What does a scientist look like?

What does a scientist look like?


Credit: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Earlier this month, after hopping into a cab in San Francisco, the driver asked me what kind of work I do. “Science!” I replied. What followed was a strange yet candid conversation about what this cab driver thought a scientist should look like. He and I did not see eye-to-eye about this, but the short ride was amusing.

My mind was swimming with what I’d been learning at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting where over 20,000 scientists share their research. I could have told the cabbie what I had been learning about climate change, fracking, communicating uncertainty, Superstorm Sandy and melting glaciers. But our ride was only a couple of miles and there wasn’t going to be time for all that.

“You’re a scientist?” he said with shock while looking at me in the rearview mirror.

“Yes,” I replied, somewhat more defiantly than I intended.

Those who know me understand that I wear many hats. I am a scientist but I’m also an educator, writer, illustrator, dog and cat person, hiker, library wanderer - the list goes on. To say that, yes, I’m a scientist felt a bit like a betrayal of all those other things. But his shock that I could be a scientist was too much and I decided to wear my scientist hat exclusively during the cab ride.

“Naw,” he replied, his eyes refocused on the road. “You don’t look like a scientist.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Maybe you should do something else,” he suggested. Again he looked at me in the mirror, this time to assess what career would fit my appearance.

“You look like either a player at Goldman Sachs or a kindergarten teacher,” he announced.

This struck me as odd. When I envision investment bankers and kindergarten teachers, they have very different appearances. But I caught myself. Who am I to say what people with those careers should look like? And who is this guy to say that I look like them?

“So what does a scientist look like?” I asked. “What would I need to do to look like a scientist?”

 “Mess up your hair,” he instructed, “and stop showering. You’ll need grey or white hair too, and pasty white skin because you never go outside if you are always in a lab.”

I laughed at his suggestions and was reprimanded. “Don’t laugh. Scientists have no sense of humor. Don’t smile either.”

“Did you know there were 20,000 scientists in town this week?” I asked. He’d said that he had been driving his cab all week; he must have spotted the AGU attendees coming and going from the convention center in nametags.

“All week?”


“No. I didn’t see any scientists,” he replied, dismissing the idea. I think most scientists would not look like scientists to him, and yet they are scientists. That, I know.