I am Not a Nerd

Science has a stereotype problem. Scientists are not thought of being exactly cool; but rather nerds, geeks, super smart, and with obscure interests. Instead of fighting this and trying to be the cool kids, there has been a movement of sorts promoting the acceptance of nerdom. We’re nerdy, let’s own it, and make it cool. While I do appreciate that nerds have become more mainstream and in their own way, popular, the problem with this is that (1) for many scientists, this is an inaccurate representation and (2) this can be alienating to the mainstream public.

I was never the popular girl, but I tried to be. I was also genuinely into the things the popular girls were. I have always loved fashion and shopping, wore makeup, and knew the latest celebrities and pop songs (and still do). I never thought of even being a scientist until my later years in college. When I started graduate school (3 years post graduation) and interacted with real scientists, the differences started to become apparent to me.

I was one of the very few who dressed up (note – wearing anything nicer than jeans is considered dressed up) and wore make up. In the first few years of my career, this made me insecure. At conferences, there seemed to be an inverse relationship with scientific level of expertise and the way you dress (well-known professors can wear cut-off shorts and Tevas). I actually started to dress down and wore less makeup. I felt that people didn’t take me seriously because of the way I looked. I wasn’t being myself.

To be brief, in our society, people think you have to be smart to be a scientist (you do, but much more is attributed to hard work and perseverance) and that certain interests like beauty and fashion are (inaccurately) in conflict with more intellectual ones. Young girls get the message that you can’t be both pretty and smart, and science becomes a subject pretty girls aren’t interested in. Of course, this is oversimplified and overgeneralized, but unfortunately, research shows girls lose interest in science from middle school on.

For the past few weeks, I have been visiting the schools of the middle school teachers I am working with to meet their students, introduce them to the eMammal project, survey them for research I am doing, and to give them the opportunity of meeting a scientist. One of the teachers said that after hearing my presentation and talking to me, that the “girly girls” of the class went the farthest in the forest to set up their camera traps. The cool kids came during their free period to start with set up.

Talking to middle school students about my research in African forest elephants.
Talking to middle school students about my research in African forest elephants.

You can be pretty and smart and girls need to see that. I wear sparkly jewelry, but also sample elephant poop. You can also be smart and like fluff things (for me, trashy reality shows like The Real Housewives of Orange County). Scientists should make this more known because this is how you relate to people and show them that you are real. I don’t want people to be who they’re not; if you genuinely like nerdy things, than go ahead and like it, but do not be judgmental towards people that don’t fit this science stereotype and do not feel pressured to like it if you don’t. Science needs a diverse set of role models.

Middle school students practicing camera trap set up.
Middle school students practicing camera trap set up.



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