“Picture A Scientist” – Thoughts From A Neuroscience Student A Year On

In June 2020, “Picture A Scientist” was released. A year later I reflect on the prominent message of the documentary. 

Writer: Perside Ngani
Editor: Priyanka Peres
Artist: Lola Artiles

Jane, Nancy and Raychelle 

Picture A Scientist spotlights the challenges that Jane Willenbring PhD, Nancy Hopkins PhD, and Raychelle Burks PhD faced in STEM, interspersed with cameos from a range of individuals encouraging inclusivity. As a third-year neuroscience undergraduate watching the documentary for the first time, the discrimination and sexual harassment experiences were hard to listen to. Even so, the resilience these women displayed in fighting for their accomplishments has not only inspired me but a generation of aspiring STEM enthusiasts. The documentary touches on the existing disproportionate attrition seen in academia and the workplace, and outlines the events and brave individuals that contributed to the trailblazing 1999 MIT report. With the help of memorable quotes, I share a personal reflection on these issues, their persistence in the present day, and how we can continue to fight against them. 

“How many great discoveries have just been lost to us because we didn’t have the eyes to see?” – Mahzarin Banaji, PhD. 

The disproportionate attrition of women in STEM describes the decline in numbers of those who stay in higher academia and obtain employment. Studies evaluating higher education (HE) in the UK have reported an increase in women pursuing and qualifying for STEM subjects, yet they are still underrepresented in higher-academic positions. In 1994, a committee of MIT faculty headed by Nancy Hopkins reported discrepancies across the science departments, including the number of female faculty members (22) versus male faculty members (252). The findings were subsequently accepted by the provost and the MIT report was born. 

Common events like being overlooked for higher positions and having contributions discredited reflect the systemic problem in science: it is historically biased. Inevitably, women find themselves dedicating a substantial amount of time “surviving” rather than thriving in their careers. How do I and others who are yet to start their journey in STEM prepare for the realities of this unequal playing field? I believe that fair representation of minority groups in academic and research positions, as well as mentoring programmes, can empower aspiring scientists to weather the discriminatory nature of our field. 

“If you don’t have women [in science], you’ve lost half the best people…” – Nancy Hopkins, PhD 

I believe that true inspiration can be derived from the “Eureka” moment of seeing someone you see yourself in achieving something you hadn’t considered possible, thus “inspiring” you to attempt to do the same. It serves as a revelation of the dreams you never knew you could have. Representation intertwines with inspiration in this fashion, which is why it is an important strategy in diversifying STEM. As a black chemist and professor, Raychelle Burks recalls not having any black female chemistry professors as a student. Recently, the Royal Society reported that in the UK, only 3.5% of black academics hold a professor post in STEM. Dr Burks provides a way to rectify this by inspiring young black children with science videos showing black scientists like herself. In need of inspiration, I eventually had my “eureka” moment when I discovered Alexa Irene Canady, M.D. She was the first African American woman to become a neurosurgeon in 1981. Indeed, Alexa faced racial discrimination, but her passion paved the way for the next generation of black female neurosurgeons. Although we were miles apart, her achievements spoke volumes to me as a young black undergraduate and proved that inspiration had no boundaries. 

“…mentoring is to be someone that I needed when I was younger…” – Jane Willenbring, PhD

A teacher who believes in a student’s potential can be a powerful force. Whether it be a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or a PhD, a good teacher can have a profound effect on a student’s academic journey. As the Director of Student Experience in Life Sciences, and a senior lecturer, Dr Zahid Pranjol from the University of Sussex sat down with me and shared his own experience with memorable teachers. With great admiration and respect, he shared how he remains in regular contact with several of his mentors, and even his high school teacher. But Professor Amin Hajitou (Imperial College London) taught him the true meaning of mentorship: 

“…he gave me the confidence to know that even if I was wrong, he wouldn’t put me down, but re-direct me to achieve better results…”.   

Professor Hajitou gave him the space to share his hypotheses, alongside a dose of encouragement and guidance, which eventually led to a publication. Now, as a mentor himself, Dr Pranjol has helped shape the ideas of several undergraduate students and guided them towards publishing novel academic research papers. 

Every student deserves such a tribe in higher academia but unfortunately, not every student knows what this feels like. Negative experiences with mentors are common causes of attrition. For example, Jane Willenbring filed a Title IX sex discrimination complaint against her former teacher; although she went on to become a professor, many are discouraged by these experiences. As a result of this, the National Science Foundation in the US implemented a new sexual harassment policy. 

In essence, when done wrong, mentoring can cause a dramatic change in a student’s career path. However,when done right, mentoring can allow the student to flourish.

Science is a human endeavour that contains and is subject to all of our brilliance and bias” – Raychelle Burks PhD

Despite the progress being made, reversing attrition in STEM remains an ongoing mission. A collective effort is needed to inspire young women through supporting dedicated social enterprises and charities targeting stem enthusiasts. Mentorship, especially during their formative years, is essential. Dr Pranjol shared that good mentoring is “giving students a platform to share their ideas and moulding their passions into something greater and impactful.” This provides students with the confidence to keep going. Lastly, ensuring that young women feel safe in academic settings with strict no-tolerance policies for abuses of power is equally important. Although I present a select few from an exhaustive list of actions, these serve as active steps to widening the inspiration to all women, wherever they are in their STEM careers. 

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