5 Things to Remember When Writing Scientists (and 5 tropes to avoid)

Ever wanted to write a scientist but not sure what to do (or avoid)? Start here!

You may or may not know this, but I’m not just a writer. I’m a biologist. I have a BA in biology and a MS in neuroscience, and I’ve worked in the contract research industry since 2015. In fact, I also received a promotion this year to the title of Senior Scientist (and yes, there were tons of jokes about me suddenly becoming elderly!).

Several years back, I wrote a couple articles on Tumblr (my major blogging platform at the time) about science. And while I don’t spend much time there now, I figured it was a good time to revisit this in a new way.

But if you missed the previous links, feel free to get a refresher here:

  1. Science Terms for Non-Scientists
  2. Scientific Misconceptions and Misrepresentations
  3. How to Find a Scientist for your Questions and Armchair Research
  4. On Scientific Plausibility in Writing

There also an awesome article I came across a while back all about how the evil scientist trope is harming scientists.

Now that that’s out of the way, today I want to discuss things I wish writers knew about scientists…and some things I wish they’d stop writing.

1. Scientists are diverse.

Yes, there is a lot of diversity in science! There are tons of females, minorities, and immigrants working in science in the US. It’s not all stuffy old white men.

HOWEVER, that being said, there is a known issue in retaining female scientists. It’s been referred to as the “leaky pipeline,” and there are plenty of articles out there about it. It’s not completely clear why this happens, but a lot is inherent misogyny leading to less pay, lower opportunities, and bias in publishing and hiring. But I won’t get into that too much now. Here is just one example among many, though.

2. Scientists are ethical.

Just like every other job, scientists have codes of ethics they must follow in order to receive funding and keep their jobs (as well as avoiding things like fines and a black mark next to their name in the field). Sure, there are a few bad eggs, but the majority of scientists stick to their ethics. In fact, all biology graduate programs I know of require students to take bioethics classes. And all scientists who receive funding must comply with the rules and guidelines that have been established.

If you’re ever curious, there are plenty of textbooks available that will give you a better understanding of modern bioethics, as well as current challenges and practices.

3. Scientists are people.

Yup, that’s right. They’re just like everyone else. They have their own lives outside their work, with family and friends not in their field. They have other interests (I know several scientists who love baking, I love writing, others love travel or martial arts or music… the list is as endless as the possibilities).

4. Scientists can be religious.

There’s a huge trope out there that says all scientists are jaded atheists who hate God.

But the truth is that about half of scientists observe some kind of religion, and more than 2/3 of them believe religion can be important to society. (I quoted this in “Scientific Misconceptions and Misrepresentations in Writing” from a 2005 survey)

And that religion can be anything.There are lots of Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic scientists, just to name a few. I myself am Christian, and what I see as a scientist strengthens my faith in God.

5. Not all scientists work in labs.

Scientists can have jobs all over the place. They may be consultants or writers. They may be salespeople or technicians for instruments and equipment. They may not focus on bench science (in the lab) but rather work outside in nature.

We’re everywhere. (insert cackling here)

I wish writers would stop writing these tropes:

  1. Evil scientists, of any kind. If you’re really uncertain what I mean, go back to that article above.
  2. Scientists who are master of all fields (omniscientists). We specialize. Like, a lot.
  3. Only male scientists. I want to see some women! There are a bunch of us. Why are there only ever nerdy, geeky, awkward (or evil) white men???
  4. Scientists as nothing but geeks. Again, they have so many varied interests. Why make them into a cardboard character?
  5. Scientists who always wear a lab coat. Again, they do tons of jobs outside the lab. Also, we generally aren’t supposed to wear our lab coats outside the lab. It’s a health and safety hazard.

Obviously, these are only a few of the tropes I hate… and there is also so much more you could learn about scientists in their natural environments. XD

If you are writing a story involving scientists or science of any kind, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND you seek a scientist beta reader or consultant. You can again check out my previous links when I discussed why plausibility in scientific writing is important, but also remember, again, that scientists are people. And in this day where science is becoming mistrusted, it’s important not to spread fear and misinformation about a profession that only wants to advance our knowledge and ability to care for ourselves.

If you need a biologist, I actually do consult with writers about biology and the life of an industry scientist! I’m here to answer your questions and talk the science of life. Check out my Services page for more info, or you can Contact Me.

And now to you. What science tropes do you love? What ones do you hate? Tell me in the comments!