What do you think of when you hear the word scientist? Chances are your first thought is of a white, middle-aged man wearing a white lab coat. He may be in a lab, surrounded by vials and chemicals, and he may even be wearing thick glasses and have crazy white hair. This is the most common image that people, especially school-aged children, have of a scientist. (Chambers, 1983; Mead & Metraux, 1957; Tan, Jocz, & Zhai, 2015). Is that what the majority of scientists look like? Definitely not.
There have been many different attempts to dispel this myth recently, especially on social media sites such as Twitter. If you search the hashtags #ActualLivingScientist #Iamascientist and any other variation of these, you will find pictures, stories, and testimonials from all different kinds of scientists. These hashtags also showcase the wide variety of scientific endeavours that are outside the realm of “realistic chemist” (Tan, Jocz, & Zhai, 2015), that is being a scientist in a lab testing different chemicals and reactions. These include things like ecology, marine biology, astronomy, psychology, medicine, anatomy or human biology, and many more.
If there is so much variety in science, why then does this distinct image exist? The simple answer is media. The image persists because different forms of media like television, books, and video games, perpetuate the image of a middle-aged white man in a lab coat. By the time children reach school, this idea may already be affecting their interest and career prospects in science (Robinson & Kenny, 2003).
Tai, Liu, Maltese, and Fan (2006) found a strong relationship between a student’s perception of a scientist and the media in which they learn about science. They stated that magazines and books were the most popular source of scientific images, but now it could be argued that other forms of media, like youtube videos, blog posts, podcasts, and comic books could now be at the top of the list.
So if we try to change the image of a scientist using the newer and more popular forms of media, will it help? Yes!
Farland-Smith (2010) found that introducing middle-school aged girls to real scientists and providing them with hands-on experiences changed their perceptions and ideas about science. This change even occurred in girls who were already interested in science. This is a hopeful find.
So if you are reading this, consider this your wake-up call. Start to discuss different fields of science. Talk about aerospace engineering, talk about environmental science, and talk about computer science. Create characters who study people, bugs, stars, water, snow, and dirt. Showcase scientists who are people of colour, who are muslim, who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, who speak French, who are from Mozambique, who are Brazilian, and who are women. Encourage every child who is curious, persistent, interested, and creative to consider a future in science.
Everyone has a role in perpetuating the image of a scientist and many are doing their part to change it. Are you?
Chambers, D., W. (1983). Stereotypic images of the scientist: The Draw-A-Scientist test.
Science Education, 67(2), 255-265. DOI: 10.1002/sce.3730670213
Farland-Smith, D. (2010). Exploring middle-school girls’ science identities: Examining attitudes
and perceptions of scientists when working. School Science and Mathematics, 109(7),
Mead, M., & Metraux, R. (1957). The image of a scientist among high school students: A pilot
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Robinson, M., & Kenny, B. (2003). Engineering literacy in high school students. Bulletin of
Science, Technology & Society, 23(2), 95-101. DOI:10.1177/0270467603251300
Tai, R., Liu, C., Maltese, A., & Fan, X. (2006). Planning early for careers in science. Science,
312(5777), 1143-1144. DOI: 10.1126/science.1128690
Tan, A., Jocz, J, A., & Zhai, J. (2015) Spiderman and science: How students’ perceptions of
scientists are shaped by popular media. Public Understanding of Science. DOI:10.1177/0963662515615086
Superwomen in Science is a podcast that focuses on the past, present, and future of women in science. It is hosted by Nicole George and Cordon Purcell and every episode features an amazing woman scientist. You can follow the links on the website or download the podcast on itunes to listen!