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'Picture a Scientist’ director Sharon Shattuck wants you to know you're not alone

The stories captured in Picture a Scientist are shocking, but they are hardly exceptional

The 2020 documentary Picture a Scientist, co-directed by Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck tells the stories of biologist Nancy Hopkins, chemist Raychelle Burks, and geologist Jane Willenbring, three female scientists who’ve endured a form of abuse that is far more common in science than most care to admit. From the film’s opening moments, viewers are thrust into powerless observation, reliving stories of abuse along with their survivors.

But it’s not only startling, headlining-grabbing tales that emerge. Throughout the doc, a pervasive, everyday power vacuum is revealed — one that has long been dismissed and rationalized away by the mostly male scientific and academic leadership. 

Picture a Scientist is now streaming on PBS, and will soon be available on Netflix. Before the widespread release, Massive spoke to Shattuck about the goal of her film and the resolve she hopes it will instill in her audience.

Jerard Fagerberg: Academic science is a small and isolated world. How do you think the movie has translated to folks who are totally unfamiliar with the way that academia works?

Sharon Shattuck: I do think it resonates more with people who are scientists or who know scientists. I've screened it for friends, I did test screenings with a bunch of filmmakers, and they loved it, because they were like, “There's so much here, that's so universal for our experience.” There are a lot of parallels, unfortunately. 

You draw that parallel right away to gender inequality in pop culture in corporate America.

To be honest, when we were fundraising for the movie, it was hard. It was a hard sell for film funders, although we did get some. We got a grant from Sundance, which was amazing, but I think a lot of them were like, “We've already heard these Me Too stories, there's already a Harvey Weinstein doc.” There was a fundamental disconnect.

Science is really unique because people say that they're unbiased, and that it's this meritocracy. So there's this weird irony in the middle of science, and that's kind of what the film is about. It's different than business. And that was something that was really hard to communicate to people who didn't understand science.

The documentary opens on one scientist that I think most people know, Francis Crick. It's a way for people to kind of come into the environment and understand it.

That story about [Francis Crick sexually harassing Nancy Hopkins] is just crazy. It was so shocking to me, too. I knew about it before the interview with Nancy, and I wasn't sure if she was willing to talk about it. I had to broach it very tenderly.

MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins looking into a water tank

MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, who led a movement for change for women within academia, is featured in the new independent film Picture a Scientist

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She’s so matter-of-fact about it, and that's part of the tragedy.

She's also kind of laughing in a way where it’s almost like she's embarrassed, which is heartbreaking. She talks about how she didn't want James Watson to be embarrassed, and she didn't want Francis Crick to be embarrassed. She's already putting everybody else ahead of her.

You have a degree in forest ecology, and you've worked as a botanist and a field researcher. How did you find this story?

People sometimes ask me, “Did you have an experience like the women in the film?” and I didn't. I had actually a few male mentors that were really supportive of me. So, I can't say that I had that experience, although I do think it's a universal experience for women in college, when you like, look up the ranks, you're like, “Huh, like, all the people in charge pretty much are white men.” That's something that I noticed, but I didn't feel unwelcome.

My colleague Ian Cheney and I, we do a lot of science films, and it's just harder to cast women scientists, and harder to cast women of color, especially Black women. There just aren't as many as there are white men. If I was just going to put a blindfold on and throw darts at a board, the odds of finding a man who's a specialist in this field is higher.

A headshot of Sharon Shattuck, co-director of "Picture a Scientist"

Sharon Shattuck, co-director of "Picture a Scientist"

Courtesy of Sharon Shattuck

Something that was brought to our attention was Amy Brand, who's the [Director and Publisher] of the MIT Press, she told us, “You should look into the story about Nancy Hopkins and what she did at MIT.” We'd never heard of Nancy. Ian, when he was looking into it, was like, “This is a story about women in science, I definitely need a woman co director.” So, he brought me in. That's how the project started 

From there, you go outside life sciences, outside the actual academy, into field research in earth science and chemistry, and you also intersect with race. How did you find those other stories to expand the film? 

We talked to a lot of people, did a ton of off-the-record interviews with people, and we heard a lot of stories. They were sad and hard to hear. A lot of women were like, “I don't want this to be on the record.” For a long time, we were like, “Shit, like, what are we going to do?” This is obviously an issue, and everybody's sort of talking about behind the scenes, but nobody wants to say it out loud on the record.

Chemist Raychelle Burks examines a sample while working in a lab

Raychelle Burks, a chemist at American University, discusses gender bias and racial discrimination in the in the new independent film Picture a Scientist

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I started doing research into people who have talked about this stuff already, and [Jane Willenbring] came up because there was an article in Science about her story with David Marchant, and it hadn't been resolved yet. He hadn't been fired, it was still sort of in process. So, when we interviewed Jane, she was still waiting to hear what was going to happen with her Title IX. We found Raychelle because she's really active on Twitter, and she's very engaged with young people. We just thought, “She's really engaging, and she's also very honest and frank, she'll just talk about whatever she wants to say.”

How does it feel for you to be able to tell these people's story?

We are honored that they trusted us with their stories, we really are. It's hard to let somebody else tell your story. And you never know how it's going to turn out. All the women are getting positive feedback, although they're also getting trolls.

Unfortunately, this is also indicative of everything that's in the movie. I think Raychelle is getting a lot of blowback. She's been getting personal messages from trolls. Nova posted a clip of Raychelle, and we had to turn the comments off. Jane, back when she was at Scripps, she showed up at her office one day, and the word “cunt” was scrawled on her door. 

This comes after JAMA had this reprehensible podcast about how science can't be racist because it's an unbiased institution, which is exactly what this movie exists to combat.

We didn't want to bore people with the amount of data that there is, but there's so much data, right now, on racism and science and gender discrimination. For some people, there is this argument, “Oh, there's this biological difference between males and females,” and there is some truth to that. We don't know the extent of that biological difference, but the research that we've read so far, there really isn't much of a difference at all. If that's not the reason why there's only 25% women in STEM fields, it's probably culture. So, let's focus on the thing that's contributing the most to this discrepancy.

How do you want people to leave this film? 

I hope that they acknowledge that this is a real problem. It's not just a figment or some unlucky thing that these women are facing. And I do hope that people who watch it can take away, “Oh, hey, I'm not alone, this experience isn't just because of me.” You can find others and a support network. I think a lot of it comes from the top, like you see it with Bob Brown and Boston University. When you have people in power who understand the problem, they're just more effective at changing culture, so I’m hoping that people in the upper echelons will watch the film and be inspired.