Earlier this month, I spent a week at the helm of @, a rotational Twitter account curated by a different scientist each week. They invited me to take part as a scientist-turned-science communicator, to talk about my work as Research Coordinator at Science Gallery Dublin, and as radio producer at Maurice & Shaun.
As a lifelong fan of science fiction, it was television and film that inspired me to become a scientist. My favourite fictional scientist was (and still is) Dana Scully from The X-Files – a medical doctor with a degree in physics who became an FBI agent – definitely not the conventional science career path. What I appreciate about the character is that she applies her scientific mindset to situations outside of the lab. While I could never quite execute the pantsuit and strong shoulder pad, I did become a scientist; and I think now my career has found equilibrium, existing between hard science and the popular culture that inspired me to study it in the first place.
Here is a beautiful sequence of a lobed star coral releasing its bundles by Rafael Ritson-Williams pic.twitter.com/JJm3Zay4kC
— Selina/ @RealScientists (@realscientists) February 21, 2016
It’s fair to say that role models, real and fictional, can influence our careers. So I asked the @realscientist followers who their favourite fictional scientists are. I was genuinely moved by how many people said they became scientists because of their fictional role model.
A very well written field biologist appeared on the list: Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park; a paleobotanist who was so excited that she’d discovered a previously extinct plant species that she didn’t even notice the giant Brachiosaurus walking by her jeep. Her dedication to her research didn’t end there, as she was happy to wade through a giant pile of dinosaur droppings to look for partially digested plants that may help diagnose a sick Triceratops.
Ellie Arroway from Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, was another popular choice. Sagan based the character at least partly on his real-life colleague, astronomer Jill Tarter who, as former Director of the Center for SETI Research, has spent much of her career looking for evidence of life beyond Earth. Like Tarter, Ellie Arroway is not afraid to face the big questions. Carl Sagan spent his career encouraging us to share his wonder in the enormous scale of the universe, and Ellie Arroway captures that notion in the form of a character. For me, the perfect way to enjoy Contact is the audiobook, read by Foster.
Hank McCoy, better known as Beast from X-Men, is a biochemist who also happens to have prehensile feet as well as superhuman strength and agility. While developing a serum that would cure his physical mutations while leaving his abilities intact, he accidentally gave himself blue fur. Self-experimentation like this (well perhaps not exactly like this) led to the discovery of a link between H. pylori infection and gastritis, when Australian scientist Barry Marshall infected himself with the bug.
Jo Ann Harding, Helen Hunt’s character in Twister, made the list as a fearless storm chaser not afraid to improvise when necessary. Ghost-busting Peter Venkman also made the list; as did Emmett “Doc” Brown, who embodies most “mad scientist” tropes from popular culture – except the one where all scientists are evil.
Well-written characters can challenge stereotypes, and encourage us to pursue goals we never thought possible. We should encourage and celebrate diversity in our fictional scientists, because it just might inspire someone who never thought they could be a scientist, engineer, or doctor to give it a try.
Here’s a link to an episode of the Science Gallery Podcast where I asked some scientists I know the exact same question:
I love science podcasts so I've decided to share an episode a day over on Facebook, starting Thursday: https://t.co/EbPwESNLBC
— Shaun O'Boyle (@shaunoboyle) February 22, 2016
— Maurice JK (@Maurice_J_K) February 17, 2016