What a Scientist Looks Like



Scientists are often viewed as being white males, wearing a lab coat, not very attractive in appearance, and with serious dispositions. Their jobs are perceived as taking place in a laboratory, using specific equipment (microscopes, test tubes, beakers, etc.) and unexciting. Science as a school subject and science as a job or scientists are thought as being two different things.

A research study was conducted in April 2012 by JanaLee Moses a student at Weber State University's Physics Department. The study involved 3 different groups of people. Each of the groups were shown the above pictures and asked to answer two questions for each, "Is he or she a scientist?" and "How do you know?" The form can be downloaded here.

The first group consisted of 20 college students who had a science major. Although most of them objected to being asked to identify scientists by picture only, all but one gave varied answers with "yes" typically being attributed to what the person was doing in the picture (such as the lady in the picture furthest left being in a lab) or how professional they looked; likewise a "no" answer was typically given to someone who was unprofessional in appearance (such as the woman eating) or was doing something not scientific in nature (such as the woman in formal wear); one respondent answered "yes" to all of the pictures for various reasons such as "Science in the parks/desert" for the woman on the sand and "Only scientists play Zelda (tattoo on the arm)" for the man holding a spider). Not one picture received a consistent answer.

The second group consisted of 17 5th graders all in the same class. Given the same paper, this group gave different results. 3 of the students said "yes" to the picture furthest to the left and "no" to all other pictures. The lab coat the woman is wearing was the key. 5 other students answered the same, with an exception being given to the toddler; here they answered "yes" because of the microscope. Once again, 1 student said "yes" to each picture with answers ranging from "Tries new things" to "I don't know." All but one of the remaining 8 students answered "yes" to the toddler because of the microscope (the "no" response were because of her age) and answered "yes" to the woman with the blue hair because of the plant (the "no" response suggesting the plant was for a science fair project). The responses on all the other pictures were inconsistent based on what the person appeared to be doing or the way they were dressed. After completing the questionnaire sheet, the students participated in an activity on The Hot Chocolate Effect and were told that everyone can be a scientist if they look at the world scientifically, trying to discover the what an hows of nature by observation and/or forming hypotheses and trying them out.

The third group was a class of 20 5th graders. This class session was conducted opposite to the last, with the Hot Chocolate Effect study and the discussion on what a scientist is before the questionnaire to see if the results would change. This time 2 students answered "yes" to all of the pictures insisting, "Everyone is a scientist." All other answered varied.

Source of Misconception

One of the major sources of misconception results from not knowing the fields that science covers. Some students interviewed about career choices have said that they did not want to be a scientist but instead wanted to be a doctor, marine biologist, teacher, vet, or other various answers. Clearly, the responses listed here are scientists without the students recognizing that role.

There are many other sources of this misconception. For instance, pictures of famous scientists are often of white males in suits or lab coats. Television shows/cartoons/movies often depict the stereotypical images. Students do not often realize when they are interacting with scientists or people who use science. Also, students who find science studies in school to be boring are more likely to hold on to the misconception.


Studies done suggest this misconception cannot usually be corrected with a one-time discussion on who scientists are and what they do, the misconception extends beyond age groups and continues for decades. This is a misconception that must have frequent discussions to be uprooted. Teachers can remind their students, that when they are their scientific investigations, they are scientists. They can also put up pictures of unconventional-looking scientists for the students to familiarize with. The website This is What a Scientist Looks Like has pictures (such as most of the ones above) of scientists enjoying their "everyday life" activities.

Science in the classroom should be made to be as interactive and enjoyable as possible. When students perceive having fun when studying the subject in school, they are more likely to leave the misconception behind.

There is strong evidence that working/visiting with scientists in the classroom has a strong positive influence in changing students' perceptions. Collaboration between the instructors and scientists in the classroom can help to alleviate this misconception. Teachers can invite scientists from local universities, business and industry. Power company employees, automobile mechanics and other can talk about how science is useful in their jobs. Emphasize that scientists come in many forms, have various jobs, do not always wear lab coats, collaborate with others and enjoy their jobs. Help the students to see scientists as people with hobbies and dreams not always related to science. Having a wide variety of visitors is extremely useful in dispelling this misconception and helping students to see that science is involved in many aspects of life. Globeand other projects have scientists available online to answer questions. Opportunities for students to work side-by-side with scientists are very helpful if you can find them available.

It is especially important to work on the solution to this misconception early on as studies show it may lead to decreased enrollment in science in the upper grade levels.


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