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What does a scientist look like?

Take a moment to imagine what a scientist looks like.


Did you imagine an older white man, possibly with crazy white hair, wearing a lab coat standing next to flasks of bubbling, green chemicals? If so, you’re not alone—in studies as early as 1957, it was demonstrated that students start forming stereotypical images of scientists at an early age and that these images persist and deepen as they grow older (more info on this here and here). We can see these stereotypes evident in popular culture, from “Rick and Morty” to “The Big Bang Theory.” Scientists are depicted as overwhelmingly white, male, and ‘genius-level smart,' and they are often portrayed as either nerdy and difficult to relate to or crazy and out-of-touch. This has negative effects on students, especially non-white and female students, because it prevents them from seeing themselves as scientists and thus turns them away from STEM careers.

One of the goals of Stanford Science Penpals is to combat this stereotype by giving students relatable, real-life scientist role models. Our group of Stanford scientists is deeply diverse, reflecting the ever-increasing diversity of scientists in general. To demonstrate this, we recently surveyed our penpals to ask them a range of questions about their diversity.

To download a classroom-friendly PDF on these results, click here! To download a 30 minute lesson plan on diversity, click here. Otherwise, results below.

Of 191 respondents, we found that:

  • Scientists aren’t just straight men! In fact, almost 70% of our scientist penpals are women. Additionally, we have members who are transgender or gender non-conforming, and we have 20 members who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual.

  • Our scientist penpals are of many different ethnicities

  • Stanford penpals have also overcome many hurdles:

  • 34 of us are immigrants, including some refugees. 29 penpals did not learn English as their first language.

  • 4 of us have a disability.

  • 42 of us grew up in a low-income family. 59 of our members worked through college, and 61 worked in high school.

  • Scientists don’t always come from highly-educated families:

  • Stanford penpals are human! We’re not all ‘geniuses,’ and we haven’t all followed a straight path to get here.

  • 45 of us have gotten a C in a science class, and 9 of us have failed a science class!

  • Almost half of us didn’t know what it meant to be a scientist before we attended college

  • 57 of us had never met a scientist before we went to college

  • 33 of us didn’t like science in high school or middle school

  • 85% of us will admit to messing up a science experiment—it happens all the time!!

  • 10 of us went to community college, 5 of us didn’t go straight from high school to college, and 53 of us didn’t go straight from college to grad school.

Additionally, we asked scientists to share where they're from and recorded their responses on the map below. Our penpals come from at least 36 different states and 27 different countries! (Scroll to zoom in and out.)

Lastly, we asked our members what they’d like to share with students about their backgrounds. Responses included:

  • On winding paths to science:

  • “I was an athlete in college and only really cared about soccer growing up—I didn't think much about science. But now, I love it!”

  • “I have two bachelor degrees, one in music, and one (eight years later) in biology.”

  • “I was a competitive swimmer from age 10-22 and in college, was on a NCAA champion team. Student-athletes can be scientists too!”

  • “I am from a single parent household of five children. My mom worked all the time to support the five of us. All I wanted was to go get out of New Mexico because I saw how much people struggle there to make a living. Getting out made me realize how many more options there were for me, but being a scientist didn't feel like a real option until I was a few years out of college.”

  • “I got my BA in Spanish, PhD in Chemistry, and am now imaging live cells and animals. You never know where your career path will take you.”

  • “I was homeschooled!”

  • “I'm Jewish and I'm the first biologist in the family.”

  • On having identities beyond being a scientist:

  • “I am a scientist, an engineer, an artist, and a wife. Who says you have to be one or two things?”

  • “As a little girl, I loved playing with dolls, dresses, legos and bionicles. I liked Cartoon Network and Discovery Channel. I write poetry and I play music. I read fiction. You can be a scientist and do other things- always remember that!”

  • “I like dressing up and wearing pretty skirts, dresses, heels, and makeup, but I also like rock climbing, running, and camping!”

  • “I love music and played the trumpet all the way through college”

  • “I’m a Boy Scout and soccer player!”

  • On overcoming challenges:

  • “I grew up in a town of ~10,000 people in the middle of nowhere. The schools were underfunded and grossly underperforming.”

  • “I cope with clinical anxiety and depression.”

  • “I grew up in a conservative area and did not get to learn about evolution in school.”

  • “I was raised in single-parent household. I liked science but didn't think I could become a scientist. I only ended up pursuing science in college because my high school science teacher helped me get a summer research internship and made me realize that scientists didn't have to JUST be old white men.”

  • “I was a victim of childhood sex abuse.”

  • On the ‘genius’ stereotype of scientists:

  • “You definitely don't have to be a genius to be a scientist—if science is what makes you happy and you are full of curiosity about it, even if you don't think you're amazing at it, go for it!”

  • “I was good at memorizing things in school, but that isn't what makes you a good scientist. It's more important to keep trying things in different ways, and to work on asking good questions. Being a scientist is a set of skills you can develop through practice, not an identity you are born into.”

  • “I still struggle with imposter syndrome—feeling like my peers are all much smarter and more qualified than I am.”


The first image in a Google image search for "scientist" is the following image, featuring diverse people. Progress!

Too bad this guy is still in the top ten results:

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