Representation Matters: It’s Science

Lt Uhura Dana Scully

 

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:

This is just one example of the impact that one character can have, not only on the next generation but on all future generations.

 

Shuri - Black Panther

 

Representation Matters

This isn’t just anecdotal. Studies show that when textbooks include images of women scientists, girls do better on science tests.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has amassed a significant body of research on the subject. Some notable findings include:

  • 61% of women said female role models in film and TV have been influential in their lives.
  • 58% of women said that women have been inspired to be more ambitious and assertive due to female role models in film and TV.

While studios have been slow to shift their standards (2017’s top three highest grossing films may have had female leads, but none of those leads were women of color, and the percentage of women in leading roles overall was down from prior years), there is some indication that the tides might be turning.

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.

 

Captain Janeway - Star Trek Voyager 

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:

Captain Janeway - Star Trek, Voyager

"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

Dr. Temperance Brennan - Bones

"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

Dr. Dana Scully - The X-Files

“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

The Three-Body Problem

“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

Ellie Sattler - Jurassic Park

Dr. Ellie Sattler - Jurassic Park

“Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.” - Dr. Ellie Sattler

  • “Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park (the movie). What a badass. Recently read the book and was so annoyed by how her character was treated.” - Liz, a Postdoctoral scholar with her Ph.D. in Genetics
  • Dr. Katherine Murry - A Wrinkle in Time

    “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.

    Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dr. Katherine Murry in Wrinkle in TIme

    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?

    Let us know in the comments, or reach out to us on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

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    Melissa DeVrieze
    Melissa DeVrieze

    Author

    Melissa DeVrieze Meyer is a writer and editor based in New Jersey where she lives with her partner, two sons, and almost enough dogs. You can find her on twitter at @meldevrieze or behind the telescope in her backyard.



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