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When you picture a scientist, you probably think “man.” This researcher wants to change that.

It’s incredibly hard to find historical photos of women scientists.

Hilda Bastian

Jessie Price, a veterinary microbiologist born in 1930, developed vaccines that prevented deadly diseases from ravaging flocks of ducks and other avian species.

But you’ve probably never heard of Price. You’ve probably never seen a picture of her.

And it turns out finding photos of women scientists, particularly black female scientists like Price, is really, really difficult.

The Cornell Duck Research Laboratory, where Jessie Price worked. The photo was unearthed by Bastian with the help of the current director of the lab, who personally took on the project of finding and releasing the photo.
Wikipedia Commons

This fact became clear to Hilda Bastian, a scientist and editor at the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the National Institutes of Health, during black history month this year.

In February, Bastian tried digging for images of black female scientists, building on an All-day Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon she helped organize at NIH in 2015, to unearth stories and pictures of women in science. As she chronicled on her PLOS Blog, finding photos of African-American female scientists proved even more elusive. She’d spend hours searching and emailing institutions to release images from their archives, and still come out empty handed.

“All sorts of social forces and biases feed into who gets photographed, whose photographs are preserved and catalogued, what the priorities were for digitization,” Bastian said. “When there were barriers trying to exclude people, it's not really a surprise” that there are so few images of women in science.

This is a really important point. When you think about what a scientist means, you probably think of an Einstein figure — a man in a lab or at a chalkboard with fuzzy, unkempt hair. When you think of a scientist’s voice, you might conjure Neil deGrasse Tyson or Carl Sagan. With these voices and images so pervasive in our culture, it’s easier to associate “scientist” with “man” — and in particular, “white man.”

The association is reinforced in primary school science textbooks, where images of men outnumber images of women by 3 to 1. That may be one reason as few as one-fifth of physics PhDs in the US go to women (the figures for black and Hispanic scientists are even worse), and why women make up only 39 percent of chemists, 28 percent of environmental scientists and geoscientists, and 16 percent of chemical engineers when they represent nearly half the entire workforce.

“It's pretty easy to find inspiring stories and role models who look like you, whose lives mirror parts of your own, if you're a white man,” Bastian added. “But it's hard to find people you identify with if you're not.”

The next generation of women, looking for inspiration about what to study in college or what career path to pursue, deserve better. For her part, Bastian wrote a guide on how to “Help Find Missing Scientists’ Faces,” with the intention of crowdsourcing some of the digging. With some work, she hopes maybe the next generation won’t only think of Einstein when they think scientist; they’ll think of Jessie Price too.

(h/t PLOS and Nature)