When you close your eyes and picture a scientist, what comes to mind? Olivia Pavco-Giaccia, a 19-year-old sophomore at Yale University, knows your answer. It’s probably an “older man, maybe some crazy hair, a white lab coat, some plastic goggles,” she says. Right?
Ever since she was a child, Pavco-Giaccia has understood well the stereotype of the scientist. In grade school, she loved the science lab, the precise measurements, the elegant connections between the parts of the body or of a plant, the cause and effect of experiments. But when she thought about the traditionally male, geeky, socially maladroit scientist paradigm — and, after all, most scientists think in terms of paradigms — she felt a little put off. “There’s not a whole lot in that image that a young girl can relate to,” laments Pavco-Giaccia, a major in cognitive science.
Enter a hot glue gun and some rhinestones, and before you could say “Golgi apparatus” Pavco-Giaccia had transformed the geeky profile: She took the frumpiest part of the scientist’s uniform — the plastic lab goggles — and decked them out with rhinestones, creating something truly eye-catching. The summer after her junior year in high school, while working in a neurobiology lab at Stanford University, she wrote a post about lab safety on her blog, LabCandy: A Girl’s Guide to Some Seriously Sweet Science, and accompanied it with a photo of herself wearing her sparkly bedazzled spectacles. Hundreds of girls from around the country — young women Pavco-Giaccia didn’t realize even followed her blog — responded excitedly. A movement was born.
The goal of LabCandy is to cultivate girls’ interest in science and to show them that the field has room for girls like them. By any measure, there’s a whole lot of room: Currently, women hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs (shorthand for science technology, engineering and math). Even at Yale, tenured male professors in the physical sciences departments outnumber their female counterparts by nearly 8-to-1. The reasons for the underrepresentation are many: a widely acknowledged institutional bias against female scientists, a lack of mentorship and encouragement of young women scientists, and a general unwelcoming atmosphere in the lab toward females. A pair of pretty goggles may not resolve such social prejudices, but they might inspire young women to consider a field that once seemed closed to them. “Of course you don’t need bedazzled lab goggles to be a scientist, but they made the experience fun for me and they might just help draw another girl in and let her see science as an option, too,” says Pavco-Giaccia.
To take LabCandy from hypothesis to thesis — that is, to get the idea to market — LabCandy needed an angel. Pavco-Giaccia found hers in the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI), a startup accelerator on campus. The grueling YEI application process required her to ponder over the details of what a bona fide LabCandy company would look like. How would she take her rhinestone goggles beyond mere accessory and make them a catalyst for girls to pursue science? Pavco-Giaccia had to create a business model, along with an analysis of her target audience and potential demand for her products (which also include books and funky lab coats). “There really isn’t anything out there right now like LabCandy,” says Pavco-Giaccia, acknowledging that many other companies and nonprofits are already paving the way in breaking down gender barriers in STEM. “The company that’s been in the news most recently is GoldieBlox” — whose made-for-girls engineering toys have won widespread praise. “It has really taken off, in large part, I believe, because [its] mission of getting girls more interested in STEM resonates with parents, teachers and business and government leaders. We hope that that resonance will help LabCandy and its mission succeed, too,” she says.
In the spring of her freshman year at Yale, Pavco-Giaccia won a fellowship at YEI — and the support she needed to hone her idea. Quickly, she realized that LabCandy needed an artist type to complement her scientist — and she knew the perfect person to recruit, May Li, her best friend since kindergarten and a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Together they brainstormed and came up with the “Candy Chicks”: a group of characters, each a female scientist with her own personality, sense of style, hobbies and goals. There’s Alexis, who loves pink and enjoys the camaraderie that comes from working in a lab with colleagues; and Zoe, who loves black, plays rock guitar in her spare time and relishes the interactions of different chemicals in the lab. The Candy Chicks star in their own storybooks, which show each of the girls going on adventures and using science to solve challenges that arise along the way; the books end with do-it-yourself science experiments designed for girls to do at home, while wearing the accessories — glamorous goggles and colorful lab coats — that come packaged with it.
For now, the books and accessories, aimed at girls from kindergarten-age to third grade, are still in the prototype phase. LabCandy is currently operating on funding from YEI, family and friends, while applying for other grants and planning a crowdfunding campaign this summer. Through the LabCandy blog, early excitement about the project appears to be taking root among girls, parents and science teachers.
There’s criticism too, of course. Pavco-Giaccia has already heard people say that LabCandy trivializes science and girls by responding to one stereotype — the nerdy, old male scientist — and replacing it with another: a frivolous girl who can only be tricked into engaging in serious issues with distractions like fashion. “That’s not what we’re saying at all,” Pavco-Giaccia says. “But I do think that there’s a real barrier in terms of letting girls think that science is an option. Sometimes science can look so scary and foreign from the outside that girls don’t even want to approach it. What we’re doing is making science more approachable and relatable. The goggles might get them there, but the science is what keeps them there.”
Pavco-Giaccia didn’t have jewel-encrusted eye gear when she attended the Potomac School in McLean, Va., but she had something vastly more important: strong female mentors. Mary Cahill, her sixth-grade science teacher, clearly loved her chosen field and conveyed her own excitement to her students. “Up until that point, all of my teachers had been male. I don’t know if I ever really consciously recognized that, but it was definitely a factor in my decision making,” Pavco-Giaccia recalls. “It made me feel that what they did was not something that I could do. But Ms. Cahill challenged me and she was enthusiastic, and suddenly science became not just a boy’s subject. It became my subject.”
Pavco-Giaccia still remembers the details of assignments from Ms. Cahill’s class. “She had a collection of sand from all these different beaches all over the world,” Pavco-Giaccia says, describing one of her favorite projects. “She would ask her old students to bring back sand from beaches they visited over vacation. We learned to use microscopes looking at all these different types of sand under the microscope. And we’d see how sand from all over the world looked different.”
Pavco-Giaccia continued to pursue hard science classes in high school at the Potomac School, under the guidance of her adviser, Denise Reitz. Ms. Reitz, also a science teacher, encouraged Pavco-Giaccia to apply for key summer internships, including those at a cancer lab at Georgetown University and in the Stanford lab of neuropharmocologist Dr. Bruce MacIver. The latter position became the unexpected catalyst for LabCandy, when Pavco-Giaccia’s blog post showing her custom goggles at the lab ignited the imaginations of other aspiring female scientists.
Pavco-Giaccia wants other young girls to feel the thrill she still experiences when she enters a lab, a feeling she first felt when she adopted a tree in Ms. Cahill’s class and observed and chronicled its changes over three months. Through LabCandy, Pavco-Giaccia hopes to make science not only accessible to girls, but fun and relatable too. She wants other young girls to see themselves reflected in the Candy Chicks, to defy the odds and get involved in science. “Throughout my whole science career, there just weren’t a lot of girls doing it,” Pavco-Giaccia says. “When I looked around at science fairs or camps, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me. It was a bit disorienting. And I love science, and I want to share it with other girls for them to love it too.”
When Pavco-Giaccia imagines future LabCandy consumers, she thinks of her cousin Ava, a precocious 6-year-old known to speak her mind. When Ava pulled on a pair of the prototype goggles, adjusting them to fit her head, she looked in the mirror, admired her reflection, then furrowed her brow. “Is this what a scientist looks like?” she asked her cousin.
“Yes,” Pavco-Giaccia said with a smile. “That is exactly what a scientist looks like.”
Update: April 7, 2014
On April 6, 2014, 18 girls from public middle schools in New Haven, Conn., joined the founder of LabCandy for an afternoon of science organized by Yale undergraduates Noah Remnick and Kate Wiener. With the support of NationSwell readers who donated to a Rally campaign, the event served as an on campus social action initiative to mobilize support around the LabCandy model for making science cool. Participants decorated lab goggles and learned from Yale science majors and Yale professor Laurie Santos at the planetarium.