“you can be anything you want to be when you grow up”


Many millennials had their guardians expressing to them, “You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up, as long as you work hard at it”. Myself being one, believed this fallacy until I came into my twenties. I was asked this question on every first day of school I ever had. Through the my youth my answer had changed from artists to astronaut. Until in high school I was in an accident that had me hospitalized for a month. After that and until I was about twenty-one my answer to that infamous question had not changed outside the realm of a healthcare professional.

Like most four-year colleges, the majority of the biology department at San Francisco State University are pre-health students aspiring to work in the healthcare system. Sure its admirable and heroic, but it is misguided. I was too, a victim of this erroneous idea.The interest in science, does not solely translate to medicine. And the interest in helping people, or making the world a better place, does not solely translate to becoming a doctor. Personally, I was always interested in science even as young child. In fact, the most vivid memories from elementary school are my science lessons. But, growing up, I didn’t know a scientist, nor had I interacted with one personally. The only individuals I viewed as scientists, were Bill Nye and Steve Irwin. Yet, I went to many doctors and other health care professionals growing up. Through these personal interactions, I was able to imagine what a career in health care would look like and how to get there. Where as, with a scientist, well those were only on TV, so it created a celebrity like facade. I had no interactions with what their workplace was like or how to get there, it seemed as if they. Therefore, becoming a health care professional seemed realistic, tangible or obtainable. And there was still scientific discovery involved with becoming a health care professional. But more importantly, I could understand the journey to become a health care professional since I had personally seen it obtainable by women. Seeing someone whom looked like me, subconsciously provided a path that was do-able.

However, we (young scientists) are not aware that research is obtainable. We are familiar with health care, whether we knew someone personally involved or we have direct experience with someone employed in the healthcare system, we have witnessed a tangible career. We have not experienced that through the trajectory of being a scientist. We knew Steve Irwin and Bill Nye on TV. And if we didn’t look like those two examples, or we couldn’t relate to them, then we couldn’t resonate that we could one day become scientists.

A quick survey among fellow scientists supports my hypothesis. Majority of scientists reported that they had interacted with a healthcare professional growing up rather than a scientist (Figure 1 & 2). Majority of these scientists had also at some point in their life perused a path within the healthcare field (Figure 3).

Now some may argue that, this is because there is just not enough funding to support scientists related careers, therefore there are less scientists than there are health professionals. And although in some context I agree. I also want to illuminate that our definition of scientist creates an elitist mindset between scientists and the public, and also disregards the foundation for what a scientist is. At our core scientists are passionate about understanding the physical world around us. Growing up, we tend not to consider our science teachers as scientists and, in part, I believe that is because they do not refer to themselves as scientists, even though, they should. One beautiful aspect I admire about the San Francisco State University Biology department is they refer to students within biology one course, as “biologists” or “scientists”. They start the narrative for us to consider ourselves as scientists. But this is too late for this narrative. By this time some students are convinced that the only way to make the world a better place is to be a doctor. The youth needs this positive language earlier on.

Even though I had well over 150 units in college science courses and had the support of my mentors referring to me as a scientist; it wasn’t until a 6-year-old name Kaiya had called me a scientist that I shifted my personal perception. I had the privilege to teach a San Francisco public school class of first graders science. I had no experience teaching, being around kids, or calling myself a scientist. Yet, there I was for a year, your friendly neighborhood scientist teaching adaptation, three phases of matter, the size scale of microbes, what germs are and anatomy to first graders. Before we had met the students, we had asked them to draw what they think a scientist looks like. Of course, all of the drawing were of the stereotypical mad scientist resurrecting Frankenstein (Figure 4). The next day my partner and I, two females showed up in lab coats to present to them about evolution through the adaptations of teeth and the consequences of predation. At the end of the year we asked them once again to draw what they thought a scientist looked like. And there was the moment. The moment where I shifted my personal perception of what I was, a scientist. Kaiya had drawn myself, even to the accuracy of my blue and purple hair (Figure 5). Even better, some of the students had drawn themselves. Previously believed a scientist to only be someone who had worked on the scientific method and published in a scientific journal to be a scientist. Yet I had never published a scientific paper. From this experience on I have challenged my previous definition.

Figure 4. The stereotypical scientist, affirmed by google and first graders.

Figure 5. The moment I became a scientist.

You can see in Figure 2, that there were a few scientists that did have the opportunity to interact with scientists as they were growing up. Later in the survey, I followed up with the questions, “If you interacted with a scientist growing up, what was the interaction and what kind of scientists were they?”. The two scientists responded that their fathers had been PI’s and through out their career, they had always known that they would become a scientist. Never had they pursued a studying to become a health care professional. And here is my response to that… 1.) HOW COOL!? 2.) these two individuals are perusing careers as scientists today (you go glen coco) 3.) These two examples of scientists are men… I do not have to convince anyone involved in STEM that there are still stereotype threats against underrepresented minorities. We personally experience it, and we have evidence based studies to back up our experiences (Schinske et al 2017, Moss-Racusin et al 2012, NSF Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering 2017 report, Steinpreis et al 1999, Seymour & Hewitt 1997). These scientists also stated in their surveys that they never pursued a medical profession career path. To me this further supports my idea that, with more exposure to scientists when we are young, the more likely we are to pursue that career path.

Here is what I am getting at. WE NEED MORE SCIENTISTS! We need more funding to support scientists. We need more support for scientists of color, womyn scientists, immigrant scientists, scientists from different socio-economic backgrounds and LGBTQ scientists. We need more scientists representing ALL kids, and interacting with them, to invoke a sense of obtainable career paths. We need more openness to the definition of what a scientist represents. We need less elitist mindset so the public and young scientists can be more receptive of the science we produce. We need more positive science communication to our young scientists, our peer scientists, and our public. We need compassion and enthusiasm for science, so we can get back to the core of science, the passion for cultivating curiosity and discovery. Without these aspects we cannot develop our next generations of scientist. We cannot support our youth to become whatever they want to be when they grow up. With the addition of these cultural aspects to the science community, only then can the youth be anything they want to be when they grow up.

Some good bedtime stories:

Corinne A. Moss-Racusina,b, John F. Dovidiob, Victoria L. Brescollc, Mark J. Grahama,d, and Jo Handelsman. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. PNAS.

Steinpreis RE, Anders KA, Ritzke D (1999) The impact of gender on the review of curricula vitae of job applicants and tenure candidates: A national empirical study. Sex Roles 41:509–528.

National Science Foundation (2017) Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering (National Science Foundation, Arlington). 


"Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences. Elaine Seymour , Nancy M. Hewitt Gender and Career in Science and Engineering. Julia Evetts Women in Medical Education: An Anthology of Experience. Delese Wear ," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 25, no. 1 (Autumn, 1999): 294-297.

J. Schinske, M. Cardenas, and J. Kaliangara.Uncovering Scientist Stereotypes and Their Relationships with Student Race and Student Success in a Diverse, Community College Setting. (2017) CBE—Life Sciences Education Vol. 14, No. 3ArticlesFree Access