‘Does anyone in this house know of any interesting scientists that I can write about in my science assignment?’ my niece yells from her bedroom. I bet you do, don’t you, she says to me, as she comes out of her room and sees me working on my slides for a conference presentation.
What would make a scientist interesting for a 12-year-old girl, I wonder? Who could attract her interest away from TikTok and maybe even inspire her a little? That’s when I thought about a recent winner of those absurd Nobel Prizes celebrating individualism: Carolyn Bertozzi!
When I read about Bertozzi a few weeks ago, I realized that she is only the 59th woman to win the prize versus more than 800 men. I was fascinated to read about her work investigating the sugars in our cells, which apparently has transformed our understanding of how the human body functions on a molecular level, and which is important in treating diseases. But because that is how far my understanding of organic chemistry goes, I turned my attention to a video of her, surrounded by her team, talking about the importance of diversity in science, gender, and mentoring of early-career researchers.
I share this video with my niece. Bertozzi is casually dressed in a white shirt and relaxed pants and she is wearing sunglasses. My niece notices that she is wearing the same running shoes as me and gets excited. ‘She doesn’t look like a scientist’, she says. We started reading more stories together. And with every new story, we get more and more interested.
Bertozzi is not only a woman in science; she is a musician, she is a lesbian, and she is a parent. Okay, Bertozzi, what haven’t you done?
Bertozzi has her roots in Italy, she studied in the US, she was in a metal band called Bored of Education and she has three sons with her wife. Yes, Bertozzi is not only a woman in science; she is a musician, she is a lesbian, and she is a parent. Okay, Bertozzi, what haven’t you done?
She is also an avid weightlifter. My niece and I are yawning over the thought of lifting weirdly-shaped objects, so we switch back to academic stories. Bertozzi won several awards throughout her career because of her innovative courses that integrate biology and chemistry, the use of storytelling, and also her engagement in science outreach and communication.
I’m sorry, what kind of a scientist is this?
My fifteen years of experience in academia as someone who is more often than not defined as ‘international staff’, ‘woman in science’, ‘too young to be a professor’, and ‘too interdisciplinary’, tells me that this is the kind of scientist that usually goes unrecognized throughout their career: the unlikely ‘poster academics’, the ones who usually go out of their way to be the best mentors possible, the ones who make time to engage with the public, who actually prepare for teaching, who have to work extra hard to prove their science because their identities are perceived as out-of-place in science.
Bertozzi is a rock-star scientist that embodies diversity like no other Nobel prize winner and reminds us that another science is possible. My niece’s assignment is bursting with sugar and hope, and so am I as I hear her say: ‘Bertozzi is super cool! Do you think she would agree to feature in one of my TikTok videos?’