Look at Allie Wilkinson and you may not immediately realize that she’s a scientist.
And that’s her point.
She’s the founder of a fabulous new Tumblr called “This Is What a Scientist Looks Like,” designed to shatter the stereotypes people have toward scientists. Allie and her colleagues asked scientists everywhere to share pictures of themselves – at work, at play, at whatever they wanted. The site they’ve created shows that scientists aren’t just old white guys in lab coats – scientists are basically just like the rest of us. (Not that there’s anything wrong with lab coats.)
Allie was gracious enough to answer some questions from The Broad Side. Following is the exchange, verbatim.
TBS: Can you provide some information on your background – who you are, what you do, what you like, that sort of thing.
Allie Wilkinson: I’m currently a freelance science communicator- performing writing, photography, video editing and social media work. My background is in environmental studies and conservation biology, but I fell into journalism when I was undecided as to which avenue to pursue for graduate research. I decided that journalism would be an important tool to supplement my career as a scientist, as it could help bring awareness to conservation issues, and enrolled in journalism school hoping to “buy myself time” to figure out what area of research I wanted to pursue, while gaining valuable skills. I eventually figured out science communication was where I wanted to stay, because I didn’t have to pick one area of science– I could constantly learn about a wide range of fields and use my skills to share that information with others.
TBS: Why did you start the site?
Allie Wilkinson: I started the site as a response to the reaction Science Online conference attendees largely had to the keynote speaker, Mireya Mayor. I’ve been familiar with Mireya for a number of years as a result of her being on Expedition Africa, and I started reading her book Pink Boots and a Machete just prior to the conference, so when people questioned her as the choice for the keynote presentation, it bothered me. This woman has braved a wide variety of tough situations and experiences that made me realize I am not cut out for field work in remote locations, and done amazing things for conservation in Madagascar, but yet here she was being questioned. The complaints were that she was feminine, a former cheerleader, focused too much on her life and not her research, and that her presentation was called “The Vain Girl’s Guide Survival Guide to Science and the Media.” In other words, they thought she was fluff. This reaction isn’t exactly new for Mireya though. Her book details the lifelong response people have had to her–not taking her seriously as a scientist, greeting her with animosity, or trying to play up her looks for television. She shared a bit of this personal history on a blog post by Suzanne Franks, in which Suzanne was very honest and open in sharing her reaction to Mireya. This blog post is what really struck a chord for me though and inspired me to create the site. There was a line in the post that said “the person who did not look like a scientist”, and I thought, well what exactly is a scientist supposed to look like anyway? So I decided to create a site to show that there isn’t one way a scientist is supposed to look.
TBS: How would you describe the response to the site from scientists? Have many people sent in pictures etc.?
Allie Wilkinson: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. To date, over 750 submissions have come in from scientists around the world, and the site has been tweeted about in almost 20 different languages.
The one complaint is that there isn’t much diversity on the site. Part of that is based upon the submissions we have received, and the other part reflect the state of the field – a 2011 report by the Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration stated that seven out of ten STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workers are non-Hispanic whites.
TBS: How has the reaction been from non-scientists or people who aren’t science communicators?
Allie Wilkinson: The site has been extremely popular with educators. Several teachers have already proposed or begun to use the site in their classrooms- asking the students what they think scientists look like and then showing them the site– similar to the Fermilab study where 7th graders drew scientists before and after a field trip to Fermilab. We also had a parent ask about using photos from the site for the science fair at their child’s elementary school.
TBS: What’s your next step? I notice you have an art director, a director of marketing, and a PR & outreach director on your team. Will this be “going pro?”
Allie Wilkinson: We are definitely going pro. We are going to bring the present and the future of science together in what we hope is a big way. We have several projects and programs in the works to connect children, their parents and educators with working scientists, so that they can see what being a scientist really looks like. One of our upcoming projects is a video series involving students in either real-life or virtual field trips, depending on what is available and accessible in their area.
TBS: Is there anything else you’d like to say or add?
Allie Wilkinson: There’s been a lot of confusion online and we have been mistakenly referred to as the #iamscience tumblr. Both projects, while parallel and complementary to each other, have different goals and audiences. I’ve come to understand that #iamscience was also inspired by Mireya Mayor’s presence at Science Online, but we are not affiliated with #iamscience in any way.