I received an email from a 7th grader named Gaby (through her teacher, Rhea). Gaby was in the middle of a project that examined bias and stereotyping in past and present-day science. Rhea encouraged her students to reach out to local “real-life” STEM professionals with the goal of profiling a diverse range of scientists in order to combat today’s stereotypes of scientists. The students are putting together a database at http://missingscientists.weebly.com/ to highlight the diversity of the scientific community. Please check out this great initiative!
Dear Ms. Fan
We are writing to ask for your help to shine light on past and present
scientist from underrepresented backgrounds. We are doing a project in
science class because we want to highlight underrepresented scientists. You
can help us with our project by answering our questions and giving us
additional information on what you do.
We are some questions I’ve prepared for you.
1. What made you interested in science?
2. Did you always want to be a scientist? If so why?
3. What is the Kharchenko lab at the center for biomedical informatics?
4. What is your perspective on women in science? Why do you think more men
are in science?
5. What can we do to get women and racial minorities more involved in
Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Thanks so much for reaching out to me! My replies to your questions are below but feel free to ask me any additional follow-ups or any other questions that you may have.
What made you interested in science?
I think science is really cool! When you look around, there are so many questions to ask and things to be curious about. Why is the sky blue? Why is grass green? What makes a cat different from a dog? Why does a dog give birth to puppies and not kittens? How come I have 10 fingers and 10 toes and not 20 fingers and 20 toes? What makes a heart cell different from a skin cell? Science provides the means to answer these questions and more!
Did you always want to be a scientist? If so why?
No, when I was really little, I wanted to be an artist because I really like art. Then, I wanted to be a lawyer because I liked debating with people. Then, I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help sick people. I wanted to be a scientist after high school because I tried working in a lab and experienced how science allowes me to discover knowledge that may be used to help sick people. I also have to present my ideas and findings in a way that’s convincing to other scientists. I still make pretty plots and figures that use my art skills. So it combines a lot of the things I like!
What is the Kharchenko lab at the center for biomedical informatics?
You can think of the Center for Biomedical Informatics like a school. A school is made up of lots of teachers, and the Center for Biomedical Informatics is made up of lots of professors who are also scientists. Peter Kharchenko is a professor and scientist at the Center for Biomedical Informatics. I’m actually a student in his lab! Right now, I’m working on my PhD so I’m learning how to be a (better) scientist. The Kharchenko lab is interested in what makes one cell different from another cell. We develop computational tools and statistical methods and use the scientific method to figure this out!
What is your perspective on women in science? Why do you think more men are in science?
I think women are just as capable as men in doing science! Actually, I believe women and men work very well together in science because they typically bring in very complementary skills that are useful for working in a collaborative setting.
The underlying cause for this lack of women in science is highly complex with many historical, social, maybe even a few biological factors. Being able to approach a problem from a scientific perspective takes a lot of training. Historically, women have not been even allowed to get such training. But now, women can get this training and pursue science, yet we still don’t see that many women scientists. Socially, there are lots of stereotypes associated with what a scientist is, and that typically is the image of a nerdy, white man. From a young age, girls are rarely encouraged to pursue science or to envision themselves as scientists. From experience, I can say that being one of a few girls if not the only girl in your advanced science class can be very intimidating and discouraging. Because there are few women scientists, there are few women scientists to look up to as role models or to serve as mentors. I believe all of these factors unfortunately push women away from science.
What can we do to get women and racial minorities more involved in science?
Initiatives like this that improve the visibility of women and racial minority scientists are a wonderful way to try to get more women and racial minorities involved in science! I think it’s very important for girls and racial minorities to be able to see people like themselves being successful scientists so they can envision themselves as successful scientists some day. This also helps break down harmful stereotypes associated with science, such that scientists are always men.
We, as women and/or racial minorities, also need to reach out and help each other! I am currently the co-chair of the Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering student group here at Harvard. Student groups like this help create a sense of community and belonging for women scientists and provide useful resources, training, and mentoring. Outside of my schooling and research, I also volunteer at Science Club for Girls to teach second graders science and to show them that women scientists are cool! I also recently started a non-profit initiative called cuSTEMized where parents can use out website at cuSTEMized.org to create free, personalized motivational ebooks to encourage their girls to envision themselves in science.
Whether you’re a man or woman, racial minority or not, everyone can do something to get women and racial minorities more involved in science. If we don’t, then we’re under-utilizing more than half of the country’s brain power! But also, I believe being able to approach a question from a scientific perspective and think critically is important and useful for every day life. Not everyone needs to become a scientist. But everyone should be able to think like a scientist.
Whew! Hope that answers all your questions! Thanks again for contacting me and feel free to stay in touch.
All the best,