Putting Scientists on Pedestals May Discourage Students From STEM Fields

Educators hold up scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Marie Curie as heroes in order to encourage minorities to pursue studies in STEM fields. But portraying these figures as larger-than-life may intimidate students.

Scientist are sometimes painted as larger-than-life figures in our history. These heroic depictions of their triumphs to advance humanity and change the world are meant to inspire us, but Alexandra Ossola of The Atlantic argues that it may intimidate and discourage kids from pursuing an education in science.


Take Marie Curie as an example. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, she discovered two new elements, and she was considered a pioneer for her research in radioactivity. She seems like a fierce woman to say the least, driven by her passions for the sciences and ability to be a mother at the same time. Curie is held up as an example for women, showing that females can succeed in this male-dominated field and achieve a personal life.

Julie Des Jardins, author of The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, says that Curie visited the U.S. in 1921, but rather than encouraging women to get into the sciences her reputation had proceeded her. She was know to American women as a great scientist who had managed to work and be a mother. Des Jardins said:

“... women in U.S. thought, ‘Oh god we could never pull off that perfection.’”

But that's because few people knew about the challenges she faced under the times—even today. When learning about the history of science she's painted almost as a woman who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of scientific research. (Never-mind that the dangers of ionizing radiation were not known at the time.)

What's not taught is the constant criticism she faced in the media. In the early 1900s, the French press wrote about her “controversial” personal life. She was living with a married, but separated physicist named Paul Langevin. Ossola writes that the media called her a “seductive Jew” (even though she wasn't Jewish), whereas Albert Einstein never fell under fire for having six mistresses throughout his career.

Rather than telling a complete story about the struggles Curie faced along with her achievements, educators paint her as a larger-than-life figure as a means to encourage women to enter STEM fields, such as science, technology, engineering and math. Marie Curie is supposed to inspire, but instead may intimidate some women from entering the field.

Roger Highfield, an Einstein biographer, agrees with Des Jardins' observations, stating:

“When it comes to inspiring the public, it can be a choice between telling a heroic scientific tale or saying something that will fail to ignite much interest.”

Perhaps educators need to strike a balance, telling the struggles with the successes of collaborative study. Teachers can still engage their students with exiting personalities from science, just make sure they're real, and not over-inflated.

Read more at The Atlantic

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Flickr

Related Articles

Why birds fly south for the winter—and more about bird migration

What do we see from watching birds move across the country?

E. Fleischer
Surprising Science
  • A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
  • The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
  • Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.


The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?

While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.

In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?

Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."

The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.

What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.

Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.