Alchemical painting of a seated scientist looking startled as something is seemingly on fire

What Does a Scientist Look Like?

Our oral history collection can help students reframe their images of scientists—and of themselves.

ByErin McLearyMarch 9, 2023

“I really don’t know,” the woman said. Her interviewer was asking her to think back decades to recount the origin of her eventual career path. “I had many interests. . . I spent a great deal of time as a child in fashion designing. I made hundreds of dresses and outfits—on paper, of course. I did some writing. I wrote some poetry and short stories.”

Later, she returned to that theme. “When we were having the litigation with Esso, the attorneys that were on their side were extremely insulting to us, and they were to me as well, but one thing that they had to admit was that my writing was beautiful. . . [I]t always brought me great joy that they had to admit that I was a good writer.”

If you know your oil company history, the woman’s mention of a court battle with Esso has probably made you realize that she did not follow her youthful passions. The interviewee, Stephanie Kwolek, went into chemistry—a subject she didn’t even encounter until college. When in a 1986 oral history, her interviewer asked how she became interested in science, Kwolek mused about fashion and poetry; 10 years later, in a second oral history interview, she returned to fashion before expanding on the delight she took in writing. “I have always liked writing,” she told her interviewer. “I think this is probably why I admire authors and poets.”

Kwolek’s love of fashion design, poetry, and writing is not what historians usually talk about when we tell her story. It was her discovery of the super-strong fiber Kevlar that earned her fame and numerous awards, including the National Medal of Technology and induction into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame.

But fashion and poetry, some researchers argue, are precisely the details we should highlight when we tell stories of scientific achievement. Drawing upon nearly two decades of research on stereotypes of scientists and identity formation, biologist Jeffrey Schinske and his collaborators have found that sharing “counter-stereotypical” information about scientists can increase student interest in science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM) topics and careers.

The argument goes like this: Research shows that students often think of scientists as white men of exceptional talent or intelligence—a stereotype reproduced and reinforced in the media, in textbooks, and even sometimes in classrooms. As a result, students of color, women, and those who think they lack an affinity for science may see “scientist” as an identity not open to them.

Including “counter-stereotypical” details about a scientist’s personal passions, non-science interests, or unusual path to a scientific career in their stories, Schinske has found, allows students to envision a wider range of “possible selves” not limited by the stereotype. In other words, the story of a fashion-loving woman who delighted in writing and can’t quite remember when she got interested in science expands students’ view of “the types of people who do science,” and the future identities students can imagine for themselves.

Other researchers have examined how incorporating obstacles, setbacks, and failure in the stories we tell about science can combat these same inhibiting stereotypes. Such “struggle stories,” cognitive scientist Xiaodong Lin-Siegler and her collaborators have found, can show students that scientists are relatable individuals who, like them, make mistakes, encounter setbacks, and experience failure as well as success.

Reflecting on his graduate school experience, when students can spend 60 to 70 hours a week in the lab, biologist Christopher Rongo remembered that unsuccessful experiments were “ego crushing.”

“I wasn’t really prepared for that,” he notes in a 2008 oral history in the Institute’s collection. “If I had known that the level of day-to-day failure would be as high as it is in this career, I’m not sure I would have gone into it. I made it out okay and I have a job at the end, but I probably represent five percent—if that—out of the total number of people that in high school think, ‘hmm, I want to be a scientist’.”

Lin-Siegler argues that accounts of personal or professional obstacles show learners that struggles and setbacks are just a part of doing science, and that introducing these “struggle stories” early in a student’s STEM journey can normalize the type of routine failure that Rongo remembers as a crushing surprise.

Our oral history collection is replete with these struggle stories and the humanizing details that can help young people envision—and better prepare for—a future career in science. “I really didn’t have much aspiration to go to college,” biochemist and physiologist Jerry Faust told his oral history interviewer in 1997.  “I went to college primarily to play basketball, and I would have never gone to college if it hadn’t been for basketball. There’s just no question about it.”

After the end of his basketball career and a boring year of low-level laboratory work, Faust decided to try graduate school in chemistry. He went on to have a long and productive career as a biomedical researcher. Might Faust’s story spark a different vision of a possible self for a student passionate about sports but less engaged with science?

What about the story of Collin Diedrich, who struggled with information processing and reading as a young child? “I just don’t process information that fast, and I knew it, but I didn’t really know, understand why,” Diedrich told his oral history interviewer in 2017. Diagnosed with a learning disability in elementary school, Diedrich recounts how he fell in love with biology in college but failed his oral exams in graduate school before seeking the resources he needed to address his processing issues. He passed his orals and became an HIV researcher.

The experiences of Kwolek, Rongo, Faust, Diedrich, and many other scientists whose stories form our oral history collection help dismantle assumptions and stereotypes about who does science, and can help today’s students imagine their own future in science.

Want to learn more?
Interested in using our oral histories with your students? You can now upload materials from our collection to your Google Classroom! Look for the “share to Google Classroom” button.

The Science History Institute is a contributor to the Scientist Spotlight Initiative, a project that gives STEM instructors tools for introducing counter-stereotypical depictions of scientists into their existing curriculum.

David Wade Chambers devised a simple “draw a scientist” test in 1983 that continues to be used to explore what types of people are thought of as “scientists.” There are many resources about the “draw a scientist” test online but this National Science Teaching Association article is a good place to start. 

You can also check out the Institute’s Scientific Biographies.

Thanks to Christopher Rongo for permission to quote from his oral history interview, to oral history program associate Rachel Lane for research support for this piece, and to digital engagement editor Mia Jackson for creating the audiograms.

Featured image: The Alchemist’s Experiment Takes Fire, oil on canvas, 1687: Science History Institute.

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