A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Scientists

21 January 2006

Take a moment and imagine a scientist: features, clothing, etc. Have a mental picture in mind? Good. Give this scientist a setting---where is the work being done? Now, imagine that the scientist is doing something. What is happening?

Finish up your image-making. Let me see how good I am at guessing who you thought of.

Was the scientist a white male? A bit advanced in age? I'll bet he had hair like Albert Einstein or no hair at all. He could very well have had on glasses. Your scientist was probably wearing a white lab coat, going about his business in some sort of laboratory---things bubbling and changing colour. Did your scientist have a test tube in hand, perhaps pouring the contents from it into some sort of flask?

If any of these characteristics hit home, you're not alone. When I taught chemistry, I always did this mental exercise with students the very first day of class. I even had them draw their scientists. Rarely did a student ever draw a woman or young person or minority. I never had a student draw himself or herself.

My students aren't the only ones with these perceptions. A recent article published by the BBC suggests that students across the pond see the work of science in much the same way.

"Researchers Roni Malek and Fani Stylianidou are completing their research in April but have analysed around half the responses so far.

"They found around 80% of pupils thought scientists did 'very important work' and 70% thought they worked 'creatively and imaginatively.' Only 40% said they agreed that scientists did 'boring and repetitive work.' Over three quarters of the respondents thought scientists were 'really brainy people.'

"Among those who said they would not like to be scientists, reasons included: 'Because you would constantly be depressed and tired and not have time for family,' and 'because they all wear big glasses and white coats and I am female.'"

Depressed? Tired? No time for family? Sounds like teaching. :)

All kidding aside, how do we give science a bit of a makeover? Fewer students are choosing to pursue careers in the sciences. I find this trend disturbing. From the looks of things in the BBC article, I'm not alone.

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