Film & Television

‘Picture A Scientist,’ A Powerful Documentary And Call for Change

As the movie critic for Women’s Voices for Change, I get invited to a lot of previews and premieres. Granted, they are mostly virtual (in other words, I get a URL and a passcode); there’s no red carpet; and any catering consists of whatever I bring up to my office from my own kitchen. And, in truth, most of the films aren’t worth writing about.

But, every once in a while, I get to tell you about a movie that is good and is also doing good. This is one of those times.

Picture a Scientist was recommended to me by a former high school classmate who grew up to be a celebrated chemical engineer with an Ivy League PhD and a senior level executive position with a global biopharmaceutical company. As you can imagine, I expected something great.

Picture a Scientist was not what I expected. Which isn’t to say it isn’t great. It most definitely is. It just wasn’t what I expected.

I knew the film was about women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), but I expected the focus to be one of two things. It would either point out the inequities that have existed (and still do). Or it would celebrate the advances women have made, individually and collectively. So I was genuinely surprised when I heard the very first lines, spoken by Dr. Jane Willenbring, a geomorphologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography:

“The word that people often use is that I was ‘triggered.’”

In the past few years, there’s been a lot of attention paid to sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in Hollywood. The #MeToo movement crosses professions, but came to light mostly because of famous actresses who had experienced the very real trauma of show business’s age-old and infamous “casting couch.” Women are persecuted in entertainment, but also in financial services, in publishing, in government agencies, in airlines, in janitorial services . . . why on Earth would I assume they were safe in science?

I think it’s because I have an idealistic view of dedicated professionals working together to explore space, split atoms, cure cancer. I imagine male aggressors as muscular jocks, popular fraternity brothers, men in expensive suits and fast cars. I don’t picture them in lab coats.

Neither did Willenbring when she earned a spot on an Antarctic research team as a graduate student, working under Dave Marchant, a renowned expert. “I was incredibly thrilled to get the opportunity to go.” she remembers. “ It was like a dream come true, actually.” The dream quickly became a nightmare when Willenbring, the only woman in the group, became the target of Marchant’s constant verbal and physical abuse. 

Dr. Nancy Hopkins, a retired biology professor at MIT, experienced a different type of targeting. As a young undergraduate at Radcliffe, she worked as a lab assistant for Nobel Laureate Jim Watson. His partner, the even more renowned Francis Crick, was visiting the campus. As Hopkins recalls, “He comes flying across the room, puts his hands on my chest and breasts and says, ‘What are you working on?’ . . . at the time, the words “sexual harassment” didn’t exist, wouldn’t have crossed my mind. So I just didn’t want to make a fuss. I didn’t want Francis to be embarrassed, I didn’t want Jim to be embarrassed, so I just tried to pretend nothing had happened.”

Dr. Raychelle Burks, a chemist at St. Edwards University as well as a popular media figure, faces additional challenges because she’s a woman and Black. “There are lots of things I love about the sciences, and I love about academia and my job. But then there’s also some real bullshit. In academia, as women of color, we’re going to have different types of abuse from different people.” In her case, that’s included being mistaken for a janitor, questioned about using the faculty parking lot, having her lab equipment taken, and being advised to make her hair look “more professional” when she’s speaking at a conference.

The powerful first person narratives of Willenbring, Hopkins, and Burks, along with shorter interviews of multiple other women, are at the heart of Picture a Scientist. Directors Sharon Shattuck and Ian Cheney also use data and clever infographics (Shattuck’s background is animation) to illustrate how each woman’s individual experience adds up to an industrywide lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“There’s a playbook, and it was written by men,” one woman observes. “And the men pick up on it. They know what the plays are, and I always felt I didn’t have the playbook. You know, I’m just sort of feeling my way through this—this game.”

Although Hopkins was groped, Shattuck, Cheney, and their impressive cast persuasively point out that most of the abuse is not as specific or as sexual in nature. As Dr. Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College, explains, “The best estimates are about 50 percent of women faculty and staff experience sexual harassment. And those numbers have not really shifted over time.” She continues, “We use the metaphor of an iceberg to really get across the various forms of sexual harassment. What’s gotten most of the attention is unwanted sexual attention, coercion. Those are in the public eye, and I think everyone would agree we absolutely need to address those.”

Dr. Kathryn Clancy, a biological anthropologist, continues: “And then you have all the stuff that’s underneath. Those are actually more than 90 percent of the sexual harassment. You know, the subtle exclusions: being left off an email, not being invited to a collaboration where you’re the clear expert, just these little moments that make a woman feel like she doesn’t belong, that’s a really common experience.”

The stories, facts, and figures are stunning, and while I was surprised at first, I quickly realized I shouldn’t be. Less than one-third of all professionals in scientific fields are women. And, as Johnson spells out, there is an intrinsic hierarchy in which abuse — and abusers — can thrive. “If you think about science, right now, we have a system that is built on dependence, really, singular dependence of trainees — whether they are medical students, whether they are undergraduates, or if they’re graduate students — on faculty, for their funding, for their futures. And that really sets up a dynamic that is highly problematic. It really creates an environment in which harassment can occur.”

Picture a Scientist, while finely crafted, beautifully filmed, and thoroughly engaging, is a sobering film. In fact, it would be downright depressing if each of our heroines hadn’t found her own way to overcome the nearly insurmountable obstacles she faced solely on the basis of sex. Willenbring finally brought forth a Title IX complaint against Marchant (spurred on — “triggered” —  when she imagined her young daughter someday “being treated like trash” too). Marchant was initially put on leave, but eventually fired. And, in a glorious act of so-called ‘cancel culture,’ the glacier that had been named after him was renamed. Hopkins joined forces with MIT’s other tenured women (they numbered just 15 out of 212 total) to protest gender inequity and ended up publishing a report, “Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,” that resulted in meaningful reform at MIT and elsewhere. Burks continues to fight the good fight, through public speaking, television features like her appearances on the Science Channel’s “Outrageous Acts of Science,” and her own ongoing podcast. She wears superhero tee shirts and does all she can to ensure that when the next generation is asked to “picture a scientist,” they won’t automatically think “old white man.”

Picture a Scientist should be required viewing for women, for allies, and for administrators in positions of power at scientific institutions. Shattuck hopes that the film will “level the playing field so white men don’t have all the advantages.”

And women in STEM won’t be the only beneficiaries. Because if we’re ever to solve the world’s greatest challenges — from climate change to global pandemics — we need to enlist every brilliant mind, amplify every voice, and draw on every possible perspective. Regardless of gender.

Picture a Scientist is available as part of PBS’s NOVA series. Check your local PBS schedule or stream the film here. It will also be available on Netflix in the future.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.