Letters to a Pre-Scientist: Promoting Scientific Careers to Kids

If you are a scientist, what made you become one? Did you know a scientist before you started to study? Did you know what life as a scientist would be like? Answering these questions for aspiring kids is the goal of the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program, which I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of for the last six months.

Many kids from non-academic families don’t know much about scientists and often never meet one in person. Their perception of a scientist is based on what they’ve seen in movies or other popular media, and we all know those are very seldom accurately showing what a scientist’s life is really like. I recently visited a friend whose 6-year old child was really excited when I told him that I’m a scientist, and immediately began telling all his friends in school that he met a “mad scientist” (again, not a stirring endorsement of the media’s portrayal of scientists).*

In many countries, your social background can often determine your exposure to what science really is, with kids from working-class families being less likely to become academics than those from academic families. It’s easy to blame this on broken educational systems, but this is also the case in countries like Germany where education is free. Part of the problem is that these kids don’t know much about scientists. That constant portrayal of the scientist as the lab-coat wearing, clipboard toting genius (traditionally more often than not a white male) makes the profession seems somewhat unattainable. As a result, kids don’t consider this opportunity for themselves, and often stick to a profession they know more about because they’ve been more exposed to it through family or other more familiar facets of society.

It’s one of the reasons that I and a few of my colleagues signed up for the “Letters to a Pre-Scientist” program last year. The program is essentially a pen-pal system between scientists like myself and kids, especially those from low-income families. Teachers at lower-income schools sign up the whole class for the program and every kid in that class is then matched with a real scientist. They write each other four letters over the course of a whole year, with every round of letters dealing with a specific topic like professional obstacles or the scientist’s career. The kids then get to discuss their letters in class and get to know a lot about different science careers and what life as a scientist is really like.

Letter opening is a big event for the kids (Image Credit: Pre-Scientist, Inc, CC BY 2.0)

Letter opening is a big event for the kids (Image Credit: Pre-Scientist, Inc, CC BY 2.0)

I’m pretty sure most scientists decided to become one not because we love to write grant proposals or grade student reports, but because we were curious about the world. We like to understand how it’s working and maybe figure something out that can improve it. The opportunity to transmit some of that excitement to others and make them realise that a career as a scientist is completely attainable is a valuable one.

I joined the “Letters to a Pre-Scientist” program last year, and it’s been a great experience so far. I’m a big fan of letter-writing, and it feels quite nice to open and read a handwritten letter. And it’s really great to share my excitement for my work with someone and get them interested in what I’m doing.

It’s also a chance for self-reflection. In the most recent round of letters, we had to write about obstacles. When writing about it, I realized what I already managed to accomplish and how far I’ve come from when I started out as a Master’s student. An earlier letter about why I decided to become a scientist helped me to remind myself of why this chosen path is important to me. It’s something we sometimes forget when our research or work is not going well. So I think these letters help both the kids and the scientists a lot.

I think this is a great program and I hope it will expand so more kids can profit from it. So far, it’s only in US schools, but scientists from all over the world can (and do!) participate. If you’re interested in taking part in the program, check out their website, linked below. Registration is open July-August.

Letters to a Pre-Scientist

* I at least hope he used the phrase “mad scientist” just because that’s how scientists are often depicted in movies and not because he thinks I’m mad (I’m sure this is the case I mean I’d definitely know if I was mad, right?).

Vanessia Bieker is a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. She studies Ambrosia artemisiifolia, an annual weed that is native to North America and became invasive upon introduction to Europe. She uses historic herbarium samples and modern samples from the native as well as the invasive range to study changes over time. Check out her previous articles at her Ecology for the Masses profile.

Title Image Credit: Pre-Scientist, Inc, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

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