"No one expects scientists to look like scientists any more..."

“When he had first started working at the centre, he had liked to think that he was unexpectedly cool-looking for such a job. Now he knew that he surprised no one, that no one expected scientists to look like scientists any more.” The preceding quotation, from the book Kraken by China Mieville, hit a note with me. It seems obvious to think that scientists are not all white, forty-to-fifty year old men with thick glasses and with poor social skills. Scientists can and do come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and while they often share an intellectual curiosity and desire to learn about the world, this doesn’t necessarily make them nerds or geeks as one might classically think.

The question of the perception of scientists may seem mundane, but it is an important consideration for a couple of reasons. The first is that attracting bright and hard-working people with diverse points of view to science is important to ensure high-quality research. This means reaching out to people of many backgrounds and interests. Translation: not just the nerds. The second reason is that communicating the results of scientific research to a broader community is critical. Think of all of the debates going on today where scientific research is needed for an informed policy: climate change, disease control, genetically modified crops, and many others. If the public doesn’t understand what makes someone a scientist, or misunderstands how science works, then citizens will be less likely to trust research as a whole.

I clearly am not the only person to think about these issues. There are many interesting projects whose goal is to communicate a more “complete” picture of who scientists are to a general public. Drawings of Scientists is a program which concentrates on children. Groups of children were invited to visit Fermilab, a particle physics laboratory in Illinois. Prior to their visit, the children drew pictures of scientists and described what they thought scientists were like. After their visit, the students drew new pictures and wrote again about what makes a scientist. The before and after pictures are often quite dramatic - even changing race or gender in some instances. And while it is clear that the scientists they were talking to were emphasizing that scientists are real people, it is also gratifying to see that the kids were responding to that message. For example, seventh-grader Amanda wrote in her “after” picture: “Anyone can be a scientist. I saw people walking around in sweatshirts and jeans. Who knows? Maybe I can be a scientist.” Clearly, getting to know scientists can help kids to learn that science is a field which can appeal to a wide variety of people. It may even encourage them to try science themselves.

Another presentation of scientists transcending stereotypes comes from a web series titled “The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers,” by the makers of NOVA. This video series features one scientist or engineer every two weeks, and talks to them about their science and their outside-of-work activities. They have a huge range of subjects, from aerospace engineers to ethnobotanists, with a huge range of “secret lives,” from pagent queen to sailor. The latest release features Rachel Collins, microbiologist and pro wrestler. The series has been nominated for an Emmy, and won a Streamy (made-for-the-internet video award) for Best Reality or Documentary Series. It does a fantastic job of meshing science with life stories, communicating that there is much more to scientists than research. The enthusiasm that the subjects have for every aspect of their lives, professional and recreational, is contagious.

To better communicate science to a general public, it is necessary to de-mystify the scientist. By showing that scientists have personalities outside of the lab, projects like Fermilab’s educational outreach and the Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers show that science itself is not out of reach to non-scientists. And as a scientist, I am also reminded that I can have a fun secret life of my own!


Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog