Our 'wall of scientists' from Lancashire Science Festival 2016

Our ‘wall of scientists’ from Lancashire Science Festival 2016

For the last 4 years, ScienceGrrl has been delighted to participate in Lancashire Science Festival at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) in Preston. The festival comprises talks, shows, and a packed show floor of exhibitors who showcase science to local school children over two days, and then to over 10,000 members of the public on the annual free family fun day that follows.

The ScienceGrrl stand is staffed by enthusiastic volunteers, who encourage visitors to “find the ScienceGrrls” (female scientists and engineers) dotted around the exhibition stands, and collect a number of signatures to win a ScienceGrrl badge. Before they head off, we encourage them to draw what they think a scientist looks like. This effectively a way of bringing any preconceptions to the front of their minds before they are challenged by people who might not be quite what they expect.

Examples of 'Draw a Scientist' from Lancashire Science Festival 2015

Examples of ‘Draw a Scientist’ from Lancashire Science Festival 2015

The team on our ScienceGrrl stand for 2016 – Liz, Donal and Nikki – are still recovering, so whilst they put their feet up, I’m taking the opportunity to reflect on what happened last year when we asked children on visiting the family day to draw a scientist. Out of the 34 collected, only 6 were recognisable female, all were white, 3 were labelled ‘Einstein’, 7 were in a lab, 3 were blowing things up, 3 were being electrocuted, and 10 were wearing lab coats. So far, so stereotypical.

Labcoats, test-tubes, explosions

Labcoats, test-tubes, explosions

But remember, after creating these drawings, we encouraged the children who visited our stand to ask us what we did, then head off around the exhibition, find anyone wearing a ‘I’m a ScienceGrrl, Talk to Me’ badge, find out what they do. Each person they spoke to signed their ScienceGrrl postcard, a nice souvenir of the day; if they came back and showed their card to us, they could also collect a free ScienceGrrl badge to take home.

Messy hair - labelled, just in case we missed it

Messy hair – labelled, just in case we missed it

As I was reviewing these cards, spreading them over the dining room floor, my two boys wandered in. I explained what they were. My eldest, nearly 10, said “That’s what I thought scientists look like – that’s still what I think of when I think ‘crazy scientist’.” My youngest, just turned 8, said “It’s just in movies…because Doc Brown has crazy hair in Back to the Future.”

Let’s just pause a moment there. These two boys still visualise scientists as crazy-haired old white men doing dangerous things in labs. And their mother is a physicist with a PhD in Positron Emission Tomography. If you need a nice anecdote to illustrate how pervasive the cultural stereotype of “scientist” is, there you go.

This is Mia. She is a scientist.

This is Mia. She is a scientist.

But, we don’t despair. 6 girls drew female scientists, and some of them just drew themselves, which is hopefully a nod towards them being able to accept the label ‘scientist’ without the trappings of crazy hair, labcoats and exploding test-tubes. My absolute favourite last year was by a very small person called Mia. Mia the scientist looks just like… well, Mia.

Another conversation that stays in my mind was with a 4 year-old girl called Rhianna, who looked at our wall of drawings and said “But where are all the girls?” I made sure I took the time to point out every single one of them to her.

I sincerely hope I was a small part of encouraging Mia and Rhianna to imagine different futures for themselves, maybe even futures filled with adventures in science.

This year we extended our ‘Draw a Scientist’ activity over all three days, reaching school children as well as families and members of the general public. More preconceptions challenged, more interesting conversations, more connections between people of all ages and real female scientists.

Thankyou Lancashire Science Festival, we will be back.

Dr Heather Williams
Heather helped establish ScienceGrrl in June 2012 and is ScienceGrrl's Director. Heather is a Senior Medical Physicist for Nuclear Medicine at Central Manchester University Hospitals and honorary Lecturer in the Centre for Imaging Sciences at Manchester University. She makes sure pictures of patients are top quality so the doctors can trust what they see, and tries out new and better ways of imaging the body’s functions. When she’s not working, Heather enjoys running, cycling and spending time with her sons.
Dr Heather Williams
Dr Heather Williams