I (don’t) look like a physicist

The more time I spend being a physicist, the stranger it feels every time someone tells me “you don’t look like a physicist.”

Years ago, my initial response was to get flustered, and ask “why is that hard to believe?” perplexedly. The responses would range from “you look like you’d be more in political science” to “you can’t be a physicist, you must be kidding” in exasperated tones.

When you meet a stranger either in a professional or casual setting for the first time, ideally you’d want to be met with excitement and curiosity, but being met with shock was not something I had ever prepared myself for. As these interactions accumulated over time, I realized that people, both men and women, were having a hard time accepting the juxtaposition between my appearance and profession.

To them, the words I spoke didn’t match my appearance- I’m female, like to dress well, and look young for my age. None of those attributes fit the traditional image of a physicist.

My first emotional response was sadness; I have worked tirelessly to become a physicist (10 years in the making, and currently pursuing a PhD at Harvard), and it was a blow in the stomach every time anyone questioned my identity and my life’s passion. And it never felt like a compliment. But as the years went by, slowly but surely, my perspective began to shift.

Now when I introduce myself, I watch the person’s response very closely. It’s like watching a small fire cracker going off somewhere in their inner cortex.

I’ve come to realize that meeting people for the first time is an opportunity to completely shatter their preexisting worldview.

I see my interactions with the people I meet as teeny tiny steps towards breaking traditional stereotypes that hold us back. Even though putting myself out there is difficult, I choose to do it because it’s our collective responsibility to diversify physics, as it will make the physics we do that much stronger.

The truth is, the word “physicist” conjures up an accurate and discouraging image of the current state of affairs: only 16% of physics faculty members are women, while the rest are male, and mostly white.

Perhaps the most famous image of a physicist is this legend right here:

I love Albert Einstein for being the most incredible physicist to walk the planet and for giving us the general theory of relativity.

Einstein’s photographs are also the most widely disseminated of any scientist in history, because he was the first (and perhaps only) “rock star”-level scientist.

I think it’s fair for people around the world to develop a strong association between the way he looked, and what physicists are supposed to look like. Not just him, but all other rock star physicists (except Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, the only two women to ever win Nobel prizes in Physics out of a total of 200) were white and male: Feynman, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Maxwell, Dirac, Planck, etc. It would take me a day to go through all of their names.

And the reality is that I don’t look anything like any of them.

I have longer hair that is not white. I also like dressing up, even in the occasional ball gown. I definitely wear more makeup than them. When I think about it rationally, I totally understand why my appearance can throw people off. It’s that little firecracker going off in their minds, because they are having to dispel the images ingrained in their minds about what physicists really look like. (But I do wear glasses religiously and am obsessed with my research, so I’ll take points on the nerd scale, thank you.)

The other really famous physicist to infiltrate our everyday lives is this guy:

Meet Dr. Sheldon Cooper, physicist extraordinaire from the Big Bang Theory, and the star of TV’s highest rated comedy, ever.

I understand why nearly 25 million people watch this show, because it’s simply hilarious. I love pop culture, and am happy that the show has brought a misfit group of physicists and engineers to millions of homes around the world and made them incredibly loved. The show’s success relies on excellent acting and comic timing, and an exponential exaggeration of geekiness. I say exponential because even though I have friends who are string theorists and may be shy or awkward in social settings, they pale in comparison to Sheldon’s eccentricity, which is off-the-charts. Although the show does feature impressive female scientists in key roles, none of them are portrayed in the same light as Penny, the dreamy girl next door.

Even though we love the show, the perception of physicists in the show, both male and female, don’t do us real physicists any favors because it reinforces the stereotypes we are trying to fight on a daily basis.

(Just to be clear, we still love the show, and they are awesome for being the first TV show ever to support STEM education)

You may own a T-shirt with Einstein’s face on it. Or you may have seen his billboard in Times Square with his tongue sticking out. Maybe the Big Bang Theory is your favorite show.

We see stereotypical images of physicist in our everyday lives that get etched into our minds, and then we also gravitate towards media that reinforces these stereotypes. It’s like a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” causality dilemma. But everything eventually leads to a set of unconscious biases in our minds.

We all hold unconscious biases, myself included, that have formed due to our experiences and environment, and we are not to blame for having the thoughts we have. When people are surprised to meet physicists who look different, it isn’t really their fault. It’s often the first time they’ve met a physicist who is a woman, and looks so starkly different than Einstein or Sheldon Cooper, and it just feels weird.

Our preconceived notions stem from a lack of exposure to physicists who look different.

The only way to change the status quo is to introduce more diversity in physics that would deconstruct the stereotypes we grew up with. Today’s scientific world is missing the diversity we need to excel at discovering solutions to the world’s looming problems (such as overpopulation and climate change, to name a few). A diversity of scientists would not only reduce bias, but also add different ways of looking at the world, which is guaranteed to take our science in untapped directions.

If we choose to promote diversity in science, we open doors to major discoveries that could change how we make energy, travel in space, or cure cancer.

I’m glad that I’ve reached a point where I can brush off awkward comments from people I meet regularly, and simply state that “I am a physicist” as a fact and smile. But I know that many female physicists have not reached the same place, and we are at risk of losing them from physics forever.

Here’s my small plea: next time you meet a female physicist, try your hardest to contain your look of surprise based on her appearance, and don’t question her identity.

If they say they are a physicist, I’m sure they mean it, because it’s not exactly the greatest pick-up line.

Think about it this way, you have the power to make their day by being more interested in their work than the way they look.

Remind yourself that even if they don’t look like the stereotypical physicist you imagined, they are amazing physicists who have committed their lives to unearthing new knowledge to take humankind to newer heights.

They are also at the forefront of redefining what it means to look like a physicist, and you can choose to be an important part of that journey.

May the Force be with you.

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