As a scientist who spends her days inside laboratories teaching first-year medical students about the intricacies of human physiology, it’s uncommon for me to be excited about new television programs, especially ones aimed at teens and tweens. (What can I say, my favorite media are still books!)
But I confess: I am over the moon about “The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia,” a new Netflix series produced in partnership with Nickelodeon that began streaming February 17 about a 15-year-old who holds two Ph.D. degrees. and moves to California work as a robotics engineer and rocket scientist for NASA in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Why is a grown woman like me so excited about this show?
Before I answer, let’s try a little experiment. Gather a paper and a pencil. Then draw the first thing that comes to your mind when given a specific word. For example, if I say the word playground, draw whatever comes to mind. Perhaps you draw swings, monkey bars, or a sandbox In the interest of time, let’s put a time limit. You will have 1 minute to complete your drawing. Ready?
The word is SCIENTIST. Start drawing. (Wait for your timer to go off, then keep reading below).
What did you draw? Where did they work? What were they doing? What were they wearing?
This test, known as the “Draw-A-Scientist Test” (or DAST), wasn’t my idea. It was created by social scientist David Wade Chambers in the 1960s to learn about when the stereotypic image of a “scientist” first develops in children. For his study, published in the journal Science Education in 1983, Chambers administered the test to 4,807 children ages 5-7 years-old over a span of 11 years, from 1966 to 1977. The drawings were analyzed for the appearance of stereotypical indicators of a scientist (lab coat, eyeglasses, beard, science instruments/equipment, symbols of knowledge such as books or filing cabinets, products of science, and/or relevant captions). Since then, the tool and variations of it have been used worldwide to see if these are different in certain countries, regions, or, if across time, the perception of the stereotypical scientist has changed.
With few exceptions over the years, the image of the typical “scientist” has not changed from the man in a white coat working in a lab, middle aged, wearing glasses, surrounded by equipment (test tubes or beakers), writing in notebooks and/or reading, and making discoveries). Does this fall in line with what you drew?
Interestingly, only 28 of the nearly 5,000 drawings illustrated a female scientist, which is less than 1%. As it turns out, the drawings of women scientists were drawn by girls. Let me restate this: not a single boy imagined a scientist as a woman.
More recently, I’ve been conducting my own updated version of the DAST, but with a twist. In 2010, I took part in a fellowship of the American Physiological Society designed to grow interest in STEM fields among underrepresented groups. One part of the program included visiting K-12 classrooms in my hometown, San Antonio, TX, during the school year to lead hands-on physiology activities and engage students in discussions about science, education, health, and careers.
Before every classroom visit, I would ask the teachers to conduct the DAST one day prior to my visit. After my visit, I would ask the teachers to repeat the activity to see if there was ANY change in the perception of students, and then ask teachers to review the new drawings.
I am happy to report that more than half of the students did change their drawing after my visit. What do you think they drew?
You might guess that the second drawing was of me in my lab coat. No, they didn’t draw me. Instead, they drew a picture of themselves. According to the teachers (and I’ve visited over 1,500 students), after my visit, students were more likely to depict themselves as scientists, with personalized details like hairstyles, favorite colors, or even their doctor. This was especially true for the girls, as the vast majority of them had previously drawn scientists who looked like men.
You see, meeting and seeing a successful Hispanic female scientist who lives their city and came from a similar neighborhood and/or upbringing, doesn’t just break down old gender, and maybe even racial, stereotypes. It broke open their imaginations and helped them envision new possibilities for themselves.
So that’s why I’m so in love with Netflix’s new teen sitcom “Expanding the Universe of Ashley Garcia.” As the great children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman is credited with saying “You can’t be what you can’t see.” While I don’t always agree with that sentiment —as our world has been blessed by so many women who break boundaries even without role models— she was right that role models go a long way towards inspiring more people to achieve greater educational and professional heights. With the glaring absence of Hispanic and Latina women in STEM fields throughout the U.S. (according to the National Science Board, we earn PhDs at 1/10th the rate of our white sisters) we need all the recruiting help we can get. Here’s hoping Ashley Garcia is this generation’s Doc McStuffins.
Jessica M. Ibarra, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Physiology at the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. She is also Treasurer, Chair of the Awards Committee, and Steering Committee member of the Teaching of Physiology section of the American Physiology Society and is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.
This is awesome. I will keep encouraging my 7 year old daughter to have a love for science. She told me when she grows up she wants to be a scientist and for Christmas she asked for a chemistry set.