Quick, what do you see in your mind’s eye when you hear the word “scientist?”
For many kids, research shows, the image is of a white male in a lab coat.
It can take exposure to someone of a different color or gender to change the perception of who can be a scientist and what he — or she — can do, said Lisa Whitenack, an associate professor of biology at Allegheny College who studies sharks.
“When you turn on ‘Shark Week,’ it’s almost all male. When you look on TV and in magazines, it’s predominately men,” Whitenack said. “If you’re not seeing yourself, that can be discouraging.”
Whitenack is one of 10 female shark scientists participating in “Shark Tales: Women Making Waves,” a symposium for high school and college-age women organized by the Gills Club. An education initiative of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, the Gills Club is “dedicated to connecting girls with female scientists from around the world” and promoting women in science.
Whitenack is the only scientist representing a liberal arts college at the symposium, which runs Tuesday through Wednesday at the New England Aquarium in Boston.
“It’s a huge honor, especially being at a liberal arts college,” she said. “I’m in amazing company with other women I admire and some wonderful up-and-coming shark scientists as well. It also speaks to (what) we do at Allegheny. We’re not small science. We do real science. Some people might think you have to be at big school or a big lab to do science that gets out there and makes a difference and contributes to the field. The fact that (the Gills Club) asked me to do this reflects well on Allegheny, too.”
Whitenack will participate in an “Ask Me Anything” question-and-answer session, dissect sharks with Boston-area students, and give a short talk about weird Paleozoic sharks.
Throughout the symposium, students will get a chance to learn about shark biology, shark brains, conservation efforts and more, Whitenack said. But the biggest message is one personified by the 10 women scientists and keynote speakers, she said.
“Women are here and we’re doing this and you can too.”
The symposium will be live-streamed on the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s Facebook page. Follow #SharkTales on Twitter to participate in “Ask Me Anything” sessions and to follow symposium events.
For more information about the Gills Club and “Shark Tales: Women Making Waves,” visit www.gillsclub.org.
Photo: Allegheny College Associate Professor of Biology Lisa Whitenack touches a Tyrannosaurus Rex jaw.