Ain’t no Einstein

“You don’t look like much of a scientist.”

This is a surprisingly recent comment I received from a fellow scientist before a public presentation, and one I honestly found more baffling than offensive.

Nikola standing at the ‘Gondwana Tree’ at Springbrook National Park.

Nikola standing at the ‘Gondwana Tree’ at Springbrook National Park.

Professor Joan Esterle and Dr Tenille Mares (former UQ PhD student).

Professor Joan Esterle and Dr Tenille Mares (former UQ PhD student).

Dr Marie Stopes – leading advocate of women's rights and birth control, and paleontologist.

Dr Marie Stopes – leading advocate of women's rights and birth control, and paleontologist.

Did I not look like a scientist because I am in my twenties? Because of my tattoos? Because I’m female?

Part of me wanted to dissect this off-the-cuff statement and answer back to him "Well, what should a scientist look like?’"

I’m happy to say as a HDR student in my research group, I’ve never felt out of place in my field as I am constantly surrounded by other women whom have fostered an environment where I can be comfortable.

Not once have I ever felt limited by my gender, as my supervisor and the researchers around me (whom all happen to be women) push toward the same goals and scientific excellence.

Not only that, but the foundations of women in my research field, from the UQ scholar Professor Dorothy Hill (1907 – 1997) to palaeobotanist Dr Marie Stopes (1880 – 1958), leave a resolute and often out-spoken legacy for us to follow.

It is from the legacy of these women, and the supportive environment built by my colleagues and supervisors, that gives me the benefit of being able to balk at comments like this, rather than feel truly offended. It also makes me realise how truly lucky I am; there are plenty of academics working across the sciences that do not have the benefit of such support networks.

While superficially the comment "You don’t look like much of a scientist" could be laughed off or considered absurd by some, imagine instead the damage such a statement could have for people without a support network in their chosen field, those who already feel unwelcome or out-of-place in the white-male dominated status quo.

Comments like this are even more so damaging for non-binary, transwomen, or women of colour studying or working within science.

This begs the question, what do we expect a scientist to look like?

The media, and society in general, still struggle around this idea. It’s comforting to know we live in a time where the traditional ‘Einstein’ image of scientists is being challenged (a quick Google image search of ‘scientist’ works well to illustrate this point).

However, I’d like to think we put less emphasis on stock images and more on spokespeople for our profession.

So who is it you think of when you think about popular spokespeople for science?

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, Sir David Attenborough, and Dr Iain Stewart are all popular science spokespeople whom come to my mind when thinking of science in the media. They are all engaging and have done much to further the promotion of science to the general public. It’s moot to point out that all are male. Likewise, of Science magazine’s Top 50 Science Stars of Twitter, only three are women.

Thus, from my perspective, while our superficial idea of what a scientist looks like is changing, perhaps our communication of science hasn’t quite caught up. Without these spokespeople, mentors, and promotors how can we expect to build an image of scientists beyond a middle-aged white male in a lab coat?

Addressing our ideas of what scientists should act or look like is as complex an issue as capturing women in science as a whole; the ‘leaky pipeline’ is proof enough that the academic system, as it stands, is unable to foster the development of women in their senior career stages. We simply do not have enough women in senior positions able to carry the overwhelming roles as academics, mentors and spokespeople (not to mention parents), so it is only natural that our most senior spokespeople happen to be men.

But beyond fixing our broken academic system, what can we do to harbor more females into the role of spokespeople for sciences, and at least begin to challenge society’s idea of what a science should look like?

A simple, but overwhelmingly important place to start is finding out who is out there. We live in the age of social media, and we are but a simple search away on Google, Twitter or Facebook to some of the most successful and inspirational women working in science today. They may not be at the same university, the same state or even the same country, but through promoting non-traditional images of those working in science through the media, we can provide support to those still in the ‘leaky pipeline’, be it a student, researcher or academic.

Promoting voices of those overlooked in representing science is the first step to fostering a supportive environment on which we all can thrive-on.

L-R: Nikola, Izzy Ariff, Jacinta Bowler, Nadya Panagidas (UQ PhD student) on radio program  Hot Schist.

L-R: Nikola, Izzy Ariff, Jacinta Bowler, Nadya Panagidas (UQ PhD student) on radio program  Hot Schist.

Nikola is part of the UQ-Vale Coal Geosciences Program, in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, UQ. She is Media Manager for WOMEESA and hosts radio program Hot Schist on Zed Digital, Brisbane.

Find more women in science by following UQ’s curated twitter list: #womeninscience