A one woman show: ‘Discovering Marie’

Ana Peres Bogo, Writer

 As part of the 3rd annual Women in Science Conference on Nov. 14, Dr. Maria Boundas Bakalis brought her striking one-woman rendition of “Discovering Marie Curie” to the NEIU stage.  The conference celebrates women in science, a field that still has a male predominance. This year’s topic of Women in Chemistry offered Bakalis, an NEIU alumna, an energized audience for her theatrical work. Meanwhile, the Cultural Theatre monologue provided entertaining historical context for visitors in between panels such as “Triumphs and Opportunities: Women Behind the Periodic Table of Elements” by Jing Su Ph.D., associate  professor of the NEIU chemistry department.

“Discovering Marie Curie” highlighted the life of Curie, who is recognized as one of the most important scientists in world history.  She was the only woman to win two Nobel Prizes: one for physics (1903) for her studies in spontaneous radiation and one for chemistry (1911) for her work in radioactivity. Later, her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry as well. From the Curie’s childhood in Poland to becoming an award-winning scientist, Bakalis allowed the audience to experience every aspect of this woman’s astonishing life. 

The actress started the show abruptly without any introduction. She  entered the Golden Eagles Room through a side door, already talking about the scientist’s life. Bakalis talked about the political situation in Warsaw during Curie’s youth, and how hard it was for Curie to cope with the university’s rejection of her application. Even though she was considered a talented scholar–winning recognition and awards in the fields of science–she couldn’t continue her education because she was a girl. Curie then discovered the opportunity to pursue her aspirations by travelling to Paris. There, she not only earned her degree and began her career as the scientist she always dreamed of becoming, but she met the man who would share her dreams with her: Pierre Curie. 

The focus of her life and the show, which Bakalis reiterated when the performance was over, were Curie’s amazing and progressive views. The chemistry pioneer believed in education for everyone, and she consistently put this idea into practice. While paying her way through university by working as a governess for a wealthy family, Curie struck a blow for gender and class equality by indiscriminately teaching all of the children in the house where she worked how to read, including the children of fellow servants. She was also outraged by the xenophobia and prejudice that she was exposed to when she was denied a position in the French Academy of Science because she was Polish, Jewish and a woman. 

Balikas was magnificent. She embodied Marie Curie with an incredible ease, and the amount of knowledge she shared about the scientist was unbelievable. Balikas wore a simple black dress, and did not use props to help her (only a few letters she eventually would read from Curie’s husband and Albert Einstein). The only scenery that accompanied Balikas was a few roses that were placed in a vase behind her. At the end of the monologue she spoke about how much she loved roses. The stark contrast of the nearly bare stage and simple costume to the richness of the actress’ performance helped focus the audience on Curie’s unconventional life. Balikas’ performance was a really creative and impacting experience. 

After a whole day of hearing about chemistry, to be able to ‘see’ one of the most famous female scientists of all time had kind of a dream-like feeling to it. Pairing the theatrical production with the scientific panels was an innovative way to pay homage to the great female scientific minds of the past while giving visitors an opportunity to experience cutting edge, current day science at the conference.  An art exhibition and an opportunity to have a direct contact with the field in “Science Hands-on Experience” rounded the whole event. The Women in Science Conference was brought to NEIU by the partnership with The Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative (ChicagoCHEC), which also includes Northwestern University and University of Illinois of Chicago.