Scientist of the Week

Sarah here-

I took a geoscience education class as an elective my senior year of college. One of our first assignments was to draw a picture of a scientist. That was all the direction we received from the professor. And yet, even with this vague assignment, all of the students (yes, including me) drew the exact same thing: a white man with messy hair and a lab coat. Why?

Science has had a long history of discrimination and exclusion. This shouldn’t be a surprise: since science is done by humans, and humans have shaped how we view scientists through centuries. Because of this, many of us have shaped in our minds the image of a scientist- the one I described above. And that’s something I want to change.

My geology classes are primarily taken by introductory students-I teach hundreds of students every year, from every conceivable life experience. And many of these scientists that we talk about in class-Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, James Hutton, Alfred Wegener- look very similar. And while all of these scientists made incredible contributions to science, we often overlook equally incredible contributions by scientists that didn’t fit the mold of the ‘typical’ scientist. I wanted to change that. So, in my classes, we started a “Scientist of the Week” segment to highlight the achievements of all kinds of scientists. I began making a list for myself- this list started with the scientists that I have heard of- famous scientists that lived long ago or scientists that I’ve read about recently and even scientists just starting out their careers. My list was subdivided into many categories-women in STEM, Native/Indigenous in STEM, Black in STEM, military veterans in STEM, Deaf/hard of hearing in STEM, LGBTQ+ in STEM, etc. So far, I have over one hundred scientists on my list and I’m adding more daily.

This is an image of Dr. Wangari Maathai (Photo Credit: Patrick Wallet), one of our past scientists (and one of my personal heroes) of the week. Dr. Maathai was born and raised in Kenya; in the 1970s, she became the first woman from east and central Africa to earn a PhD. She is the founder of the “Green Belt Movement”, which paid women in Kenya to plant trees. This program had extreme success, both at lifting vulnerable populations of women out of poverty and at rebuilding forests across her country. She had so much success in this project, that it was modeled in other nations. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in 2004, becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and she remains one of the only environmentalists to have won this prestigious award. To learn more about Dr. Maathai’s work, read this biography.
I show a photo of the scientist to my students and tell them a little bit about their story during lecture and provide a written blurb of their achievements for my students to read later. One of our recent scientists was Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced, an astronomer from Puerto Rico (who now works in South Africa). She lost her eyesight during her undergraduate education; after she lost her sight, she developed programs to transfer her data into audible sound so that she could continue to analyze her research in a method that best suited her. Another recent example was a friend of mine, Dr. Rene Shroat-Lewis, who is a paleontologist. She is also a veteran and served in the US Navy-she gave good advice to veterans returning to college on how to find their future path. Many of the scientists I highlight, I also highlight how discrimination shaped their experiences in the sciences and how discrimination has shaped how some of these scientists are remembered in history. For example, we recently talked about Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who took the first image of DNA’s structure. Her work was famously shown to James Watson and Francis Crick, who used her data to finish their analysis of DNA. They later collected the Nobel Prize for their work, while Franklin’s work was left largely ignored. James Watson later wrote in an autobiography about Franklin, insinuating she wasn’t bright enough to understand her scientific data. James Watson has been recently featured in the news for asserting racist views. My class and I discussed how the science community for many decades chose to ignore Watson’s racism and sexism, to the detriment of the career’s and safety of traditionally discriminated groups of people in science.

I want to share these stories because they mirror the experiences of many of my students. My university, The University of South Florida, serves a broad diversity of students. I want students to see scientists that share their backgrounds-science doesn’t belong to men, to able-bodied people, to white people, to heterosexual people, to cis people, to people with Phds., to any religion or lack of religion, or to any economic class. Science belongs to everyone. However, I don’t feel that it is right to only highlight the awesome stories of scientists in underrepresented groups without also highlighting how discriminatory attitudes have shaped our history of science. Scientists must reflect on this history to always make sure that we are working towards building an inclusive community.

I have only been doing this for a few months, so I haven’t been able to compile data on how my students are engaging with the material. I have had a few students tell me their feelings, so I do have some anecdotal evidence. One student told me that she felt more confident to apply to medical school, after seeing scientists that looked like her and shared many of her experiences. Another student told me she had never seen a Native scientist highlighted in a classroom before-she sent the Scientist of the Week to members of her community and started learning about other Native scientists. I’m not naïve enough to believe that this Scientist of the Week exercise is enough to “fix” the significant challenges the science community faces in terms of diversity and inclusion. Changing the science community to reflect the diversity we have in the world will require much more work. But this is an effective way to introduce large groups of students to a history of science that isn’t nearly as often told.

If you’re interested in doing a similar project with your classes or if you have suggestions for scientists to highlight (self-nominations encouraged!), come talk to me! You can find me on twitter @sarahlsheffield

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