Smash Stereotypes this Science Week – 6 Scientists you should know about

Think of a scientist. Any scientist. What image do you have in your head? Probably a man. Probably a white man, able-bodied, in a white overcoat, with grey hair. No, we are not mind readers- it’s just that that is the image we’re all conditioned to expect when we think of scientists, and it’s a stereotype that’s hurting diversity, inclusion and progress in STEM.
Throughout history, the accomplishments of women, disabled people or people of colour have been minimised or forgotten, and in old textbooks, film, and media, it’s the work of white male scientists that appear most frequently. Thankfully, this is starting to change, but there’s still a long way to go. In 2019, government data showed that, for the first time, over 1 million women were working in STEM in the UK. This was a great milestone – but before we rush to celebrate, that same report showed that women still only make up 24% of the STEM workforce. Considering women make up 50% of the population, we’re far from parity. 
When it comes to people of colour, according to a 2020 article in the Professional Biologist, “In contrast to other academic disciplines, the experiences of STEM scholars of color are relatively unvoiced, which hinders examination of the factors that reduce participation and retention”*. Meanwhile, the Campaign for Science and Engineering reported that disabled STEM students were 57% less likely to take up postgraduate STEM study than non-disabled students**.

Change the picture this science week!

Simply put: you can’t be what you can’t see. Representation is essential when it comes to encouraging the next generation to take up further study and careers in STEM. Science Week 2021 is from the 5th – 14th March, so this Science Week, why not focus on smashing stereotypes and talking about people from different backgrounds who have made significant contributions to science? Here are some examples to get you started, let’s see how many people your pupils recognise…

Ada Lovelace, 1815-1852

An English mathematician and writer often regarded as one of the first-ever computer programmers for her contribution to Charles Babbage’s theoretical work on computing, called the Analytical Engine. Lovelace published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. Her work has often been overlooked throughout history, however, her work laid the foundation of our digital world. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson, 1958 

An African-American astrophysicist, planetary scientist, author, and science communicator, known for taking complicated scientific principles and making them easier to understand, regularly appearing on TV, radio and social media. He’s the director of the Hayden Planetarium, and once said “One of my goals is to bring the universe down to Earth in a way that further excites the audience to want more”. 

Geerat Vermeij, 1946

Having lost his sight at age 3 due to glaucoma, Vermeij has gone on to make invaluable contributions to palaeontology through his tactile approach to analysing and interacting with fossils. Because he cannot rely on his sight, he uses his sense of touch to analyse fossils and artefacts. His colleagues have said he has a “singular insight into evolution” by taking in the details of the layers, shapes and elements with his hands, which otherwise could go unnoticed, making contributions to palaeontology “that will be cited in 100 years time”.

Katherine Johnson, 1918-2020

An African-American mathematician whose work for NASA contributed to numerous successes in the American space-race in the mid 20th century. At a time when digital computers were only just being introduced and were prone to errors and blackouts, astronaut John Glenn was wary about relying on the computers’ analysis of the safe trajectory for an orbital mission. Famously he asked for Johnson specifically to double-check the computers’ numbers manually, saying “if she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” His flight was a success, and marked a definitive turning point in the US-Soviet space-race. Johnson’s contributions to NASA and mathematics were recently portrayed in the film Hidden Figures, highlighting her extraordinary achievements at a time when being black and female were seemingly insurmountable obstacles to success, inspiring the next generation to do anything they put their minds to. 

Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018

One of the most iconic scientific figures of our time, Stephen Hawking was a theoretical physicist and author of A Brief History of Time, whose insights shaped modern cosmology and inspired global audiences in the millions. Hawking’s work transformed our understanding of gravity, space and time, all while living with a motor neurone disease diagnosis since 1963. Despite his debilitating illness and the loss of his voice in 1985, he was known throughout the world for his sparkling wit and notorious sense of humour, bringing the abstract world of theoretical physics to life.

Marie Curie, 1867-1934

The polish chemist and physicist, best known for her discovery of polonium and radium. She won a Nobel prize for this discovery- making her the only person to win two Nobel prizes in different fields (Physics and Chemistry), and was the first woman to ever win a Nobel prize at all. Her work developed the theory of ‘Radioactivity’, a term she coined, and led to the development of mobile radiology units, which were used to provide X-rays during WWI. Although she passed away due to exposure to radiation through her work, her legacy to the field of science was phenomenal. 
For more inspirational, modern-day science heroes smashing stereotypes, check out the British Science Week website. They also have a downloadable activity pack for some science week activities to get your students engaged!

Look for some more fun activities to help you celebrate British Science Week? 

Whether you’re a teacher, parent or home educator, at home or back in the classroom, celebrate with us by joining our super scientists Chris and Sarah for 5 days of practical science fun as we combine the power of online learning with hands-on experiments.
Simply visit sign-up, put on your lab coats and follow along with us LIVE as we create some memorable, curriculum-aligned WOW moments together.