What Does a Scientist Look Like? Why STEM Identity Matters.

Rebecca Gray Uncategorized Leave a Comment

What does a scientist look like? Talk about a loaded question.  Age-old scientist stereotypes have a major influence on the STEM identity of impressionable children.  It’s these same children who will someday make up the future workforce of the world, and it’s up to us to clear their path.  Will these stereotypes fade into the background as STEM professionals and educators across the globe unite to show children of every race, gender, and culture that they too can succeed in science? 

Photo by Jorge Alejandro Rodríguez Aldana on Unsplash

Take a minute to explore what STEM identity is, why it’s important, and what we can do to help every student develop a strong STEM identity early in their educational journey.

We can start with a question that is so simple, and simultaneously complex.  What does a scientist look like? Join us as we take a trip “Back to the Future” to explore how the answer to this question has changed in the last five decades. Discover why kids from underrepresented demographics are finding it a bit easier to see themselves in STEM professions, and why we couldn’t be more excited about the data backing up this trend!

Scientist Stereotypes: What’s the Big Idea?

A question about what scientists look like could have a million different answers, but one thing is clear:  Children need to know that scientists can look just like them. Educators and professionals in the STEM world have been working hard for several decades to break down the gender, race, and socio-economic barriers that have shaped the response to this question – a response that could be a clear indication of a student’s personal STEM identity.

It’s officially been 40 years since David Wade Chambers released findings after a landmark study of drawings created by children from 1966-1977.  This study helped Chambers gather subjective insight on who children see in STEM positions and gave researchers a better idea of exactly when students begin to develop mental pictures and ‘scientist stereotypes’.  These stereotypes sometimes, but not always, include the physical features of a typical white male, unkempt hair, lab coats, and glasses.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Chambers looked at drawings created between 1966-1977.  These drawings were created by almost 5,000 students from the US, Canada, and Australia.  Of those students, not a single male student drew a female scientist.  Even among the girls, only 28 drawings depicted a female scientist – less than 1% of students polled.  This was evidentiary of a clear identity crisis for girls in STEM. Chambers also looked at seven other indicators among these drawings – from facial hair to lab coats, and even the tools and technology kids thought scientists needed.

These images also illustrated that children began developing ideas about the traits of scientists as early as kindergarten.  Those ideas become stronger, more complex, and more detailed as kids age. Many variations of this DAST have been conducted, and the activities are always insightful.

David Miller, a Ph.D. psychology student out of Northwestern University conducted a more detailed study of drawings of over 20,000 students that spanned five decades.  He found that students in the United States now depict more female scientists than ever.  However, the older girls get, the less likely they are to draw a scientist as a man.  Data has proven that girls often lose STEM confidence as they age.  What can we do to help reverse this dip in STEM confidence and fortify female STEM identities in young children?  

We also need to be asking ourselves how we can maintain STEM confidence for children of color, children from Hispanic and Latino backgrounds, children with specific disabilities, and many other underrepresented groups.  It’s difficult to develop a strong STEM identity when students have never seen a “scientist” or STEM professional who looks quite like they do.

How to Foster a STEM Identity and Why It Matters.

What do we mean when we say, “STEM Identity”?  What is a person’s STEM identity?  The concept of identity helps individuals answer very influential questions.  Questions like:

  • Who am I?
  • What can I do?
  • Where do I belong?
  • What do other people see when they look at me?

The way young people answer these questions can truly change the trajectory of their life.  Children immediately begin making observations about the world around them and realizing early on where they ‘belong’– and sadly where they don’t.  Think about it:  how many little boys are encouraged to imagine themselves caring for babies and working in the kitchen?  How many little girls naturally picture themselves as carpenters, plumbers, physicists, or Wall Street investors?  

These stereotypical roles are illustrated to children almost immediately in storybooks, videos, cartoons, movies, and even nursery rhymes.  Unless parents, guardians, teachers, and community stakeholders make a concerted effort to show them otherwise, kids start to unconsciously build imaginary boxes for themselves.  They place themselves in these imaginary boxes based on their gender, race, family type, or even the neighborhood they live in.  

At Thimble, we think all children should know they belong anywhere their passions lead them.  We want every child to carry the confidence that they can break through and succeed in any STEM profession regardless of their race, gender, size, shape, ethnicity, or income bracket.  

Why does this matter?

It matters because diversity in STEM means diverse benefits from breakthroughs, innovations, and advances in STEM.  Stereotypes threaten underrepresented demographics- impacting their persistence and ultimately their success in STEM subjects, degrees, and professions.

STEM educators from K-12 to college are dedicating time and energy to promoting diversity in science and technology.  One of the most incredible collections of displayed diversity in STEM has been compiled by the “Scientists Spotlight Initiative”. The project was inspired by Professor Jeffrey Schinske’s college-level writing assignments that asked students to reflect on diversity in the scientific community by showing them successful STEM professionals that looked just like they did.  The results were quantifiable.  Students found it easier to relate to certain positions in scientific fields after completing and reading the Scientist Spotlights of others. 

Efforts to bring underrepresented students into the scientific community continued throughout 2020 as black scientists flooded social media platforms with the #blackinSTEM movement.  This evolved into additional hashtags such as #blackinbotany and #blackinengineering.  The movement helped promote visibility, make connections, and even establish mentorships. This is a forward-thinking example of actionable ways to strengthen the STEM identity of students from all backgrounds.

What a Real Scientist Looks Like

Scientists can look very different on the outside.  Their places of employment can look vastly different as well: from the depths of the ocean and the forest floors to sterile lab environments.  At Thimble, we encourage every education stakeholder to build up the young scientists in their lives.  Surround them with images, stories, visuals, and ideas that bridge the mental gap between STEM professions and the vision they have about their own identity. Be intentional about displaying and celebrating diversity.

If needed, use resources like the Scientist Spotlight Initiative or this Thimble blog post to bring about sparks of recognition and make important connections.  Help a young scientist write a true story of STEM success by crafting main characters they can see themselves in, starting with our founder and CEO, Oscar Pedroso.

Oscar Pedroso – Robotics Educator, CEO, and founder of Thimble.io 

Oscar Pedroso, CEO & Founder of Thimble.io

What does a scientist look like?  They can look like Latino robotics educator and entrepreneur Oscar Pedroso.  Oscar is a staunch promoter of bringing high-quality STEM education to middle and high school students so that they can recognize long-term career opportunities in fields like computer programming, engineering, and robotics.  He is a founder and CEO of a STEM curriculum company based out of Buffalo, NY called Thimble.io. A recent recipient of the Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, Oscar has used funding to build a company that helps strengthen STEM identities for middle and high school students from every background, providing access to education and inspiration.

Oscar’s early years spent teaching math and science at an inner-city New York school opened his eyes to the need for high-quality education that was accessible to every child.  As a first-generation college graduate, Oscar’s drive to bring diversity to STEM shines through in everything he does.

“Thimble.io’s mission is important to me because I’ve spent most of my life in education, observing many of the challenges school districts face in making STEM education accessible to kids of all types. So Thimble is here to bring that right to the forefront, ensuring that every boy and girl gets a chance to experience some kind of STEM skill.  Not forcing it, but just giving a chance for them to consider it as a possible interest and hopefully a career path.”

Oscar Pedroso
CEO & Cofounder, Thimble.io

Dr. Zanthia Wiley – Doctor of Infectious Disease and Researcher at Emory University

What does a scientist look like?  They can look like Dr. Zanthia Wiley, an Emory Researcher and hospitalist caring for patients at Emory University Midtown Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.  Growing up in rural Alabama, Dr. Wiley felt the absence of people who looked like her during her educational and professional journeys. Early on, she developed a strong work ethic and an innate desire to help people.  These were qualities gifted to her by a strong, single mother and devoted grandparents.  Observing and absorbing the idea that she could work hard and accomplish her dreams helped Dr. Wiley persevere, despite the statistics that stacked the odds against her.  

She forged ahead and earned her BS at the University of Alabama and her MD at the University of Alabama School of Medicine. As a black, female physician specializing in the study of infectious disease, Dr. Wiley’s research at Emory has been pivotal in recognizing how and why COVID disproportionately affected people from minority groups.  She championed the need for equitable care and vaccine distribution and tracked each COVID patient personally. 

It’s now one of her great joys to be able to interact with and teach young black female medical students through their residencies in her position as a Professor of Medicine at Emory University in Georgia.

“As a young, Black, female, STEM student, I often did not see people who looked like me, and I would love for young people of color to see that.”

Dr. Zanthia Wiley
Hospitalist; Professor of Medicine
Division of Infectious Disease
Emory University

Fernando Reyes Medina – Software Engineer and Game Designer

What does a scientist look like? They could look like Fernando Reyes Medina.  Medina is a multi-award-winning game designer doing mind-blowing work with the newly formed Gravity Well game studio.  Previously, he was one of the programmers responsible for designing and bringing to life the highly anticipated multiplayer suite of experiences for Halo Infinite.

Fernando Reyes Medina

Fernando was born and raised in Mexico City, moving to the United States after college.  His experiences with immigration, culture shock, and language barriers have led him to promote a more diverse Latin representation in STEM – more specifically the gaming industry.  He is the co-founder and the Latin America Director for Latinx in Gaming, which is a 501c3 non-profit organization focused on breaking barriers, developing cultural appreciation through gaming, and helping the Latino community to be successful in the gaming industry.  Fernando has been recognized by BAFTA as part of their Breakthrough USA program, as a Forbes 30 under 30 lister in 2022, and was selected as a Future Class member by The Game Awards.  

“I see a future in gaming where creators from all over the world are enabled and empowered to develop unique games, telling their own stories with their own voices, showing the true potential of gaming as an art medium and as a storytelling tool.”

Fernando Reyes Medina
Game Designer and Software Engineer
343 Industries

Dr. Jessie Rack Ph.D., Ecologist, Environmental Educator, and Naturalist

What does a scientist look like? They could look like Dr. Jessie Rack, Ph.D.  Rack is a biologist, ecologist, and naturalist who has made significant contributions to the field of natural history.  Her passion for science and the environment grew during her years at Slippery Rock University, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biology.  She went on to earn her Ph.D. in Biology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, where her specialized research focused on salamanders.  

Currently, Rack serves as the Program Director for the Natural History Institute in Prescott, Arizona.  In the fall of 2023, she’ll begin a position at Northern Arizona University as an Assistant Teaching Professor of Biological Writing. Her love for nature and her dedication to scientific research has led her to a career through which she can inspire and encourage others to pursue careers in STEM and get hands-on in nature and science.  As an If/Then Ambassador for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she is one of many who have taken up the mangle of promoting women of every background in STEM, and increasing their visibility.  

Dr. Jessie Rack Ph.D

Despite being surrounded by female colleagues during her studies, Rack has faced occasional gender bias in her professional life.  However, she has continued to advocate for diversity and inclusion in the field of science.  She believes that everyone can be a scientist and that it is important to provide students with access to high-quality STEM experiences.  This is just one of the reasons she excels in her role at the Natural History Institute, planning workshops, field trips, and experiences for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

“If you absolutely, positively can’t find representation in your field, that just means that maybe it’s up to you to be the first! Which is scary, and can be hard, but also so amazing. Because you can do anything!”

Dr. Jessie Rack Ph.D.
Biologist, Ecologist, Naturalist
Program Director; Natural History Institute

Dr. Burçin Mutlu Pakdil Ph.D. – Astrophysicist, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College

What does a scientist look like?  They can look like “Galaxy Hunter” Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil, an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College.  Mutlu-Pakdil was always a curious child growing up in her home country of Turkey.  She became interested in space, the stars, and distant galaxies at a young age.  In her early years, she recognized an absence of role models that looked like her in STEM fields, astronomy specifically.

Dr. Burçin Mutlu Pakdil Ph.D.

In her first year of undergraduate studies at Bilkent University in Turkey’s capital city, Mutlu-Pakdil vividly remembers a faculty member challenging her potential in physics simply because she was a woman.  It’s safe to say she proved them wrong.  She went on to earn her B.S. in Physics during a tumultuous time for a woman studying in Turkey. Women were banned from wearing headscarves in universities, forcing them to choose between their education and their religious and cultural practices.  
Mutlu-Pakdil made the decision to travel to the United States to earn her Master’s in Physics from Texas Tech University and worked tirelessly for her Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Minnesota.  She has spent most of her adult life studying the heavens, while simultaneously advocating for more representation of Muslim women in STEM. 

She has been honored as a 2018 TED Fellow and 2020 TED Senior Fellow, featured in National Georgraphic as a “woman of impact,” named a 2019 AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador, and featured in a Science Friday film documentary, “Breakthrough: The Galaxy Hunter,”.  She was also in the CBS TV Show, “Mission Unstoppable”.

Mutlu-Pakdil leads several observational campaigns to discover and characterize tiny galaxies.  Her works have been featured by CNN, Science Daily, Astronomy Magazine, Gizmodo, Independent, MPR News, among many others.  Damon Brown, a journalist for Inc. Magazine, wrote of Mutlu-Pakdil: “Many organizations are dedicated to filling the STEM pipeline with more girls and women.  Others are supporting the cause by being an example.  TED Fellow Burçin is representing by being one of the most notable astrophysicists today.  Most recently, she discovered a new galaxy – now called Burçin’s galaxy.”

“Throughout my academic career, I was pressured to fit into society’s predefined boxes, but I didn’t want to fit in; I wanted to stand out.  So, I fought against all of these stereotypes and tried hard to live beyond the labels.  The universe has no boundaries, so why should we?”

Dr. Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil
Astrophysicist and Researcher
Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Dartmouth College

Celebrate Diverse STEM Identities with Thimble.io

Take time with your students and be deliberate and intentional about celebrating diverse interests, backgrounds, passions, and images.  Introduce young people to professionals in varying STEM careers that look non-traditional.  Help them to see themselves as we see them – full of potential!

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