Results of a draw-a-scientist test conducted among school students showed how the students—especially younger ones—perceive people from the professional field of chemistry: male, strange hair style, white coat, crazed look, and experimenting with dangerous and explosive chemicals in a chaotic chemistry lab. Students describe both physicists and chemists as smarter and more logical than themselves, but also as less sensitive, gentle, emotional, and romantic. These stereotypical views are mainly based on stereotypical representations of scientists in the media or by children’s toys. Like hardly any other series before, “The Big Bang Theory” has shaped the image of the science nerd.
However, image is an important factor, especially for career choices. Image factors can determine whether a high school graduate chooses a chemical profession or not. Young people tend to choose professions where their self-description and their ideas about typical representatives of the profession overlap. Together with the rather low numbers of trainees and first-year students in chemical occupations, this indicates an image problem.
Philipp Spitzer, University of Vienna, Austria, suggests providing information on chemical occupations in the classroom as a first step. According to students, such information has so far been rather rare. It would also be important to facilitate contacts with real chemists from different disciplines, so that children and young people develop less stereotypical ideas and more experience-based ones.
Philipp Spitzer thinks that we as chemists should definitely think about our image because it influences whether young people take up a chemical profession. At present, however, we leave image building to the media and popular television series. “Are chemists criminal drug producers with a fondness for explosives? Are they out-of-touch but somehow cute nerds? Or are they people like you and me with a special interest in chemistry? We should take control of how society thinks about us,” Spitzer says.