Posted on Sun 12 October 2014

You sure don’t look like a scientist

You get a little tired of people asking what you do, when the answer’s “computational linguistics research in a bioinformatics group at the Institute for Structural Molecular Biology.” There are enough unfamiliar terms in there to derail a light social conversation several times over, especially when you don’t usually enjoy talking about work at parties. So I got into the habit of saying “I’m a scientist” and glossing over the details unless people were interested.

The reactions from laypeople tend to run the whole gamut from intrigue to wariness and even, back in the days, occasionally outright hostility. Ten years ago, the 90s “Frankenscience” narrative was still lingering around, and the popular images associated with bioscience included GM crop protests, ears grown on mice, Dolly the sheep, and the horrific undercover pics from Huntingdon Life Sciences that the ALF put on every high street. Sometimes even fellow academics I met from arts and humanities departments would totally change their demeanour when they heard a trigger word like “lab.” I always felt particularly disappointed when that happened.

Another pretty common response was “Really? You don’t look like a scientist.” Now this usually just amused and exasperated me in roughly equal measures — and still does occasionally. But one time it nearly got me deported.

Boston manners

It’s 2004, and I’m arriving in Boston for HLT-NAACL‘04. I’m in the first year of my PhD, going to my first international conference — and my first trip outside Europe for any reason. It’s the height of summer, and I’m in combat shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt as usual. I get to the front of the immigration queue and hand over my documents. “Business or vacation?” asks the border guard.

Neither really, I think to myself. “I’m going to an academic conference,” I say instead, and give its full name. “I’m a PhD student.”

This wasn’t in the script. She stops pecking at her keyboard, squints at me over her glasses and chews this over for a moment. “You’re a scientist?” Nod. “You coulda fooled me. You sure don’t look like a scientist.”

I’m a bit floored by this — particularly as there’s an unsettling mix of contempt and distrust creeping into her voice. I can’t think of anything to say that isn’t hazardously sarcastic, so I wave the conference details printout at her. She glances at it, not really interested, and calls over a colleague. “This guy says he’s a scientist, huh. Going to a conference.”

Oh really?” chuckles the guy. “Whereabouts?” The Park Plaza. He laughs a bit more. “They won’t even let you in the Park Plaza looking like that! Now please come with me.”

So he leads me to an inspection booth, and somewhere along the way, acquires another goon with a very large sniffer dog.

Waive goodbye to your rights

By now I’m starting to get seriously worried. Why the disbelief? I’m in my work clothes. I’ve got a slightly punky haircut and a couple of tattoos visible, but nothing you wouldn’t see in London every day. And this is Massachusetts, not Arkansas, right?

But more importantly — I’m travelling on a visa waiver form. This gives you exactly no rights whatsoever. You can be summarily deported even if your papers are entirely in order, with no means of appeal. And I have absolutely no idea what happens then. Do they pay for your flight home? Or are you detained until you can arrange a ticket? As a student I have no spare funds to draw on, my parents are on holiday, and my girlfriend (now wife) is delerious with the ‘flu at home.

And a deportation makes it very hard to ever get into the USA again. With the American authorities still in over-compensation mode post-11/9, there’s a very real chance my academic career could get hobbled here, before it’s even started.

I almost hit panic level when Laughing Guy snaps on the rubber gloves, but it’s just to rifle through my bag. Meanwhile Dog Dude is going “Find it! Find it! Find it!” and his hound is all over me. British sniffer dogs tend to be small friendly beagles or similar — cute and floppy-eared — not this Rottweiler-sized beast. (Bit vague on breeds I’m afraid — not a dog person.)

And then just like that, it’s over. They don’t phone the conference or my college for confirmation, as I suggest. But suddenly my suspicious credentials are just fine. They don’t even search me all that thoroughly, which is obviously a blessing, but makes me wonder if they actually expected to find anything, or just wanted to put me in my place. Welcome to America.

Bio diversity

From talking to friends and colleagues at the time, and discussions online more recently, “you don’t look like a scientist” is a pretty common reaction. I’d hope it’s much less common today, with the likes of Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, Alice Roberts, Jim Al-Khalili and of course Brian Cox putting a more realistic face on science in the media, and I’d really hope the consequences of that reaction are typically much less extreme than my story.

But there’s still a long way to go. Women scientists are still under-represented in the media, and our most prominent and influential is frankly turning out to be a bit of a crank. Dawkins has retired from his Public Understanding of Science post in order to pursue his hobby of Public Misrepresentation of Science full-time, which isn’t doing anyone any favours. Of course, this is very much a UK-centric view, and without the BBC and the Guardian things would look a lot less encouraging.

And let’s not forget that presence of visible role models and a more welcoming atmosphere for younger scientists won’t necessarily equate to better career prospects. Recent UK figures show that only 22% of professors are women and less than half a percent are black. These numbers are across all subjects but I doubt sciences fair any better than others.

I have no idea what the picture’s like in the States, but I haven’t been detained there recently, so maybe there’s hope yet.

Updated 2014-10-13 to add new figures from THE article

Category: culture

Tags: science, travel, media, equality


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