Saturday, 2 August 2014

What does a scientist look like?

Whilst reading the latest issue of Chemistry World, a monthly magazine I receive for being a member of the Royal society of Chemistry, I came across an article about Martyn Poliakoff, a professor of Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. He is the foreign secretary of the RSC, meaning he has an influential role in the international business of the Royal Society. Despite this, he is most famous for his insightful and entertaining Youtube videos on the channel 'Periodic Videos'. Poliakoff and his team at Nottingham worked to produce informative videos on every element in the periodic table and have now moved on to even cooler chemistry concepts and experiments such as heating up Creme Eggs (an absolute must-see) and the classic experiment; the Iodine clock.

Heating a creme egg. 

 Professor Poliakoff himself is the epitome of  your 'stereotypical scientist', his wild grey hair and glasses make him the received idea of a scientist we've all come to know. But, as Poliakoff states 'Part of my mission is to show that not all scientists look like me'. Whilst Poliakoff acknowledges his own appearance, he makes viewers aware that there are people out there in the field of science who do not look like him at all. His team at the University of Nottingham comprises of men and women of different backgrounds and ages. It is good that he acknowledges the stereotype and recognises that there needs to be more diversity. His work in Ethiopia has been invaluable in getting more African scientists into the international community and he has said 'My long term vision is that Ethiopian scientists should go to an international conference and nobody should think it surprising'. He is truly an ambassador for diversity.

When you picture a scientist you probably think of an old man with crazy Einstein-like hair and glasses, wearing a white lab coat, not unlike Professor Poliakoff. Whereas if you look at real people who have careers in STEM fields, they come in all shapes and sizes, different ethnic backgrounds and of course, different sexes. I believe that challenging the stereotypical image of a scientist is the one of the most effective ways to introduce more diversity into the fields. If you have this view of what someone in a chosen career path 'should' look like then you are alienating everyone who doesn't look that way. Therefore, girls and ethnic minorities may be less inclined to take up science if they are unable to see how they 'fit in' and if there is no one who they can relate to. The image of a scientist we have all grown up with is an ageing white man, yet first and foremost, a scientist is a person, someone with passion and curiosity. That's it. These preconceptions of what a scientist is, damages the opportunity to diversify the scientific industry. I am glad that there are people like Martyn Poliakoff in the world who want to confront this out of date vision.
I'm a scientist! No grey hair to be seen!
Obviously, I am passionate about getting more girls into STEM subjects and I just wanted to let any girl reading this know that you can be a scientist/engineer/mathematician, regardless of your appearance. Science doesn't care about how you look, it cares about your mind and how you think and your passion for the subject. People shouldn't be scared of following their dreams because they can't relate to the image of what they should be. There are so many fabulous female scientists and organisations, such as the Stemettes, who promote diversity and gender equality in the field, so why are we still stuck on this grey haired character who is so obsolete in today's society? The days of balding men in suits sat round a table discussing gravity is long gone. It's time to make way for a new 'face of science', one that represents all cultures and backgrounds.
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