The Trials of the Female Scientist

In the wake of the appalling attempt by the EU to lure more girls into science (if you haven’t seen the disaster, you can see it here) the plight of female scientists has become more apparent. Unfortunately, everywhere you look, the same stereotype is being pushed.

The current trend for ‘sexy science’ shows means that this stereotype is often seen. One memorable episode of Bones even depicted Dr. Temperance Brennan put out by the description of herself as ‘a sexy scientist’, and complaining that she wanted to be appreciated for her ability, not her appearance (however Emily Deschanel is beautiful and this cannot be helped).

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Dr. Brennan’s approach to this problem and her method of wearing appropriate attire when investigating a crime scene makes a welcome change to episodes of CSI where members of the team have wandered around in summery tank tops. It’s understandable that to draw the public into TV programmes, the truth has to be stretched and the plot needs to be exciting, but when the European Union is resorting to these sorts of methods to convince young girls to pursue a career in the sciences, there’s clearly a problem. There was even an article published about the problem of stereotypes in science on

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for girls going into science – I study a science. I just think it’s sad that with all the amazing female scientists throughout history, the European Union still felt it was appropriate to promote that sort of video. The EU argued that they were trying to overturn the stereotype that science is ‘about old men in white coats’, but the video sparked a huge backlash about the stereotypes that it promoted instead.

Despite this, I think it’s important to remember how big a part women have played in science in the past, and what we can aspire to do in the future. So here’s five incredible ladies that should inspire girls who want to pursue a career in science to do so: and to prove girls don’t need stereotypes to succeed, and that we can do so just as well as ‘men in white coats’.

Marie Curie

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Voted the greatest female scientist of all time, the Polish Marie Curie is well-known for her pioneering research on radioactivity, and was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She discovered the chemical elements polonium and radium, established the first military field radiological centres during World War I, and discovered that radiation therapy could treat cancer. Tragically, her many years of exposure to radiation caused her death, but her legacy is alive today.

Dame Jane Goodall

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Dame Jane Goodall is what can only be called an inspiration. After spending nearly fifty years studying chimpanzees in Tanzania, Dame Goodall’s work educated us on chimpanzee life, and our own evolution. She has constantly worked to promote conservation and animal welfare issues, choosing to name the chimpanzees in her studies, rather than just numbering them. Her devotion to the welfare of the chimpanzees has furthered our knowledge of our own evolutionary roots, and taught humans a lot about one of our closest relatives.

Hypatia of Alexandria

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Hypatia was born around AD370. Taught by her father, Theon, who was a noted mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia went on to be the head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria. At a time when women weren’t so encouraged to be great thinkers, this was quite a feat. Sadly, Hypatia’s intelligence led to her death at the hands of an angry Christian mob, who accused her of heresy, and believed she had fuelled a feud between the Governor of Alexandria and its Bishop. Despite this, her work is still respected nearly 1500 years later – which is pretty impressive.

Ada Lovelace

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Born in the early 1800s to Lord Byron, Ada worked with Charles Babbage to design his ‘analytical engine’ – or an all-purpose computer. The machine was never created, but Ada is lauded as the first computer programmer, and her visualisation is widely agreed to be a remarkable foresight of what would come to be. Sadly, Ada died at just 36 years old, but she is still remembered today: the US Department of Defense has named a computer language after her, and her image appears on Microsoft’s authentication hologram sticker.

Professor Alice Roberts

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Professor Alice Roberts, despite being young, has gathered a mass of achievements that leave her the idol of young scientists everywhere. Well-known in the UK for her appearances on Time Team, Digging for Britain, Prehistoric Autopsy, among others, Alice Roberts is living proof that girls can do just as well as, if not better than boys. With a host of academic achievements, books, and scientific articles to her name, Professor Roberts holds posts as an academic, author, broadcaster, and a Professor of Public Engagement in Science. This lady can do anything.

Along with the many other brilliant female scientists throughout history and alive today, these ladies are proof that we don’t need to resort to well-cut labcoats and sexy outfits to encourage girls to pursue science: we just need to show them what can be done.

Read more from Rebecca White here.