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Filmmaker Sharon Shattuck talks about her documentary Picture a Scientist and the importance of diversity in STEM

The documentary Picture a Scientist examines the issue of gender bias in the sciences and how three women overcame harassment and discrimination through courage, perseverance and solidarity to reach prominence in their fields.

The film will be part of an upcoming live panel discussion co-sponsored by ProQuest, Scientific American, ro*co films and FILM PLATFORM about diversity and inclusion in STEM fields. In anticipation of the event, we spoke with one of the directors about Picture a Scientist and why this is such an important story to tell. 

A story that hadn’t been told before

The idea for Picture a Scientist evolved over a decade of making science films. Sharon Shattuck and co-director Ian Cheney noticed that it was difficult to find women or people of color in STEM fields to feature. “It wasn’t egregious,” Shattuck said, “but in the back of our minds, we were aware of the challenge.”

Shattuck also made some observations as a science student herself. “My background is in forest ecology,” she explained. “I think that anyone who’s gone to university notices that people who tend to be at the top in the sciences are men.”

Then a few years ago, Amy Brand, who runs Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Press, contacted the filmmakers and told them about Nancy Hopkins. Hopkins, a molecular biologist, is renowned for her work in cancer and genetic research as well as for the report, “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT.”

When Hopkins and other women scientists suspected they were being discriminated against at MIT in the 1990s, “they decided to prove it by collecting data, which is of course what they do because they are scientists,” Shattuck explained. They combed through the faculty directory and found there were only 16 senior women faculty in the school of science, compared to 197 men. They reviewed salaries and measured the square footage of lab space – and this data showed that the men were paid significantly more money, and had significantly more lab space than the women.

Their findings provided evidence that galvanized efforts to make the sciences more inclusive at MIT, but also at other top-tier research universities. Known as the MIT-9, Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, Yale and Berkeley joined MIT in a collaborative project to study and address issues of gender equity in STEM.

Shattuck recalled thinking “’This is such a great story - how has no one done this before?’ So that was the beginning of us deciding to do this film.”

The filmmakers quickly realized the story they wanted to tell was even bigger than they first believed. “What happened with MIT in the 1990s is ongoing – women in the sciences are still facing these issues. We knew we had to branch out and involve different people at various points of this ‘iceberg of harassment,’ as it’s referred to in the film.”

Going public with personal stories

However, desire to make the film didn’t always align with the desire of scientists to speak about the gender bias they encountered in their fields. Shattuck said many women were reluctant to share their stories.

“We did a lot of phone calls behind the scenes talking with women who would tell us about these disturbing things that happened, but they would only want to talk off the record,” she said.

The filmmakers also got numerous recommendations for people to interview for inclusion in the film. “Someone would say, ‘oh, you should speak with so-and-so about what happened to them.’ We’d call and the person would talk about her work but not want to talk about anything personal, or they didn’t want to share their story,” Shattuck said.

This was especially the case among younger women who didn’t yet have tenure or were working in fields where tenure wasn’t available.

Shattuck decided then to focus on finding women who had previously been public about their experiences with discrimination. She and Cheney already knew Nancy would be part of the story, and then they heard about Jane Willenbring.

Shattuck read about Willenbring, a geomorphologist and professor at Stanford, in a Science magazine article about her allegations against renowned Arctic geologist David Marchant. Willenbring had been a student of Marchant when she was in the graduate program at Boston University and in 2017 reported disturbing details of harassment that occurred two decades prior.

Willenbring waited to come forward until she had gotten tenure. Boston University’s investigation was unfolding during filming of Picture a Scientist and is chronicled in the documentary.

The film also features Raychelle Burks, an analytical chemist from American University, whom Shattuck, Cheney, and producer Manette Pottle sought out because of her Twitter presence. “She’s like a ‘cool scientist,’” Shattuck explained. “She’s really active with engaging a younger audience and often uses pop culture to talk about chemistry.”

It is also rare to find Black women working in chemistry, so the filmmakers were eager to get Burks’s perspective about discrimination in her field. And Burks, being something of a public figure, was fortunately willing to share.

Balancing personal stories with data for better science and education

The documentary balances the personal stories of these women with data that demonstrates their experiences are not isolated incidents and forces the viewer to grapple with evidence of pervasiveness of gender bias.

“Personal stories are powerful, and hearing from individual people is what makes me reconsider how I think or feel about an issue,” Shattuck said. “But presenting data side by side with those stories reveals that there is a pattern of systemic discrimination happening.”

“Our hope with the film,” she continued, “is that people who are skeptical, or who haven’t had these kinds of experiences, or haven’t considered how discrimination affects development in the STEM fields will respond to the data presented.”

Shattuck said she is passionate about raising awareness of gender bias because the lack of inclusion has resulted in the omission of scientific contributions in untold ways. She often thinks “what could have been?” regarding women she spoke with who dropped out of Ph.D. programs because of harassment or discrimination.

“What research and discovery could they have offered, if they’d had the chance?” she wondered.

The topic is also critical for understanding how the exclusion of women in the sciences can result in harm against women in general. Shattuck pointed out examples where all male research teams have drawn conclusions or created designs based on “averages” that didn’t factor women into the equation. In areas such as health and safety, working with such a limited sample has resulted in preventable suffering, injury and even death.

When used in the classroom, Picture a Scientist can spark conversations about these things. “Talking about gender bias can be really difficult and awkward,” Shattuck explained. People are often reluctant to discuss the topic, especially when it comes to considering their own implicit biases.

But Picture a Scientist brings these issues to the forefront to make it easier to speak candidly about the effects of discrimination in the classroom and the lab – and, according Shattuck, “to talk about how to change the culture.”

“Diversity in the sciences is essential,” she said. “When you have people from different experiences and perspectives on your team, you have more opportunities to look at things from different ways. The result can be better research and design. It can result in better science.”

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Join us for our live panel discussion When You Picture a Scientist, Who Do You See? on March 24th with Dr. Jennifer Doudna and other leading female scientists on the topic of advancing diversity and inclusion in STEM.

Picture a Scientist is available in Academic Video Online and ProQuest One Academic.

Register now! 

Learn more about the film!


19 Mar 2021

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