A Princess Does Biology


Friday night my daughter announced that she wanted to wear her blue velvet dress with the twirly skirt and her black patent leather shoes to the bug show at the Public Library on Saturday.

My first thought was “Really? Blue velvet and bugs?” But then I thought again. “Why can’t a princess in a blue velvet dress study bugs?”

A similar discussion came up at the Science Online conference that I attended in North Carolina in January of this year. This is a conference of scientists, science writers, bloggers and journalists and science artists that is an amazing meeting of some of the best science communicators from around the world.

Several of the attendees had followed a story about the fate of gender-based science kits. Pink boxes contain science activities for girls like “lip balm lab”, “beautiful blob slime” and “perfect perfume designer” and are marketed specifically to girls (examples from one company here). The purported goal of such science kits is to get more girls interested in science, and there is potential to learn some important scientific concepts around these topics, but some scientists have asked, why do girls science kits have to be pink, why must they be focused on beauty, and why does the art work on them have to be Barbie-style? (Links to a couple of those blogs: Bad Astronomy blog at Discover; Adventures in Ethics and Science)

These are valid questions, and certainly the packaging design of some of these kits seems to make the science seem less “serious” than that of the companion boy science kits. Why do the pink microscopes have less resolving power than the black ones? Why wouldn’t a girl be just as interested in a kit labeled “chemistry and physics” as a boy?

So, in response to some pressure from scientists, science writers and bloggers, at least one company, Edmund Scientifics, has rethought their marketing of Girls and Boys Novelty Science Kits and have created a single category.

But, those of us interested in science communication and science education have kept talking.

“What’s wrong with a pink microscope?”

The answer is nothing—as long as the resolution of the pink microscope is every bit as good as the resolution of a black microscope or a blue microscope or even the color I would prefer, impulse red.

That leads to another question, what does a female scientist look like? Glasses, no makeup, a frumpy white lab coat? Why can’t a really smart female scientist also be a young woman in a blue velvet twirly dress and patent leather shoes? Or perhaps a mom with a diaper bag over her shoulder?

And that leads to an even bigger question: What does a scientist look like? President Obama hosted science fair winners at the White House this year, and even helped students launch marshmallows from “an extreme marshmallow cannon“. The diversity among those students was wide, defying all stereotypes.

The take home message is simple: Science isn’t just for geeks.

No, maybe the message is this: Science geeks come in all shapes and sizes, and you might just be surprised to discover that NFL cheerleader is working on a PhD in neuroscience.

Unfortunately the bug scientists from UW never made it to the library on Saturday, probably some terrible miscommunication. I say terrible because there were about twenty children who were at the library primed and ready to learn about bugs, and maybe one or more of them ready to be inspired to go on to study more science. We did go on a bug hunt though, because the day was warm and sunny. I’m pleased to say the girl in the blue velvet dress and the black patent leather shoes was quick to pick up the crawly, squirmy things we found under leaf detritus next to the library, that is before she turned to her favorite hobby of picking up sticks.

What is it about kids and sticks?

© 2012 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “A Princess Does Biology

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