[this post first appeared on the Science Grrl blog]
“If you love [BLANK], then you’d love my job”
If someone asked you to fill in the blank in this question, what would you say? What one word or phrase could possibly capture the essence of a career in science and – simultaneously – capture the imagination of a nine year old child?
It’s the kind of question that makes my mind empty immediately. But Fiona Gill, a chemical palaeontologist from the University of Leeds, paused only momentarily before answering. Firmly, clearly, and with her face breaking into a huge grin she said,
“If you love POO, then you’ll love my job”
Thirty seconds later, we were all doubled over with laughter. The giant concrete Iguanadon behind us looked rather unimpressed, but then he’s looked that way -come rain or shine – for nearly 160 years.
Fiona – who analyses fossil poo to work out what extinct animals were eating – was one of eight palaeontologiststs that TrowelBlazers had brought to Crystal Palace’s Dinosaur Island on the 12th September 2013 to be interviewed by Catherine Bennett, the palaeo-popstar creation of performance artist and comedian Bryony Kimmings. All of the questions in the interviews came from 9 year-olds. Our answers would be filmed and shown in schools up and down the UK. This was our contribution to the Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model Project.
“When you were 9 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
I wanted to write stories; Xiaoya Ma wanted to be a dancer or an actress; Lucy McCobb wanted to be a vet. Anjali Goswami wanted to work with tigers (and she actually did for a while!). Only one of us, Susie Maidment, wanted to be a palaeontologist, and that was because someone – her Granddad – had told her that she could be, that this was possible.
The Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model Project is about opening up possibilities like this for children everywhere. It is a direct challenge to the sexualisation and commodification of childhood for profit. Its aim? To fight back against a world where little girls – and little boys – are sold a sorry story of female achievement. A world where success means fame and fame, for women, more often than not means sexual objectification. A world where Disney princesses grow up into pop sex sirens.
Susie Maidment being filmed saying that dinosaurs probably tasted like chicken or duck. And that the pterosaurs behind her aren’t dinosaurs. Photo credit: Victoria Herridge.
Bryony asked her 9-year old niece Taylor to help her invent an alternative, and Taylor’s brief was pretty awesome: a tuna-pasta eating, bike-riding popstar with very curly hair, whose songs – about changing the world, rather than love and lust – sounded like a cross between the Gorillaz and the B-52s.
Oh, and Taylor had another requirement – this popstar worked in a museum with dinosaurs.
Catherine Bennett, popstar palaeontologist, was born.
“What would you say if someone told you girls can’t do your job?”
Sometimes showing is better than telling. No, scratch that. Showing beats telling hands-down, all the time. Bryony Kimmings wanted children to understand that people like Catherine Bennett really do exist, and that working in a museum with dinosaurs was something that they really could grow up to do whether they were a boy or a girl, and regardless of their background.
Lucy McCobb shows off her golden trilobite! Photo credit: Victoria Herridge
This is an issue close to our heart at TrowelBlazers, and so we brought together a crack-team of palaeontologists who were also great communicators, to be filmed with Catherine Bennett and show the joy and fun and diversity a career in science can bring. Because the simple answer to anyone who says a girl can’t do this job is, “You. Are. Wrong. And we have the evidence to prove it.”
Like TrowelBlazers, Catherine Bennett was born of a desire to reset imaginations. It’s about challenging the mainstream narratives of women’s lives that innevitably shape our own aspirations, and the aspirations and expectations of our children. Projects like the Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, or TrowelBlazers, or ScienceGrrl won’t change the world all on their own, but no single project has to; everyone has their part to play.
“Just talk. Just be yourselves”
Towards the end of the day of filming on Dinosaur Island, Rebecca-the-director asked all of us to gather together and just talk to each other about our work, and our lives, so that she could film us behaving naturally.
Cue awkward silence.
Xioya Ma and Anjali Goswami, plus three dinosaurs. Only two of which are scientifically accurate. Photo Credit: Victoria Herridge.
Then, quite suddenly, the camera was forgotten. At the foot of a concrete iguanadon, as school-kids watched from across the lake, eight scientists laughed and shouted and debated, and the conversation flew from 1m-tall dwarf elephants to 2m-long giant millipedes, de-extinction to dinosaurs.
And looking around the group of women and men assembled, who had come from across the UK to do this simply because they cared about the next generation of palaeontologists, I felt quite extraordinarily hopeful. Gender stats in science are bad; those for ethnic diversity and socio-economic background are far worse. And yet there is such a will to change things – we just need to harness it.
Catherine Bennett (@RealCB)’s music videos are here (they’re catchy!)
Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model (Winner, Fringe First Award 2013) will be on at the Soho Theatre 8th-26th October. Book tickets here.
With huge thanks to Bryony, film team Rebecca Brand and Daniella Cesarei, thePalaeontological Association, and Stephen Tickner from Bromley Council for making all this possible.
Top photo: Palaeontologists assemble on Dinosaur Island. Left to right: Susannah Maidment (Imperial College London), with Amber; Fiona Gill (U. Leeds); Liam Herringshaw (U. Durham); Anjali Goswami (UCL); Lucy McCobb (National Museum of Wales); David Legg (Oxford University); Xiaoya Ma (Natural History Museum, London); Victoria Herridge (TrowelBlazers) and Catherine Bennett. Photo credit: Daniella Cesarei