What does a scientist look like?

by Bradley Knockel

Well, let's google it! Seems that scientists look like you and me, and, if you didn't find someone like you in the photos, so what! Maybe all you need to be a scientist is to be how Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal says scientists are.

Just like the rest of us, scientists are creative, diverse, imaginative, passionate, unpredictable, intuitive, conceptual, social, and collaborative. Do you want to understand how things work and work with cool things? Do you want a job in science or technology? It will take hard work and you will attempt things that feel impossible, but you must do it if you have a passion for it. Depending on how your external and internal factors change over the years, science will likely not have to be your entire life, and you can enjoy balanced interests. Here is a story from an astronomer about how she decided to become a scientist.

I personally have found curiosity, imagination, and a drive to solve problems to be the most useful traits that allowed me to enjoy the daily grind of being a scientist, and I am grateful that my past environment did not extinguish these qualities in me. No one is ever helpless to change their environment.

Men and women have been shown over and over to have equal abilities in math and research, and women excel in research and technology, so why, when asked to draw a scientist, do people draw males? We all have subconscious biases whether we like it or not. Luckily, the male stereotype is being overcome! Women are pursuing science and are being recognized for their achievements. I would never suggest that men and women are the same, but they can accomplish the same amounts in science in their own unique complementary ways (unlike in artificially simple things like professional sports).

If we enjoy science and technology and are making progress, we cannot allow ourselves to feel like imposters for race, sexuality, gender, hobbies, etc. There is no such thing as being a typical scientist. Science and technology depend on diverse people with unique interests and abilities helping in a diverse number of ways to solve diverse problems. Even cultural diversity helps as it causes people to carefully communicate in ways that benefit the group.

One of the greatest challenges in life is discovering who we are and what we want to do. Like all paths in life, seeking out the guidance of the more senior scientists is a good start towards finding your exact place in the world of science and technology. Also, who we work with is as important as what we do, but perhaps the decisions of who to work with should come after the decision of what to do. As we progress, we must look at the world and decide what problems we would like to help solve.

A very successful scientist once was telling me that, to be successful, each of us must find and develop our voices as we continue the story of our lives, and it wasn't until later that I realized what he meant and that it was profound. I then no longer felt bad for not wanting to continue with cosmology research after my PhD (cosmology is the combination of particle physics and astrophysics that studies the universe's largest time and length scales). My voice had evolved and was pulling me forward in a new direction.

As a physics graduate student, I had a great experience. Half of the students were international students. I regularly was in or overheard Skype conference calls over multiple continents and time zones. The diversity was wonderful! A beautiful thing about science is that all human beings from many diverse cultures work together. The science is what matters, so no one is worrying about the things that make us different. Everyone uses the SI system of units regardless of what their local culture uses. Everyone uses the same universal language of math. In physics, everyone publishes in English regardless of if you are in China, India, Europe, etc. (Latin used to be the common language centuries ago). Science is the culture. Everyone is working to solve problems for and learn knowledge for the entire human race, so, regardless of your religion, ethnicity, local culture, etc., you are very welcome in science if you are scientifically useful. Of course, scientists often wish to educate people or get involved in local politics or just have fun, at which time the local culture becomes relevant, but science itself is not concerned with local culture (unless you scientifically study things about cultures like language or whatever!). Perhaps it is because science itself does not care much about local culture that it brings everyone together for something larger. If you want to be a part of something that accepts you regardless of your culture and you are scientifically useful, science will be very welcoming! To get to this point, we may have to spend much effort confronting our own local culture, which may be a challenge for you depending on whether your culture accepts your love of science. Once you are at this point, there are clubs and societies to help you still connect with your culture (for example, the National Society of Black Physicists).