We asked nine non-fictional Women in Science to share the Fictional Scientists who inspired their careers. Here's what they told us.
To Boldly Go Where No Woman Has Gone Before
When Nichelle Nichols stepped into the role of Lt. Uhura on Star Trek in 1966, she was breaking ground as one of the first black women to appear on a US television show in a role other than that of a servant.
In 1992 Dr. Mae Jemison went into orbit on the Space Shuttle Endeavor, marking her place in history as the first black woman in space, she was there in part because of Nichelle Nichols, whose portrayal of Uhura inspired her.
When Taylor Richardson (@astrostarbright) was in third grade, she read Jemison’s book Find Where the Wind Goes, sparking her interest in space exploration. At age 9, she crowdfunded the money she needed to attend Space Camp and is determined to visit Mars. Now age 14, she is on a mission to further gender equality and diversity in STEM fields:
Kaitlyn Ludlam (@AstroBotKaitlyn) was the recipient of a scholarship to go to Space Camp in 2017 that Taylor created using the remaining funds from the $20,000+ she crowdfunded to send over 1000 girls to see Hidden Figures.
After the overwhelming success of Black Panther, and in what appears to be a direct nod to teenage genius Shuri, Disney will be donating $1 million to the Boys & Girls Club of America. The one-time grant will be used to expand its STEM programs and establish new STEM Centers of Innovation in Oakland, CA as well as other underserved areas in the country.
Celebrating the Characters Who Inspired Us
The evidence overwhelmingly shows that characters like Shuri and Meg Murray will have a positive impact on future generations of scientists. To find out who inspired the current generation, we asked women in STEM about the characters that were important to them when they were younger. Here’s what they told us:
"One voice can be stronger than a thousand voices." - Captain Kathryn Janeway
“I watched Voyager growing up, owned all the box sets, and have seen each episode at least 4 times. All of Star Trek had a profound influence on me: it was just so normal to have female engineers, security officers, etc., to the point that nobody would even question it. My dad was also a big fan, so we watched most of the series together. It somehow never even occurred in my tiny young girl head that I couldn't be anything I wanted just because I was a girl (yay, Dad! Good parenting for the win!). The reality of how society actually is only set in later, and it made me angry and frustrated with the world, to the point that I was adamant about proving everyone wrong. I'm now working on a double masters in engineering because of my love for futuristic technology.” - A Chemical Engineering Graduate student
“Captain Janeway. Star Trek is my first love, it's influenced my life to an enormous extent.” - A fourth-year medical student
“I love the Voyager series! Not just because of Captain Janeway but also all the other female characters with science backgrounds: B’ellana was a kickass engineer, Seven of Nine was efficient and adaptive, and Kes was becoming a good doctor before she left.” - A Ph.D. student in Bioinformatics
"Two plus two equals four. I put sugar in my coffee, and it tastes sweet. The sun comes up because the world turns. These things are beautiful to me. There are mysteries I will never understand, but everywhere I look, I see proof that for every effect, there is a corresponding cause…even if I can’t see it. I find that reassuring." - Dr. Temperance Brennan
“Temperance Brennan from the Bones TV show (and later the book series) inspired me to pursue science. I knew I loved biology. but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a doctor, and so seeing someone use biology and anthropology to solve crimes was definitely part of what inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. in BME at Duke.” - Anna Knight, a Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering at Duke University
“Nothing happens in contradiction to nature, only in contradiction to what we know of it.” - Dana Scully
“She (Dana Scully) was/is my hero. I just loved that even though she was a badass scientist, as a character she also had feelings and emotion, and she wasn’t afraid to speak up with her opinion.” - Angela Freeman, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell and neuroethologist
“There’s no specific connection between Scully and my field, but I would say that her brand of skepticism continues to inspire. I think a lot of people found her character to be a bit of a killjoy, but to me, she was such a great scientist. In that series, some ridiculous supernatural event would happen and, as an audience member, you would always want to agree with Mulder’s fantastical theories because you totally just saw the fluke-man eat some guy...and Scully was the one always pulling Mulder (and the audience) back to earth. Really, Scully was just responding to ridiculous situations in the best way any scientist can. Although she was a skeptic, she was always interested in finding out more, collecting evidence, and figuring out an explanation grounded in science instead of outright dismissing Mulder. She always asserted herself, but she also listened. Definitely doesn't hurt that she was also a total badass.” - A Ph.D. candidate in Evolutionary Neuroscience
“Science fiction is a literature that belongs to all humankind.” - Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem
“The Three-Body Problem book series. Obviously, they only became available recently, so they didn’t inspire me as a child, but it’s pretty much the first time Chinese female scientists are represented in a book series I love, so it was pretty huge for me. And the fact that they all have different personalities and motivations was nice too.” - A Ph.D. student in Bioinformatics
“I think that with our human limitations, we’re not always able to understand the explanations. But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.” - Dr. Katherine Murry
I hardly remember the books anymore, but I seem to remember the mom from the A Wrinkle in Time series having two PhDs and that being inspiring for little me. And the main character in Contact (Dr. Ellie Arroway). Made me consider astrophysics for a time. - A Science Communicator with her Ph.D. in Cognitive Science
Mrs. Murry! I don’t think she was referred to as Dr. Murry even though she DID have two Ph.Ds! But she was a total inspiration to be a scientist when I first read those books 20 years ago.” - Amanda Scott, BSc.
Who Inspired You?
Some other characters who came up were Jadzia Dax and Beverly Crusher from Star Trek, and Mrs. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. We’d love to hear from even more of you about characters we should include next time:
Who did we miss?
What books and movies should we add to our ever-growing watch and read lists?
Do you work in a field that doesn’t have any fictional characters (that you know of) in popular media?
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