WAX Science: science without stereotypes

An offbeat tone and a desire to shake things up: two young scientists, Aude Bernheim and Flora Vincent, speak about their initiative to combat the stereotypes prevalent in the research sector.

DiscovHER - With the Draw Me Why project, you won the video production competition launched by the European Commission in 2012 to encourage girls to choose a career in science. Tell us about the concept of the video.

WAX Science - When we started working on the video, we had two main goals in mind: to use concrete facts to show both the reality of gender inequality and its impact on science, and to adopt a different approach to talking about these issues in order to reach people not necessarily familiar with them. Doodle videos are a lively format that from part of this offbeat, fun way of approaching the problem.

D/H - Based on this experience, you founded WAX Science. Are stereotypes still difficult to get rid of in scientific research?

WS - The video was very successful and was widely distributed in various media, particularly through an article in Le Monde. This approach sparked off numerous positive reactions, which prompted us to create a project along similar lines, but with a different angle. So we set up WAX Science. The main premise of the association is that education, careers, job opportunities and recruitment in science are subject to extensive stereotyping. In scientific research, the preconceived notions are even more flawed because young people often have difficulty seeing the point of certain work. The method we have adopted involves not so much combating these stereotypes but rather promoting science without stereotypes.

To achieve these goals, WAX takes an interdisciplinary approach based on strong collaboration and constant innovation, adopting an offbeat, fun tone – all of which show though in our various initiatives. The WAX website is designed to arouse curiosity and bypass the stereotypes associated with science, and to map the initiatives. We have launched a community of 1,000 WAX Ambassadors to represent our values and pass on the tools created by the association. We interact with all sorts of communities – from secondary schools to companies – to get the WAX message across. In addition, WAX takes action in ways that complement existing initiatives, offers tools to structure the network and carries out joint projects. WAX organises original events such as talks, workshops, shows and debates to fulfil its missions. Ultimately we are a research organisation: to raise awareness of stereotypes, WAX aims to improve knowledge through a quantitative approach that involves citizens.

D/H - You are both research scientists. Can you talk about your areas of research? How do you reconcile your career as a research scientist with your commitment to promoting stereotype-free science?

Aude Bernheim - My research relates to the genetics of bacteria. To be more specific, I work in a new disciplinary field called synthetic biology. I modify the DNA of my favourite bacteria to get them to accomplish certain tasks. My field has applications in biotechnology and can help us to better understand how living systems work, which is fundamental to the treatment of certain diseases, for example. What I find fascinating about my work is the mixture of disciplines. I work with Biocomputing tools and design and engineering concepts, and also do laboratory experiments that are a bit like cooking recipes.

My commitment to the association dovetails with my research in several ways. First of all – and this might seem surprising – I employ similar approaches in both areas of my life: interdisciplinarity, creativity and pragmatism. A problem resolved in WAX can provide the solution to one of my research problems. Similarly, it’s often when you’re working on something else that new ideas pop up. I do a lot of my thinking about the association while I’m pouring my Petri dishes, one of the most basic tasks in the lab. In some companies, like Google, employees are required to spend 20% of their work time on a personal project to help others, motivate them in their work, develop new skills and create innovative projects. WAX is my 20%. I learn how to coordinate projects, manage a team and communicate effectively, all of which are fundamental skills in research. Finally, sharing my passion with others has often ignited the spark of enthusiasm needed to continue with my research work, with great curiosity and immense pleasure.

Flora Vincent - I’ve just started my marine ecology thesis and am working on samples of plankton collected by a boat on a 4-year voyage across the world’s oceans. By collecting environmental data and identifying organisms by means of genetic markers, we are now better able to characterise the marine environment, anticipate changes and, in my case, discover new species! I am especially interested in the small marine organisms called diatoms, which produce 25% of the oxygen we breathe, and I’m trying to understand how they spread and interact within the plankton. What I find exciting on a daily basis is working with teams from all over the world, in such a little-known area of research, applying advanced analytical techniques that draw on statistics, software and of course biology.

I have learned a great deal working on the issue of stereotyping in science and managing an association. First of all, how to get really organized! Also, I’ve learned how to understand and approach the subject as pragmatically as possible: finding the sources, quantifying, studying the documentation, dialoguing with experts, re-examining everything and starting over. Like Aude, I am convinced that my research and my work with the association feed off each other through their commonalities and differences. In speaking on the subject of self-censorship and preconceived notions, I have started to notice them in myself, in others, in my lab. I have developed techniques for getting people talking about these subjects, and raised awareness among those around me by attempting to give them food for thought rather than revealing my opinion. I am constantly trying to bring up the issue in what I call different "niches" to expose myself to new points of view. In the research environment, many colleagues end up coming back for more information. It is gratifying because you sense that they have thought about the issue and, whether they agree or not, they have at least taken the time to pause for reflection, which is the most important thing when it comes to awareness of stereotypes.

D/H - The "1000 Ambassadors" for Science project began in French schools. What would your advice be for teachers to help older pupils interested in studying science?

WS - The aim of the "1000 Ambassadors" project is to boost the number of concrete initiatives, which often go unnoticed but are fundamental to combating stereotyping. Our ambassadors can take action in three areas: identifying, communicating and creating.

Our approach is simple: the first step is to identify the stereotypes. Just by being aware of them, we can already avoid some of them. When secondary school students show an interest in studying a science, we can arrange for them to meet people working in scientific fields, invite them to explore the boundaries between science and other disciplines (and the links between arts and sciences) and above all stress the fact that science is OPEN TO ALL. There is no need to be a genius or study for 10 years to get there, and these stereotypes remain prevalent among young people, particularly young women.

D/H - A final word?

AB - I was always hesitant about pursuing a career in science; after my baccalaureate, I nearly enrolled for an arts course. Now, alongside my research, I also work on public policy, scientific communication… a bit of everything really. Contrary to what people might think, science is not limiting; scientific input is always needed, so it is a tremendous springboard for those with an inquiring mind!

FV - What also has made this venture possible are the 40 members who enable the association to function and I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart. Science is everywhere, and it is also thanks to them that we can spread the word. So with all that, What About Xperiencing Science?

For Women in Science

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