Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Overturning the Stereotype

Recently, someone sent me a link to a website called This is What a Scientist Looks Like.  The site, which contains hundreds of photos posted by scientists, is part of a project designed to "challenge the stereotypical image of a scientist".

It's interesting to see what people submit. Some post photos of themselves at work; others at play. Some are serious and some are silly. Many show the scientists with their families. Some people noted in the description accompanying their photo that they have experienced how other people are surprised when faced with a scientist (them) who does not fit the stereotype (white, male, labcoated, nerdy). 

I've also occasionally encountered people who expressed incredulity upon being told my profession.  Some of these occasions were when I reentered the country and went through passport control. Because I carry an official passport (as a US government employee), I'm often asked what type of work I do for my agency. When I respond that I'm a scientist, I almost always get a double-take look from the passport officer.  Sometimes, they frown and question me further about exactly what I do science-wise, clearly not believing me. I can't imagine how they think I managed to get an official US passport using false information about my government job, but that's the implication. 

This third degree treatment always catches me off guard.  It's intimidating being questioned like this, and I automatically begin to feel guilty under the suspicious gaze of the US Customs agent.  Whatever I say sounds defensive and false.  Sometimes, the frown deepens, and the agent scrutinizes my documents some more.  I cringe and imagine the agent is going to next loudly announce to his supervisor and all my fellow travelers, "Hey, Joe, this lady here says she's a scientist.  Could you come over here?"  I briefly contemplate saying,  "Yes, I'm a real scientist who studies Important Scientific Topic and I'm just returning from a trip to Very Foreign Country where I gave the keynote address at a Major Scientific Conference."  However, I don't want to antagonize the agent and end up in one of those back rooms. So I just smile and confirm that what it says on my paperwork is correct. 

Later, I  fantasize about carrying around a copy of my doctorate diploma or my CV....to produce along with my passport and other travel papers.  Or perhaps I could just whip out my iPad already linked to my professional webpage describing my scientific credentials and activities? 

In the meantime, I hope the This Is What a Scientist Looks Like project will help change the public's perception of who can be a scientist.


kirsten said...

I believe it. As a scientist who works in the field (mostly mine sites), I have literally been asked "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this??" umm. working. Just found your blog - passing it on to some friends :)

River Mud said...

I think the "what a scientist looks like" thing is absolutely awesome.

On the Customs issue, I won't pretend to know for sure, since I wasn't there (!!!) but I wonder if the incredulity is over the fact that too many scientists (say...in the DOE) have been caught taking some trips they weren't supposed to, to trade data with people they weren't supposed to trade anything with... I wonder if the Customs Agents' heads are spinning because of a separate protocol (checking files, thumb drives, etc) due to some of the (mostly intentional) security breaches we've had over the last several years.

Just a thought - I could be wrong.