How does a hands-on scientist look like?

In a regular checkup with my ophthalmologist in 2015, he asked me what my profession was. A normal question for many, a confusing one for me back then. At that time, I was in the first year of my Master’s in Neuroscience, taking neurobiology courses and working on my experiments for my thesis. Differently from many countries, in Brazil, the Master’s students in Life Sciences usually start working at the bench as soon as possible, in parallel to taking classes. Thus, when asked about my profession, I explained to the medical doctor: “well, I work in a neuroscience lab, but I’m still a student as well”. He took note of what I said in a form and started examining my eyes. Later on, with this form in hand, I realized he wrote “scientist” as my profession.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the definition of “scientist” is: “an expert who studies or works in one of the sciences”. Thus, I guess, at that moment, my doctor was a bit over the top when he labeled me as a scientist. After all, I was far from being considered an expert. However, I have to say that even now, when I am a Ph.D. candidate and I am on the path to becoming an expert in my field, I’m still reluctant to call myself a scientist. I don’t know exactly why, but I suspect this has to do with my long-lasting idea of what a scientist looked like.

Probably like many others, if someone asks me to reply what comes to my mind when I think about a scientist, the first face that appears is of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out. An old white European eccentric man, who has little similarity to me (except being human and sharing the same skin color, I’m unaware of other characteristics). It’s hard to say how many times Einstein and/or his picture appeared in popular culture. But this article in Wikipedia gives many examples in television, literature, visual arts, video games, and music. Thus, it comes with no surprise that, after I have seen this picture so many times in my life, I still think automatically of him as my first idea of a scientist.

His work as a scientist is out of question here, he indeed made very important contributions to his field. However, what I want to reflect on is why I first think about him as a scientist, even before thinking about the scientists surrounding me every single day (including myself…). As well as, the impact that this has on my self-awareness about my profession.

The mass media also doesn’t help much in changing my idea of what a scientist looks like. In Brazil, where I was raised, a study from 2019, that analyzed the appearance of experts in two high audience Brazilian TV shows, concluded that male scientists were interviewed almost three times more often than female scientists. Similar figures were observed by one Finnish and one British study, where the authors found that less than 30% and 20%, respectively, of the interviewed scientists were females.

One explanation for this discrepancy in media representation could be that there are more male scientists than female ones. For Finland and United Kingdom this may be one of the reasons, since only 29% and 41% of scientists are women in these countries, respectively, according to Eurostat. But this is not the case in Brazil. In the 2014 census of the Brazilian science council Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq), the proportion of male and female leader scientists was equivalent.

Still, even for countries where there are fewer women in science, is the lack of female scientists in media actually a consequence, or could it (also) be a cause that leads to fewer women working in STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)? I have no clear answer to this question. But I dare to say that the fact that male scientists are overrepresented not only in mass media but also in popular culture certainly influenced me to still have an old white man as the first example of a scientist that comes to my mind.

I have to say, though, that this is changing for me. After becoming more and more aware of this issue and realizing how this may be influencing my self-awareness and self-confidence, I actively started to look for more female references. And I was glad to notice that in one of the last times I asked myself the question “what does a scientist look like”, Jennifer Doudna, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year, also came to my mind very quickly. Not only she was one of the scientists who developed a very important molecular biology technique that is being used in my lab, but she also has frequently appeared in the media since her group’s paper about this technique became available.

But Jennifer Doudna, like Einstein, is part of the select group of scientists who managed to reach the top of academia and became professors. Science, on the other side, is a team effort. Together with Doudnas and Einsteins, many other people contribute to scientific discovery or technique development. These include postdocs, Ph.D. candidates, Master’s students, interns, technicians, and so on. They are in one way or another the hands-on scientists, the people who actually did the experiments and also thought very thoroughly about them. When we read science news, though, we usually only hear from professors and group leaders. And remember the overrepresentation of male scientists in the media that I mentioned above? Altogether, and we end up with a pretty biased picture of not only what a scientist looks like, but also how professors and research leaders do.

Although it may take a long time until we finally have gender equality and racial diversity in science (and in society), we have to acknowledge that there is a growing effort to reach such status, both inside and outside of academia. Nevertheless, the same trend also has to be reflected in the representation of scientists in the media and popular culture. After all, these are the channels that inform the general public who is doing research. If the majority of scientists who appear in the media continue to be male and white, those who don’t fit in such categories may keep thinking they don’t belong in such an environment and, even worse, may not even try to be part of it. As a consequence, many fields of research that are important for society may continue to be neglected due to this lack of different perspectives that diversity brings. 

Thus, inspired by many great scientists who I believe should have their voices heard, and inspired by the campaign #ILookLikeAScientist and #EuPareçoCientista, which tried to break the stereotype of the old white male scientist showing diversity among researchers, I decided to create this blog. Here, my goal is to be a channel for hands-on scientists to tell their own stories and contributions to science, and to show more diverse pictures of what scientists look like.

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