Game on

How do you increase diversity in STEM across the globe?

Ariel Marcy is using her scientific knowledge to create games
encouraging children to pursue science.

Ariel shares her hopes for a more scientific and creative world for
International Women’s Day.

My name is Ariel Marcy.

I’m a PhD Candidate in UQ’s School of Biological Sciences. 

I want to see women represented in science not only in countries with high wealth, but across the globe.

What achievements are you most proud of?

First, feeling like a legitimate scientist (with a capital S) after publishing my Honors thesis project as a peer-reviewed publication. I studied gophers, those North American underground rodents infamous for garden and golf course destruction.

My findings showed these tough critters seem to evolve different digging strategies based on the hardness of their soil. Some have massive buck-teeth to use like backhoes, others have powerful arms, and some have both. I felt both excited and empowered that my insights would become part of the official scientific literature.

Who might stand on my shoulders to discover brilliant things using gophers?

This heady experience prompted me to inspire more people, especially kids, to pursue science, and I started designing games. My second, Go Extinct! is a tabletop game similar to Go Fish, and teaches players my favorite concept in science: despite the amazing diversity of life, we all share one common ancestor.

I’m most proud of how the rules incentivize players to think like a biologist about the evolutionary tree at the center of the game. All sorts of people enjoy playing, but teachers say it engages a greater diversity of learners, with scores going up and students coming in during lunch to play again and again.

Finally, the cheeky academic in me was delighted to be featured in Science and Nature, the two top scientific publications, not for peer-reviewed research but for making games!

Indeed, having a unique style of science outreach in addition to my research helped me land a Fulbright Scholarship to Australia. This cross-cultural exchange program between the US and Australia literally changed the course of my life as I decided to stay at UQ and complete a PhD on Australian rodent evolution.

What barriers have you faced?

I feel very lucky to be living in a time of increased acceptance for diversity, in all its forms. I’m very grateful to the women who broke ground in the more distant past and for my female mentors who are generating changes that I will continue to benefit from. So far, I have been very lucky not to experience any major barriers related to my identity, though the statistics imply that it gets harder for women the higher up one goes. 

My biggest barriers to date have been more internal ones. I’m proud to say I have overcome mental illness, though like many young researchers, I still struggle with imposter syndrome from time to time. I can’t help but think that some of the feelings of doubt stem from the stigma around women in science.

I recently learned that one of my science outreach heroes, Thomas Henry Huxley, may take a lot of blame for the current biases against women scientists. Known for promoting Darwin’s work against harsh criticism (he was dubbed ‘Darwin’s bulldog’), he and his ‘X-Club’ were also on a mission to legitimize science as a discipline.

This ‘legitimizing’ included removing women already practicing science. So now I view receiving the Society for the Study of Evolution’s Thomas Henry Huxley Award for Go Extinct! as a bittersweet reminder to further his legacy of science outreach but to expand the intended audience as much as possible.

What would you like to see changed for the next generation of women?

I would like to see greater access to high quality STEM education for women around the world and not just in high GDP countries or high tax bracket suburbs.

This is not just to increase opportunities for women – though that is critical, too. This is also to improve our collective ability to do science.

Here’s why.

Science can be defined as the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to uncover patterns, and to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena.

It turns out that this is an excellent definition for creativity, too. Furthermore, we know that creativity is fueled by individual experiences and ways of thinking.

Therefore, the greater diversity of well-trained minds we have, the better our collective scientific endeavor will be.