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What Does a Scientist Look Like?

Written by: Kelly McSweeney
Published on: Sep 22, 2019

Christine Liu

While pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience at UC Berkeley, Christine Liu is also busy several side projects. By day, she works in a laboratory studying the neural circuits that relate to nicotine reward and aversion. Outside of the lab, she makes time for art and advocacy.

She’s the cofounder of Two Photon Art, an online shop that features treasures such as phylogenetic hoop earrings and holographic mitochondria stickers. This year, she also launched The STEM Squad, an online community and e-commerce website for STEM professionals.

Blending Science and the Arts

Art provides balance to her demanding career. It helps her unwind after a long day at the lab so she can come back refreshed and ready for more science the next day.

“With all the failures, and all the long-term projects, and all of the controls and variables and how rigorous you have to be in science, art really provides an outlet for me, where I have complete freedom,” Liu says. “I still feel like I'm creating something new, which is at the very center of why I'm a scientist and an artist. I've always been drawn to the fact that I can dedicate my life to creating something, whether it's knowledge or an image that has previously never existed.”

Science and the arts aren’t often associated together, and Liu has faced criticism from people who perceive art as a distraction. Once at a conference, a principal investigator (PI) commented to her boss that Liu’s artistic endeavors were a waste of time. Fortunately, her boss defended her and explained that all that matters is her performance in the lab. Furthermore, her PI elaborated, Liu’s art has helped create unique opportunities for herself and other scientists.

The STEM Squad is a bit like Etsy for scientists. It’s an online platform where people can sell their art on clothing. In both of her projects, there’s an underlying theme of advocating for diversity in STEM careers. Liu collects money from her websites’ sales and redistributes it in the form of awards and grants. The awards are small -- $100 – but they recognize people who are working to make STEM careers more inclusive.

“I really don't think there's enough recognition for the people who do this work,” Liu says. She adds, “And the people who do this work tend to be marginalized themselves.”

How to Find an Inclusive Workplace

Liu offers two bits of advice for job seekers who are looking for an inclusive workplace.

First, look for institutions where the academics are already outspoken. Seek academics who can be out of the closet, bring up difficult topics, and not have their career be in jeopardy if they are voicing their concerns about important issues. “If inclusion is really important for somebody, making sure that the people who are there can express themselves is a huge green flag,” according to Liu.

Second, reach out to allies at the institution you’re considering and ask them candid questions. Don’t be afraid to reach out to strangers on social media. Liu suggests sending a DM on social media to current employees to ask whether they feel their workplace is truly inclusive. She suggests reaching out on social media, even if you don’t have any common connections. While people might ignore an unsolicited email from someone they don’t know, social media is a good place to connect with like-minded people.

“I think it's a little bit different than email,” she says. “If you're on Twitter, you’re more open to being contacted.”

What Does a Scientist Look Like?

The STEM Squad started as a group direct message (DM) between a group of scientists on Instagram.

“I was so inspired by all these women doing science and wearing red lipstick, and just embracing their full feminine identity,” Liu says. “I think society has kind of set up this stereotype that women in science are different from women in the rest of society.”

When she started school in her cohort of mostly men, she toned down her appearance so that she could blend in with the crowd. At first, she wasn’t aware of what she now recognizes as her own internalized misogyny and preconceived ideas about what a scientist looks like.  She was used to hearing comments about women’s appearances that implied that femininity and science conflict with each other. It was common to hear negative comments about women’s makeup and clothing that implied that beauty was frivolous, and not “serious” enough for science. This dichotomy bothered her.

She explains, “That's never something that we hear about men—how they dress, how they present themselves, and whether that connects to their professionalism and their capability to do science. And so subconsciously, I toned down my femininity, as a result of sexual harassment and unwanted comments.”

When she asked other women about it, she found that many of them also downplayed their femininity at work. By connecting with other women scientists on social media, she felt empowered to rethink her own biases about appearances.

“I saw it as a very poignant and active resistance for women to show up in full makeup, wearing whatever they wanted to wear, with their hair done, because they did not let this culture overcome their desire to express their femininity.”

Through her discussions with other scientists online, she gained appreciation for people expressing their full identities at work. If straight cis-gendered women were afraid to feel lipstick at work, she wondered, more marginalized groups of people in science must be also be suppressing parts of their identities for the sake of perceived professionalism.

“Representation is extremely important,” she says. “So, one of my goals with The STEM Squad and Two Photon has been to amplify the representation of people from different backgrounds, because I know this does make a big difference, even just to a fellow scientist scrolling on the internet.”

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