Do you know the band “We are Scientists”? Awesome music. It is also said that the band chose their name since they were once mistaken for scientists due to their looks. According to their own words, that included glasses, buzz-cut hair, jackass-attitude. They forgot to add the most important attribute that likely contributed to this assumption. Namely, being male. And therefore, this story reflects exactly the opposite of what happens to me when people see me on the streets. Even more so, when I am on the go with my 7-year old boy-girl twins and my youngest son (3).
In this blog post, I could talk about many things. I could talk about how I got here. How I was always fascinated by science, chose an academic path and moved from Europe to the United States to pursue a PhD. I could talk about how I gave birth to twins in the year prior to defending my PhD or tell that story of how I went into labor during a manuscript submission. I could talk about my path in developmental neuroscience, about moving across continents and back to Europe. I could talk about the challenges academic parents face when trying to stay in science or trying to solve the significant-other problem, the compromises one has to make, the joys, the frustrations. But those are different stories for another time.
What I do want to talk about in this post is the image people have in their minds when they talk about scientists. The image that is conveyed to the public and most importantly to our children. My personal experiences, including how I have been asked by strangers what my husband’s job is, when attending work-related events with the kids, how I struggle to shovel time free for attending school visits mid-morning, only to listen to the teachers telling the guy next to me, how great it is that he could make it too – as a busy working dad and all. I could talk about how people assume that I am a student for looking too young, how surprised they are when hearing that I have a family, when getting to know me at a scientific conference, how apparently, I should not go enjoying myself anymore, or how everyone seems to have that secret formula for a scientist’s looks, behaviours and interests. Most importantly how everyone thinks that a scientist cannot look, dress or behave. Because it may impact your image as a scientist, if you admit other interests, if you like to dress a certain way, if you don’t appear a thinker, if you dare to have children (though for the latter that seems mostly true when being female). What I want to talk about is how it all boils down to reducing all scientists or academics to a single one-dimensional stereotype.
And let me tell you, if there is something that I do not want to be, then it is a one-dimensional stereotype.
Though there is one thing, many academics have in common. A certain passion or idealism to follow a quest to discovering a certain truth. No one is pursuing a PhD or continues on a research path for the money. In fact, it is crucial to develop a certain idealism providing purpose for this quest. That could be your conviction to actually being able to make an impact. You may choose this path for valuing a job with less conventional job norms. Or, it is the realization of your enormous privilege being able to do something that fascinates you every day. Whatever it is, still, it does need grid to not give up at times, especially when dealing with rejections and uncertain results. Likewise, watching some colleagues in different industries getting more money, having more free time, more vacation and other material advances is not helping either.
My first point is, being this one-dimensional academic, with a single focus on science, heavy-head topics and the inevitable frustrations attached to this path, is – for most of us – not healthy. A hobby, a pet, a family, a friend, simply another thing in your life in addition to an academic career is what the majority of us need to stay grounded. No matter whether you are good at it or not, whether it is quirky or seemingly boring, find at least one other thing outside academia that keeps you balanced. Be it whatever works for you. Ultimately, I may even question, whether an academic system run by only those that can prevail in a desert without water, so to say, is what we should strive for.
Secondly, science is the innate desire to search for knowledge, to investigate a new topic, to discover the truth and to accept the possibility of being wrong and standing corrected, a lot. This can be challenging. Many other things should not be. Because what science is not and what it should never become, is a discipline that can only be pursued by a tiny subcategory of human beings. Nothing about your looks, your hobbies, your gender, your likes, or similar is restricting your abilities to follow this path. In fact, I believe that it is exactly the diversity of minds coming together holding promise for the greatest advances. I am not going to tell you that being anything outside a stereotype is easy. But I will tell you, you are far from being alone.
I don’t want my children to growing up believing a scientist is a gray-haired old man with glasses. I am glad for those putting themselves out there portraying different images of what it means to be a scientist for the world to see. Because my daughter should grow up thinking that her job choice is independent of stuff like wearing a tutu, loving horses, wanting a family in the future, or whatever else she chooses. And so, I did not want to write down all the struggles one faces as a female or any other out-of-stereotype academic – at least not as my first post. I wanted to write that including myself, there are many, many different people in academia and unlike our shared passion to study, investigate and figure out riddles, we come in all kinds of looks and flavours. And if that is you, you fit right in.
Because science, this is all of us.