How Dana Scully Changed Science

This week we take a look at the Scully Effect, to see what kind of impact it's had on encouraging more people to enter STEM fields. It's had the largest impact on women in STEM, but strong role models in film and tv have an impact on *everyone's* career choices and changing the public perception of scientists. I hope you enjoy!

AIRED: November 01, 2018 | 0:06:27

Alright, I have a question for you.

So I want you to get ready, stretch your brain cells, here we go.

Can you name a living scientist?

If you said yes, you’re in the 19% of Americans who can.

Now, can you name a living, female scientist?

Can you?

You may not have heard of Elizabeth Blackburn or Lisa Harvey Smith or Mae Jemison, but I

bet you’ve heard of fictional character Dana Scully.

Now Scully was a role model.

Often fictional characters are cited as role models more than real life scientists because

we see them on our screens week after week, we connect with their story and we get a sense

of what their jobs are like.

Now Scully has been credited with what’s known in research and fandom as The Scully

Effect, where her strong-willed, intelligent character inspired a generation to pursue

careers in STEM.

A poll earlier this year found that "nearly two-thirds (63%) of women that work in STEM

say Dana Scully served as their role model" – wait… really?



Perhaps, but this is where I became a little skeptical because Scully herself would want

the cold, hard facts.

So, how strong is the Scully Effect are how important are role models to our success scientifically?

Now, role models show us who we can be.

They give us goals and a path to reach them.

And – one interesting thing I found when I was researching this video – there are

different types of role models.

The most useful are positive role models – think someone who looks like you, who has faced

similar struggles and who can you look up to.

But there are also “negative” role models, people who show you what not to do.

Like, I dunno, Justin Bieber after 2014.

While having a hero that looks like you isn’t necessary for success, it helps, especially

if you’re trying to advance in school or your career.

And if you can’t find a positive role model who comes from a similar background, it can

be harder to work around certain obstacles.

Take “stereotype threat” as an example.

Stereotype threat is like a self-fulfilling prophecy, where being afraid of conforming

to stereotypes about your social group can hinder your performance.

For example, if you tell a random group before a math test that girls have historically done

poorly, the girls in the group won’t do as well.

If you tell another random group that everyone usually does poorly, boys and girls will perform

about the same.

Luckily, having strong role models that look like us can help reduce this effect.

One study looked at what it called the “Obama Effect.”

Researchers gave a random selection of white and African American students verbal exams

on several different days.

Some days were right after some of Obama’s biggest accomplishments, like his convention

speech, and others were just random days.

The study found that when Obama made a splash in the news for his accomplishments, black

students performed significantly better.

Simply knowing that someone who looked like them was achieve great things was enough to

combat the stereotype threat.

Beyond that, role models in the media can inspire us to explore careers we hadn’t

previously considered.

Now I want everyone watching this to be able to pursue a wide range of career options and


But the reality is, women are significantly less likely than men to choose STEM majors,

they remain underrepresented in the number of bachelor’s degrees earned in STEM and

then in the workforce.

And it’s really important to me to see these number improve.

So, to come back to The Scully Effect.

One study showed that women who had watched 8 or more episodes of the show were 27% more

likely to study STEM in college, and 50% more likely to work in a STEM field than women

who’d seen fewer than 8 episodes.

Now, it could just be that girls interested in STEM were also more likely to be interested

in the X-files, but that doesn’t mean having Scully as a role model wasn’t helpful.

And there are many more female characters that have been identified as role models in

research – Temperance Brennan from Bones, Meredith Grey from Grey’s Anatomy, Amy Farrah

Fowler from Big Bang Theory, and Doc McStuffins from Doc McStuffins.

The Scully Effect it so ubiquitous because it really encompasses the positive impact

of all of these characters!

It also sounds a lot cooler than The Doc McStuffins Effect.

But… we need more Dana Scullys!

It’s so important to have strong STEM characters in films and television, but a recent study

found that only 37 percent of STEM character portrayals are female.

So look, I’m gonna say it, we need more Doc McStuffins.

Having representation in media can inspire lots of people to pursue careers in STEM,


just women.

And Joe segues perfectly into my last point – our parents are super important.

In one study that asked kids who their role models or heroes are, only about a third of

kids said their parents.

And I’m telling you, it should probably be higher.

In addition to having role models in the media, girls and women in particular are more likely

to pursue a career in STEM if they have teachers, friends and family members who encouraged

them to pursue STEM.

So, whether it’s Elizabeth Blackburn or Neil deGrasse Tyson or your Mum, it certainly

helps to have a hero to light the way.


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