Academic research is most often represented in abstract depersonalised formats, such as written articles and books, tables of evidence, infographics etc. Whereas these media have developed to convey information, they are less well suited to developing trust in readers outside of academic circles. In this post, Becky Carmichael explores the effects personalising research, by showing the faces of researchers, has on public perception of researchers and the work that they undertake.

Selfies – don’t just capture an in-the-moment experience. For scientists, taking and sharing selfies has the potential to dissolve stereotypes.

One stereotype in particular that plagues scientists, is that of the ‘mad scientist’, a caricature of Albert Einstein – an old, white, man in a lab coat, intelligent, but also awkward, aloof, alone. This stereotype may seem innocuous, but it can also be harmful, as it sets scientists and science apart from society, limiting both public understanding and trust in science.

Trust in part depends on how an individual’s or social group’s characteristics of competence and warmth are perceived. Perceptions of competence involve the belief that members of a particular social group are intelligent and have the skills to achieve their goals. Perceptions of warmth involve the belief that the members of this group also have benevolent goals, or that they are friendly, altruistic, honest and share common values. One way of understanding group stereotypes is by considering how they fit within these axes of competence and warmth.

Images from #ScientistsWhoSelfie

As the social psychologist Susan Fiske argues; “Scientists are famously competent—people report we’re smart, curious, lab nerds—but they’re silent about scientists’ more human qualities.” However, as Fiske goes on to show, Scientists’ perceived warmth is on par with that of retail workers, bus drivers, and construction workers and far below that of highly trusted figures, such as doctors, nurses, and teachers. Herein lies a dilemma for scientists, as the opportunities for demonstrating warmth collide with research practices that are not public facing.

Inspired by Fiske’s research and our own use with social media for science communication, in our recent paper, me and my colleagues; Imogene Cancellare (@biologistimogene), Paige Brown Jarreau (@scicommnerd), Lance Porter (@lanceporter), Daniel Toker (@the_brain_scientist), Samantha Yammime (@ScienceSam), wanted to find out if scientists engaging in social media, such as through sharing selfies of scientists immersed in their research, could find new ways of showing warmth and developing public trust.

So do selfies, or self-portraits, change people’s stereotypes of scientists? We hypothesized that images of diverse, friendly scientists providing a glimpse of their everyday work may help change the stereotype that scientists are competent but not warm.

Because the nature of the study was about perceptions of scientists, we sought community support using the crowdfunding site and promoted the study using the now popular hashtag, #ScientistsWhoSelfie. The response was incredible! The scientific community was quickly abuzz using #ScientistsWhoSelfie, with over 13k posts today of scientists across many disciplines contributing images of what science is in their area. The campaign raised more than $10,000, with 147 backers. It was clear we were not alone in wanting to understand how science was perceived and if our actions on social media had an influence.

With the help of a few dozen scientists from around the world, we developed a series of images for the project. The idea was to show research participants images published to one of four different “Scientists of Instagram” rotation-curation accounts and then to ask them questions about their perceptions of the scientists represented in these images and scientists in general.

A total of 1,620 U.S.-representative participants recruited online viewed images in an online survey. Each participant was shown one of three types of images:

1) a scientific setting or a piece of equipment, such as a microscope, a bioreactor on the lab bench or a plant experiment set-up in a greenhouse with no humans in any of the images, but with captions attributing the images to either male or female scientists by name;

2) a smiling male scientist looking at the camera in the same scientific setting;

3) a smiling female scientist looking at the camera in the same scientific setting.

Infographic created by J. Burgess for Using selfies to challenge public stereotypes of scientists

The presence of a face mattered. People who saw images including a scientist’s smiling face – or scientist “selfies” – evaluated the scientists they saw and scientists in general as significantly warmer than participants who saw control images, or images of scientific environments or equipment that did not contain a human element. This perception of scientists as warm, was especially prominent among people who saw images featuring a female scientist’s face. Female scientists in selfies were evaluated as significantly warmer (and also more attractive – see our paper for discussion on that front) than male scientists in selfies or scientists who had taken science-only images. There was also a slight increase in the perceived competence of female scientists in selfies. Competence cues such as lab coats and equipment likely played a role in preserving the perceived competence of scientists in selfies.

Not only are our findings positive for addressing problematic stereotypes about scientists, they are also encouraging with regards to the broader implications to outreach and education. The popularity of the #ScientistsWhoSelfie hashtag garnered widespread involvement from scientists and demonstrated how truly diverse science is. The images did more than tell interesting stories about researchers, they captured who was asking the questions. And it was both the who and what that attracted numerous educators to follow and participate using the hashtag.

The #ScientistsWhoSelfie hashtag continues to promote interaction among scientists, educators and the broader public. At the university level, students can engage the community with which they aspire to belong. #ScientistsWhoSelfie helped foster connections between learners and scientists. University faculty at Louisiana State University have encouraged their biology lab students to record the progress of classroom experiments on Instagram. Using a course hashtag, peers can track the stages of their classmates’ work and students begin to network with the broader science community. It’s such connections that foster open learning communities in which broader audiences could get to know the friendly, sociable, fun and relatable scientist. From feeding curiosity of elementary students to engaging college students to participate in the research process, social media channels like Instagram provide opportunity for learning.

When a scientist takes a selfie, problematic stereotypes have the potential to dissolve because the scientist connects with the viewer, sharing insight into their research, exposing triumphs and failures. Simultaneously, scientists are connecting with others and it’s this interaction among different communities that continues to drive science discovery. By including themselves in a photo, a scientist who selfies may dismantle problematic stereotypes, engage citizens in conversations about research, and inspire future generations to pursue scientific endeavors.

So how can scientists work to dismantle unfavourable stereotypes? With selfies.


This post draws on the author’s co-authored article, Using selfies to challenge public stereotypes of scientists published in PLoS ONE

About the author

Becky J. Carmichael is the science coordinator with Louisiana State University Communication across the Curriculum and focuses on science communication development and pedagogy in higher education. She teaches in the LSU Ogden Honors College and the College of Science, where she regularly employs innovative, communication-intensive teaching strategies to engage students in contemporary science issues and supports faculty in designing course content that emphasizes discipline-specific communication skills. Becky serves as a Wiki Education faculty ambassador and TEDxLSU speaker coach. She is the host and producer of LSU Experimental, a student-driven podcast series showcasing exciting research and the personal stories of individuals posing the questions.You can connect with Becky on Instagram @beakerbjc and on Twitter @bcarmi1


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Featured Image Credit, NASA via Unsplash (Licensed under a CC0 1.0 licence)



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