Press "Enter" to skip to content

Cosmic Dawn, Nitro, GeoTime—diverse South African scientists get superhero alter egos

Ask children around the world to draw a scientist and they’ll most likely sketch an older white man. Now, a new way to break down such stereotypes has emerged from South Africa, where Black people make up 80% of the population but Black researchers still constitute a minority of academics. Children in many communities rarely encounter a working scientist, says Justin Yarrow, founder of the educational nonprofit CodeMakers. “You ask them to name a scientist, and it’s [Albert] Einstein, or nobody,” he says.

Yarrow, whose organization teaches coding skills in low-income communities in Umlazi, South Africa, wanted to show the children he worked with a different face of science—one that looked more familiar and attainable. Two years ago, he set about creating a game played with a set of trading cards that depict real local scientists as Marvel Comics–style superheroes, hoping to stimulate children’s imagination and ambition. Super Scientists, as the project is called, has donated more than 15,000 trading cards, activity books, and other materials to schools, community centers, and clinics throughout Africa. The project has garnered social media attention as well as coverage on CNN and local media outlets. The second-largest source of the project’s website traffic, after South Africa, is the United States, where teachers have downloaded Super Scientist posters to hang in classrooms, Yarrow says. Most important, he adds, the cards seem to be popular with children themselves.

ScienceInsider spoke with Yarrow about the project’s origins and achievements. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What’s the goal of Super Scientists?

A: To reframe how young people think about scientists. We want to connect young people with scientists that look like them. In South Africa and in plenty of places, the demographics of established science don’t reflect the demographics of the country. We want to have young Black people see these amazing up-and-coming scientists.

Q: Why superheroes?

A: We wanted to show off the power of scientists—this idea of superpowers, whether it’s astronomers’ ability to see back in time, or biotechnologists’ ability to create new forms of life. Superpowers are a language that young people understand. [The scientists] are strong, fierce, no-nonsense—these are people that you don’t want to mess with, and that strength and that power is something that we wanted to convey. [University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, archaeologist] Keneiloe Molopyane, whose alter ego is Bones and superpower is the ability to read the stories of the dead, does this well, with an added dose of elegance.

Q: All superheroes have an origin story. What’s the origin story of Super Scientists?

A: There was a grocery store [promotion] based around trading cards of African animals and birds, and young people went crazy for this. I was teaching coding in a low-income school, and I tried to get the learners to engage more on science. We put up profiles of scientists on a bulletin board, and we had little quizzes and things like that, and frankly, it was a complete failure. [I started to think], how can we get kids to engage with science? How can we change the perception of what a scientist looks like?

Mpho Kgoadi, aka Cosmic Dawn, an astrophysics Ph.D. student at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, whose superpower is observing dark matter, the invisible material that makes up most of the universeClyde Beech for CodeMakers/Super Scientists

Q: How did you choose the 49 scientists now featured?

A: [We wanted] scientists in different fields, so we have paleoscientists, oceanographers, astronomers. But another component is making sure that the scientists are representative of the kids we work with. We’re trying to mirror the demographics of South Africa. Our most recent scientist, Mpho Kgoadi, aka Cosmic Dawn, is a disabled astrophysics Ph.D. student at the University of the Witwatersrand. We also are profiling scientists across South Africa, and from Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Rwanda, Zambia, and Botswana. South Africa is 80% Black and 8% white, [as are] the Super Scientists. I’m proud to say that they’re 65% women.

Q: Why trading cards?

A: Getting something into a young person’s hand is a key component for us. It’s not just something on a wall, it’s not something that flicks on a screen, it’s something that young people can play with. We have a built-in game in the cards, [for] play involved in learning about these characters. And the really great thing about a trading card is that they are quite inexpensive.

Q: Who’s your target audience?

A: Primarily young people in low-income communities, and in communities that haven’t seen scientists in this light. But I think [all] young people need to see Black scientists depicted this way. So we’re very happy for private schools to have these resources and have their kids think about scientists differently, too.

The Nitro Super Scientist card, based on Kolisa Sinyanya
Kolisa Sinyanya, aka Nitro, an oceanography Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town, who can see the ocean’s tiny phytoplanktonCodeMakers/Super Scientists

Q: What impact have you seen from the project so far?

A: I’m hoping to collaborate with educational researchers and do meaningful impact research. We’ve been on South African television and radio [and there are] anecdotal things that are really powerful. We’ve been to young people’s home where they’ve put these cards up on their wall. We’ve heard from a University of Cape Town oceanography Ph.D. student Kolisa Sinyanya—aka Nitro—that she’s received phone calls from people in tears, telling her how when they were growing up, they thought only white men could be scientists. Now, they have these materials that they can show to their kids that show that a Black woman can be an oceanographer, and it’s not just a cartoony image of that Black woman; it’s this powerful, strong image of a scientist.

Q: Any plans to branch out?

A: We would be happy to have Super Scientists be an international project. If people want to copy it, they should absolutely be in contact with us.

Source: Science Mag