew whom, what social circles scientists moved in, and which other writers and thinkers they had access to. For example, Michael Faraday, whose incredible discoveries are the foundation of modern physics, chemistry and engineering, was close friends with novelist Charles Dickens.”

Now about to earn her Ph.D. in English, Sherrill studies and teaches the literary history of computing, artificial intelligence and secret codes in Victorian England. Her courses explore overlooked and untraced STEM narratives that celebrate the contributions of women and other marginalized figures who deserve greater recognition.

In the class Sherrill recently taught on literary computing from Chaucer to ChatGPT, students learned about Ada Lovelace, the Victorian countess and computer pioneer now recognized for writing the first computer algorithm. Lovelace, the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron, was allowed to include her theories in just one published work. Even then, her writing appeared only as footnotes.

Watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace, believed to have been painted during the early 1840s.
Public domain
A watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace, believed to have been painted during the early 1840s.

Sherrill observes how, despite Lovelace becoming “a marginal figure on the text’s literal periphery,” her footnotes contain the detailed computer algorithm for which she is now celebrated. Published in 1843, when Lovelace was 27, her footnotes include the first modern computing theories about using artificial-intelligence technology to create artistic work, like musical scores. But her archived private correspondence shows much broader contributions to the scientific conversation of the 1830s and ‘40s.

In class, students recognized how the previous lack of access to publication has kept the ideas of marginalized figures overlooked even now. Although priorities have changed about what to collect or research, today’s archives and history books still reflect the biased decisions of earlier eras, Sherrill explained. Her students noticed the gap.

“I had no idea who Ada Lovelace was prior to this class, even though she made so many contributions to math, science and technology,” said Madeline Barron, one of many science students who took the class to complete UCLA’s writing requirement. “Everyone jokes about ‘the algorithm’ showing us stuff on social media or search, but Lovelace was the first person who created the math to make something like that happen.”

Sherrill’s class not only “whipped me into shape” when it comes to writing, Barron said, but also led her to analyze the relationships between women or people of color in STEM and their representations in history.

“I’m proud to be a woman in STEM, and it was really rewarding to learn about women in history. They faced many more barriers than I do, especially if they were women of color,” Barron said. “It was also encouragingto see so many male STEM students in the class recognizing that the playing field hasn't been equal.”

Sherrill is excavating Lovelace’s private writing by transcribing 15,000 pages of her archived documents, most never published and viewable only in person at Oxford University. The archive remains mostly inaccessible to anyone outside Oxford, in contrast to the ease of accessing the public online repositories for most of Lovelace’s male contemporaries’ work.

“The historical contributions of female scientists and mathematicians are still undervalued because earlier research biases continue to translate into today’s digital access,” Sherrill said. “For example, Cambridge University’s Epsilon project is an amazing online nexus that pulls together the archives of the most famous 19th century scientists, like Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin. But because Ada Lovelace's archive has never been fully transcribed and published, she is now almost entirely invisible in online archives like this one. Epsilon includes just nine letters written by Lovelace, and only because she wrote them to Faraday. The continual re-inscription and repetition of those absences risks cementing the errors of the past in our digital infrastructure for decades to come.”

Sherrill gave her students a selection of Lovelace’s letters, including some written when she was college-age. Among the other course readings were fictionalized stories of Lovelace and other women working with computer codes, including a fantastical graphic novel that envisions Lovelace and her co-collaborator Charles Babbage successfully completing their plan to build the world's first computer, and two movies: “The Imitation Game,” featuring a woman on a codebreaking team during WWII, and “Hidden Figures,” about three African-American female mathematicians for NASA during the 1960s space race.

First-year English major Catie Long uncovered a recurring theme in the stories: women aligning themselves with dehumanized, mechanical machinery to gain authority that a patriarchal society denied them.

“In a way, they worked within these dehumanizing systems in order to gain the agency that would let them dismantle oppressive social structures,” Long said. “Coming into this course, I saw computers and technology as one, very neutral thing, and human beings and humanities as a separate thing. This course taught me how technology can reinforce existing power structures, but also how communities can leverage technology to change the world for the better.”

Sherrill gave all the students the same five letters by Lovelace to try their hand at training Transkribus, the AI system Sherrill is teaching to transcribe Lovelace’s 19th century handwriting. The students called it a frustrating but deeply rewarding project that helped them better understand Lovelace, while the struggle to decipher her words made them more aware of the challenges in reclaiming women’s history.

“I wanted students to think critically about the current enthusiasm surrounding AI,” Sherrill said. “It can be tempting to believe that digital tools offer a panacea for archive reclamation projects like this — that once we have complete public access to the documents, we'll know everything we need to know about Lovelace, and then history will be perfectly rectified.”

That’s partly why she included letters that were partially illegible, including one letter with a tear in it and that had been folded over when Sherrill photographed it.

“Even if we captured a better photograph, which would require a costly research trip, a portion of the original text is simply lost,” Sherrill said. “Highlighting that reality made the students attuned to the inevitable and irresolvable gaps in the archive. It also illuminated the levels of mediation between them and Lovelace. We’re never getting direct access to her thoughts. We’re looking at a letter that has been photographed, then digitized, then run through an AI-mediated transcription process using machine-reading software.”

But for all the gaps in history that research can never fully fill, the students truly grasped the significance of reclaiming the work and legacies of undervalued female scientists by employing modern technology built upon their ideas, Sherrill said. Together, they became inspired to fill in a few blank spaces.