Over the past few weeks I have been involved in an outreach activity called I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here! It is a brilliant initiative where school children chat to scientists in an online space, and they can ask us scientists absolutely anything (although it is moderated to avoid any silliness which might be off putting for others)! Being involved in this has really got me thinking about what it is to be a scientist and it also reminded me what awesome questions school children ask!
At the beginning, the questions were mainly science orientated. The children asked me about the brain, brain diseases and what they could do to remember things more easily. As a scientist, I love questions about science, but the questions I really liked were the questions which were more about me as a person.
What was my favourite colour? What did I do in my ‘spare time’? Which football team did I support? What was my favourite food?
A few school children asked about religion and science (I told you their questions were awesome!) and we had some fascinating discussions about who we are as people as well as scientists and what skills it takes to be a scientist.
It’s all too easy to perhaps forget that scientists are people. We see this in some other professions too. Maybe it is because, in many cases people live and breathe their work, their career is maybe part of their identity. I am guilty of doing this too, I often refer to people by the jobs that they do. “That chap, the doctor” or “You know, the woman who’s a plumber”. So often we categorize people and make assumptions about their character based on the profession or career that they have.
The general public perception of who scientists are as people isn’t particularly helpful in remembering that scientists are unique individuals. Sadly, among the school children, some of these engrained perceptions may have been reflected in the questions asked:
- Do you have to be clever to be a scientist?
- Do you ever get time off?
- Do you wear a lab coat?
- Do you have time for hobbies?
- Is it hard being a scientist if you are a girl?
Remember, many of these children are primary school aged! I thought that it was brilliant that they were questioning the things that they may have heard, assumed or been told. I wanted to reassure them that many of these stereotypes were simply untrue. Scientists make mistakes all of the time, I have a fair few hobbies, I don’t always wear a lab coat and I sometimes get to go on holiday. I wanted to give them a fair reflection of the positives and negatives of being a scientist. Science is (sadly) still dominated by white men, and you have to study for a career in science. But the potential rewards are numerous; learning new things, the flexibility of the job and knowing that you are part of a team working to change the world – now that is cool!
I hope that by taking part and answering these questions, the harmful stereotypes and presumptions which are all too often associated with science and scientists will start to be made better. The stereotypes and presumptions are also harmful for promoting and improving diversity in science.
I know that science can never be neutral. Scientists are people after all. People with beliefs, views and values which all influence the way that we feel about the world. I wish more people were able to engage in discussions with scientists, to ask them the questions that matter to them. Scientist are people, who are also unique individuals. Perhaps in the future, I’ll suggest a version of the outreach activity for grown-ups!