Sexing Up Scientists

What Women Really Think
June 11 2009 3:58 PM

Sexing Up Scientists

Scientists are not famed for their looks or fashion sense. Personally, I love this about science. I work that "get out of performing femininity free!" card for all it's worth, slouching about in science-themed t-shirts and ratty sneakers as often as I can. But if I want to get in on this next phase of science marketing, apparently I'm going to have to trade the " Evolution Kills " t-shirt for something more befitting a rock star. There's a movement afoot to sex up science and scientists, and it's got big advertising dollars behind it.

This month's GQ has a four-page spread on the " Rock Stars of Science ." Sponsored by the philanthropic arm of clothing company Geoffrey Beene, the promotion advocates for increased biomedical research funding by showing famous-in-scienceland scientists rocking out with slightly has-been rock stars. A rather aged Joe Perry gets down with sunglasses-clad geneticist Francis Collins. Josh Groban is in a "genius sandwich" between Alzheimer researchers Jeffrey Cummings and Dale Schenk. Though anyone who has been to a scientific meeting knows that the middle-aged white guys in ties can dominate the dance floor (especially after happy hour), will this campaign make people think that biomedical research is glamourous? The GQ spread did feature some of the nation's most renowned scientists, but I think the science-is-sexy quotient would have been increased if they had included a few younger, female, and/or non-white scientists. Particularly since ( as Chris Mooney points out in his Science Progess column), so many of us have fabulous science-themed tattoos.

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Another advertisement featuring scientists ups the glamor quotient in the service of high-end retail. D iscover Magazine' s Science Not Fiction blog found astronausts Sally Ride, Buzz Aldrin, and Jim Lovell in a Louis Vuitton handbag ad . The "Icare" handbag is presumably meant to invoke Icarus, which is unfortunate both because it sounds like an Apple accessory and because Icarus plummeted precipitously from the heavens. Nonetheless, it's amazing that Louis Vuitton thinks that grey-haired astronauts are glamorous enough to sell a $1500 handbag, and I'm all for these genuine national heroes getting in on a little celebrity-sponsorship money.

But scientists don't need big companies to look good. In popular science competititon all over the world, regular non-glammed-up scientists are bringing red-hot science to the masses. Europeans have FameLab, an American Idol -style show in which scientists compete to see who can give the best popular talk. International FameLab concluded this week , with Serbian molecular biologist Mirko Djordjevic triumphing by explaining sexual selection with the Bloodhound Gang song " The Bad Touch. " Though I cry a thousand tears for lack of a FameLab competition in the United States, American scientists can achieve minor fame (and zero fortune) through the traveling science talk/rock show combo Nerd Nite and the American Association for Advancement of Science's Science Dance Contest .

It's great to see scientists as being a bit glamorous, but I would hate for science communication to revolve too much around whether one can fit into a size 2 lab coat. Trading content for sexiness can be a slippery slope - just ask some TV new anchors. But since most people still see scientists as white guys with test tubes, I think scientists can do a lot more rocking out before worrying that we're too sexy for our labs.