New York Blog

February’s SoNYC: On Science and Social Media – This is what a scientist looks like

Science Online NYC (SoNYC) is a monthly discussion series held in New York City where invited panellists talk about a particular topic related to how science is carried out and communicated online. For this month’s SoNYC we’ve teamed up with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) for a special event for Social Media Week. We’re looking at how social media can be used to communicate science, with the intention of concentrating on how the experiences can have educational value. More details about this month’s SoNYC can be found here.

To complement the event, we’re running a series of guest posts, recounting experiences where social media has been a key part of an education project. To start the discussions, Dr Alan Cann from Leicester University gave us an academic’s viewpoint on how social media can be used as part of the curriculum. Next we heard from Ben Lillie, co-founder of The Story Collider, revealing how social media can also be used to tell a science story. In our latest instalment we will be taking a look at the, “This is what a scientist looks like” initiative. 

In the previous guest post here, Ben Lillie discussed the #IamScience hashtag which is being used on Twitter by scientists to describe their personal scientific career trajectories and counter the notion that there is only one career path in science.

Then, about three weeks ago, a science writer named Kevin Zelnio tweeted this: And with that, he completely transformed what I thought was possible, and indeed what the point was, of social media. The tweet came from a discussion of how people had started their science careers, and Kevin’s frustration that the path to a scientist was always depicted in one way: go to college, go directly to grad school. Hope it was a top-tier school, then, “Bam! You’re a scientist.”

But can social media really be used to change the way people think?

Putting this to the test is one initiative which has spread across the blogospheretwittersphere and has been snapped up by the media: “This is what a scientist looks like.” Developed by science writer and multimedia specialist Allie Wilkinson, the concept is simple, a Tumblr blog which collates pictures of scientists from all walks of life. Allie explains, “there is no cookie-cutter mold of what a scientist looks like. A scientist can look like you, or can look like me.”

The project aims to challenge the stereotypical view of a scientist, “there is no rule that scientists can’t be multidimensional and can’t have fun.” The inspiration for this project was a blog post by Suzanne Franks, in which she very honestly shared her negative reaction to Science Online 2012 keynote speaker Mireya Mayor, a viewpoint which several other attendees also shared. Those who questioned Mireya as an appropriate choice, did so based upon her physical attractiveness, her past as a NFL cheerleader and the title of her keynote, “The Vain Girl’s Survival Guide to Science and the Media.” Suzanne recognized that her reaction was a sexist dismissal of someone she didn’t even know and made her realize, that despite decades of education and effort to counteract them, the stereotypes still exist. After some introspection, Suzanne said of Mireya:

“The child of Cuban immigrants, the former cheerleader, the person who did not look like a scientist, was also the expert speaking to us that morning. Above all, she was speaking passionately about her science.”

Mireya commented on the post herself, sharing her lifelong battle to be taken seriously as a scientist given her looks and past, and how with each new milestone in her scientific career she thought, ‘This is it, now they’ll take me seriously.’ Yet the reaction persists and even producers for her television show comment on her looks and how to best get her “to look more like a scientist.”

Allie was outraged by the negative reaction to Mireya. “I really find Mireya inspiring, especially after reading her book,” said Allie. “She started college late, made a last-minute decision to be a scientist and then got a PhD…and has done all of these awesome things.” Allie adds, “Sometimes I feel like I’m too old, or don’t have enough lab experience to get a graduate degree in science. But then I think about Mireya.”

Unfortunately, the fact that Mireya does not “look like a scientist” often shadows her scientific achievements. “I do think that because of Mireya’s looks, past and her role as a TV host, people do judge her,” Allie wrote to team member Katie Pratt. “Who says a scientist can’t also be attractive, or personable, or feminine, or funny?” Allie and Katie discussed how the point of Mireya’s keynote wasn’t to focus on her science, but rather to illustrate herself and her unusual path to a career in science.

And thus, the idea for “This is What A Scientist Looks Like” was born. Allie wanted to show the world that anyone can be a scientist. “In the movie Ratatouille, the motto repeated throughout is, ‘anyone can cook’.  Although initially frustrated by this motto, the critic in the movie eventually realizes that not everyone can cook, but a great cook can come from anywhere,” explains Allie. “I want people to realize the same for scientists.  Not everyone can be a scientist, just like not everyone can cook, but a great scientist can be anyone.” Allie hopes that this project will help change stereotypes and inspire kids to realize that they have the potential to be a scientist.

The impact of children encountering real-life scientists was illustrated in a study conducted by Fermilab where seventh graders (aged 12&13) were asked to draw pictures of what they believed a scientist looked like. The results were not surprising: prior to meeting scientists, the students’ drawings matched the cliché of a man in white coat and glasses, clutching a flask of coloured liquid. After meeting scientists, the students’ perceptions changed dramatically:

Image Source: Results from Who’s the Scientist? Picture by seventh grade student Amy 

Allie hopes that her project will have a similar effect.  For further reading you can also check our Soapbox Science guest post by Shreena Patel, Scientific Projects Manager for Exscitec which delves into similar themes.

Dear Science

Stemming from the #IamScience and “This is what a Scientists looks like”  initiative and to tie in with Valentine’s Day, Allie and her team have encouraged scientists to send their very own “Valentine’s Day love letters to science.” You can check out their Pinterest board collecting the love letters received.

These “Dear Science” love letters intend to emphasise that scientists are ‘normal’ people, dealing with the same ups and downs of everyday life, just like everyone else. Here is a snippet from one of the love letters by Ed:

Dear Science,

When I was in elementary school I said I was going to grow up to be a scientist.  Back then we didn’t have Tumblr, so I had to imagine what a scientist looked like.  I believe in my imagination I wore a lab coat and one of those headbands with a shiny disc.  It turns out I can dress like a normal person! 

Only time will tell whether this initiative can really change the way people think. However, if you are a scientist you can certainly help the cause by submitting your picture to the project, joining in the online conversation on Twitter (@LooksLikeSci), or sharing your thoughts on their Facebook page.


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