29 May 2014

Rebranding scientists: rock stars and princesses

Given my recent (and successful!) job search, I've thought a lot over the last several months about how I'm perceived as a scientist. My musings generally relate to how I explain my own expertise to my peers, both within subfields and to a broader set of academics. There was a certain amount of image revamping involved in my switch from plant systematics as a graduate student to more comparative genomics as a postdoc, and I spent a little time researching methods for effective professional rebranding. For example, I've found it valuable to think about how a professional bioinformaticist spends their time, and made sure I took classes, talked to people, and got a GitHub account. These things are useful as professional development, but also necessary to include on a CV and in other resources, to show that I know what I'm talking about.

While traveling recently, I came across a rather large advertisement in an airport which represents a much more dramatic attempt at rebranding the professional image of scientists. The Geoffrey Beene Rock Stars of Science program has been around a few years, and is aimed at promoting cancer research by bringing together scientists and rock stars. I don't know much more about it than that. Perhaps it was my lack of sleep or travel weariness, but it struck me as a rather comical attempt to merge the high-profile, devil-may-care attitude of the rock world with the meticulous, potentially life-changing realm of cancer research. I was left wondering about the main goal of this attempted merger. More importantly, I pondered what journal I could convince to publish my glam-rock album cover in their next issue.

The effect of this ad struck home when I started to think about larger patterns of how these professions individually are perceived by the public. The union of popular music with philanthropy is not new, and neither is an attempt to show scientists are more diverse than just balding, aging white men who wear lab coats and eyeglasses. I've had a number of articles kicking around my "To Write" list for awhile which address the phenomenon of Princess Scientists, or the representation of scientists who are also beauty queens, cheerleaders, and otherwise covered in lipstick and glitter. Given my choice of Princess Tradescantia as a blog title, the resulting debate is one I've followed with reluctant albeit vested interest. The opinions range from vehemently opposing the princess/scientist mashup to a more thoughtful piece by Stephanie Schuttler, one of my friends from graduate school. She contends that using conventionally feminine imagery to attract girls to science isn't necessarily a bad thing. I concur. To me, the only requirement for being a scientist is for someone to actually think about science. The main point is to eliminate additional expectations while simultaneously allowing for other identities, be it rock star, princess, or whatever your imagination desires.

At the end of the day, I still tend to prefer representations of scientists which encourage the full diversity of outside interests. A good example is This Is What A Scientist Looks Like. It's been awhile since the last update, but it's nice to look through and see scientists pursuing myriad activities, from painting to acting. Encouraging this type of plurality is especially important because of the intersectionality between this type of identity inclusion with acceptance of social, gender, sexuality, and racial minorities.

My identity includes scientist. It also includes fiber artist (knitter/spinner/etc), queer, and science fiction aficionado, among many other recurrent interests. Sometimes that includes princess, and that's OK. I couldn't find a picture of myself in full princess regalia, so please settle for this paltry offering of my wearing a silly hat. It has a little bit of shimmer, so hopefully that will suffice.

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