Picture a Scientist – Who Do You See?

I am often asked who inspired me. I feel embarrassed to admit the answer is no one, it seems like the wrong answer. Certainly there was no female scientist who triggered my love of science at an early age; I was far more inspired by my reading matter. In this category I would single out The New Science of Strong Materials by JE Gordon, I’ve written about the significance of this book at length before. I am not alone in recognizing the importance of this one book in triggering a desire to understand the behaviour of materials; friends and colleagues in my field have said the same. But inspiration by personality – no, not for me.

However, having watched a striking film about women in science, Picture a Scientist, perhaps I feel, had I known about Nancy Hopkins a long time ago, I’d have felt differently. It was not the research she did – or at least not in the conventional meaning of the word, though that was impressive enough to get her elected to the National Academy of Sciences – that has (indirectly) had lasting impact on me, as no doubt on many others. Nancy Hopkins is a molecular biologist at MIT, whose efforts to establish the evidence demonstrating systemic disadvantage at her institution in the 1990s led to a seminal report A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT. Hopkins was the woman who – as the film makes clear during extended clips of interviews with her – crept around the buildings at night with a tape measure, establishing just what the differential between the lab space allotted to male and female faculty was. Evidence matters in science, and her work provided this. Having compiled this data, when she shared it with other women on the faculty, they all wanted to add their signatures when she took it to MIT’s leadership. And, impressively they, the leadership, responded with the full study which led to the 1999 report I mention.

I touched on this study, when a follow-on was published just over a decade later in 2011, in one of my early blogposts. The original study made me reconsider my own situation, even if realising the problems I faced weren’t necessarily of my own making did not cheer me up. Rereading that early post I note how many of the issues that struck me as significant and perhaps even unexpected are now so mainstream: gendered reference letters, the dangers of positive discrimination (legal in the US) or even positive action, expectations of stereotypical feminine behaviour such as sweetness, and the overwhelming burden of good citizenship. Interestingly, Hopkins’ name does not feature in my write-up of the time. It has only been slowly over the years that her remarkable tenacity and determination to seek out evidence and not let future generations of women suffer from the disadvantage she felt she had laboured under, dawn on me.

I learned more about her from reading the late Ben BarresThe Autobiography of a transgender scientist (for which she wrote the foreword), and more again from Rita Colwell’s book A lab of one’s own: one woman’s journey through sexism in science (both books I have written about on this blog, here and here). Finally, seeing her ‘in person’ as it were in this film, I was overpowered by her modesty, generosity, fun and strength. The recognition, at around the age of 50, that if she didn’t do something about the slights and disadvantage she was operating under at MIT she would have to quit science completely, resonated with me. At around the same age I had felt I either had to quit Cambridge (for another university) or fight on to make things better for those women who came after me. Like her, I chose to fight.

Clearly Hopkins didn’t inspire me at any point in my career, but she is an inspiration now and I hope many early career researchers will be able to access the film and admire everything she’s done and the warmth of character and commitment she exudes. However, she is not the only star of the film. Also included centre stage are the geologist Jane Willenbring (Boston University at the time of the filming, now at Stanford) and the chemist Raychelle Burks (St Edward’s University, Austin then, now at American University, Washington DC). Their stories are differently striking, their testimony equally moving. The former describes the foul sexual harassment she suffered during fieldwork in Antarctica while researching for her PhD under the ‘guidance’ of David Marchant. She sat on this corrosive experience for 17 years before filing a Title IX complaint against him, with the support of a male colleague who had watched her during this fieldwork. The trigger for this was a comment from her three year-old daughter that ‘she wanted to be a scientist’ like her mum. Willenbring realised she did not want her daughter, and those like her, to suffer as she had. Anger is a powerful driver of action.

Even having had the bravery to file her complaint, resolution did not come swiftly. The complaint did not lead to instant action. Initially, after an investigation, Marchant was simply put on leave for three years, a decision that was overruled by the President of Boston University, Robert Brown, who fired him – a man who had been Provost at MIT when the 1999 report was published and who also appears in the film discussing the conditions for women. Willenbring’s testimony is powerful and moving; she relives many of the emotions as she speaks about her ordeal and subsequent ongoing feelings, often with her daughter in the background. As we know, speaking out about harassment – sexual or otherwise – often leads to bad outcomes for the complainant, while the alleged perpetrator continues essentially untouched on their path and, often, with their harassment. The UK is certainly no further on, and possibly less advanced, than the US, as women like Emma Chapman can testify from their own experience.

The third ‘star’ is Raychelle Burks. She is a black chemist, growing up in classrooms and labs where there was no one who looked like her, and who was dismissed as unprofessional because her hair ‘was not straight’, along with other remarks stimulated by her appearance and heritage. Although I don’t recall her mentioning anger, clearly for her the way she coped with this barrage of negativity was to speak up; to use her difference as a platform to reach out to wider audiences, so that she is now recognized as a gifted communicator, both in terms of her science and also on the subject of diversity. Listening to her speak, it was easy to see why she was so appreciated by audiences, with a fluency and sense of humour that was bound to attract favourable attention. She was determined not to allow people to categorise her simply by the colour of her skin, or allow that difference to diminish her.

Three brave women, whose stories are powerful and moving and, one also hopes, transformative in their different spheres. I was able to watch this film through the work of the Cavendish Inspiring Womxn group, who run regular events to inspire and encourage womxn in STEM. In the end I was unable to attend the discussion they held to discuss the film, but I am really glad they made that film available for a few days. If you get a chance to watch it, I thoroughly recommend it. It will make you think, make you appreciative of the bravery of those who came before you and help you recognize that inspiration may come in many guises. Think about this, even if you can’t get access to the film, and think about how to make your lab a better place for everyone. Be an ally if you can; don’t let the bullies and harassers win.

This entry was posted in Equality, Women in Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Picture a Scientist – Who Do You See?

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    I would add Vera Rubin, whose life has just become the subject of a biography by Jacqueline and Simon Mitton. While her work was eventually recognised, she had to fight her way against discrimination throughout her early career.

    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00734-4

Comments are closed.