Lady ScienCelebrities Wanted

Portrait of confident scientist using microscope in laboratory
Portrait of confident scientist using microscope in laboratory

Forbes released its list of "100 Most Powerful Women" last week, with some truly inspirational and kick-ass ladies in the line-up. Included were nine heads of state, 24 corporate CEO's (16 of which founded their own corporations), 14 billionaires (that's billionaire with a "B," ladies), a smattering of philanthropists, a bunch of celebrities, and one scientist. One.

Number 78 Fabiola Gianotti made the cut as an Italian research physicist that, impressively, headed up one of the two teams that identified the Higgs-Boson or "God Particle" and was the spokesperson for the $20 million ATLAS large hadron collider experiment at Switzerland's CERN laboratory. Besides being a brilliant mind, Dr. Gianotti is unique in the world of science because not only does she get her hands dirty in the lab, but she also seems to have a voice -- an essential component in the movement of science to the forefront of powerful professions.

Sadly, while there are countless prolific scientists in the world, female or male, you probably couldn't name ten. In fact, you probably couldn't name five that are alive right now. Even if you could, how many of them would be women?

Stephen Hawking, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye the Science Guy are probably about as far as you got (Jane Goodall might have been in there as well... if so, good on you). But, without going into the past, which may have added Albert Einstein and possibly Marie Curie, you most likely couldn't come up with too many more on your own.

Yet, if you were asked to name 10 living women celebrities, you could rattle them off like nobody's business: Beyonce (#17), Lady Gaga (#45), Oprah (#13), Ellen (#51), Sophia Vergara (#38), Angelina Jolie (#37), Giselle (#95), Shakira (#52), Kim Kardashian, Snooki (thankfully, not on the list)...

Why is that? Do we truly value 72-day marriages, lip synched National Anthems, and benders on the Jersey Shore so much more than education, knowledge, and intellectual power? We try to tell ourselves that we don't, but it is very clear that our society would rather read about the next celeb twitter cat-fight than the basic science discoveries made by incredibly thoughtful and forward-thinking minds.

Perhaps this is why so many people want to defund basic science research. Because they can't connect with the characters. In their head, people imagine researchers wearing thick rimmed glasses, bent over bubbling cauldrons, creating scary mutants and manipulating the natural world. They don't think of them in designer heels and tailored business suits, doing the morning talk show circuit, chatting up their latest findings and books. But why not?

Khloe Kardashian was all over the place this morning, pushing the start of the new season of her reality show, enticing the drooling audience over the big reveal of the sex of Kim and Kanye's baby. Drivel. Things we don't need to know, and things that don't even really interest us; but we read and listen to this inanity because of the cultural capital afforded to these women by virtue of their looks.

This is why scientists, women in particular, must begin to speak out about our research, our conclusions, and our intentions. We need to get people to see us as individuals who are much more intriguing than the conjured image of us sitting on a stool pipetting in a lab. We need to be sitting on a stool in front of a camera, talking about our findings in terms that people can understand and find as interesting as baby "K's" gender.

We can't fool ourselves. We are losing the battle of interest, and thus power. Yet there is so much we can do to fight back. And women should be the ones to do it. Because we can wear the Diane von Furstenberg (#74) dress, and the Tory Burch (#69) shoes, and do our hair and makeup in a way that other women and young girls can connect to and, clearly, so desperately want to embody. Of course we want our girls to be intelligent and inquiring and able to overcome the social pressures that society puts upon them about looks. But, we need to meet them halfway -- and we can do it with strength and grace. If a pair of heels and some lipstick gets us on the tube, then by all means, get some platforms and extra shiny gloss. The way I think about it is, if you could be who you are, and think what you think AND look good enough to get on TV, or be who you are and think what you think and be plain, you'll spend a lot more time having to open doors instead of having them opened for you. As a smart woman it's just one more bargaining chip, and that's power.

Picture this: Angelina Jolie (#37) on a morning talk show chatting it up over the latest research out of the hadron collider. You want to watch now, don't you? You're in rapt attention, wondering how it's possible that this beautiful, articulate woman is speaking so easily and conversationally about sub-atomic physics. While you're mesmerized by those lips you happen to also learn that ground-breaking work is being done in this field that is inching us closer to understanding from what and from where our universe began.

Ok, a bit of a farce... but not such a stretch. We know Angelina isn't a nuclear physicist. But she is an incredibly beautiful woman, who is also articulate, a student of the planet, and has the courage of her convictions. By virtue of her outward appearance, she is afforded a stage from which to trumpet her many worthy causes -- and people listen. Breast cancer, developing nations, children's welfare; just a few of the things we all are more aware of because of Angelina's use of her own celebrity. We're not talking about making ourselves dolled up and dumbed down; we're talking about empowerment, and letting the women with the most incredible minds in our society have the podium to talk about things that really matter.

Otherwise, without the flash of the paparazzi, scientists remain in obscurity, particularly the women. Uninteresting and unheard. And what's worse, our work becomes interpreted by people that don't understand the complexities we examine every day, and yet, are sitting in the stools behind the camera spinning the message. Think about this: For as many celebrities as you can think of, you can probably rattle off most of their personal trainers and "guru's." These same "world renowned experts" are butchering our data and winding the general public up in knots over the latest "scientifically based" diet or exercise plan. It's madness.

So, I'm making the call to my female colleagues. We need to become lady ScienCelebrities! As Arianna Huffington herself so enthusiastically urged the young women of Smith college in her recent commencement speech, we need to, "lead the third women's revolution...redefining success and power." Because while Lady Gaga (#45) certainly has a compelling message to her misfit little monsters, we too have a progressive agenda to advance. An agenda of knowledge, and evidence based truth, and ongoing intellectual curiosity.

And, we need to start talking about it more publicly... even if it takes heels and lipstick. So that next year, there are more scientists on the "100 Most Powerful Women" list, and our truths, based in trial and evidence, are being heard and interpreted by not only the peer reviewers, but also the general public.