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'Marvels Snapshot' tackles underrepresentation in science

Comic Books

‘Marvels Snapshot’ tackles underrepresentation in science

It doesn’t take a Madbomb to hurt the chances of minorities and women in STEM fields.

Everybody has it tough.  Especially now. But for some people, it’s worse than it is for others.

Knowing that, Steve Rogers admitted he hadn’t done enough for mutants in Avengers vs. X-Men. In the recently released Captain America: Marvels Snapshot #1, he learned the same about the inner city.

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Marvels Snapshot is a series of one-shots looking at major events in Marvel Universe history through the eyes of ordinary citizens, in the proud tradition of the original, game-changing 1994 Marvels mini-series by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross. Busiek “curates” these new installments, with Ross providing covers, so new creators can try their hands at the actual stories.

The Captain America issue, written by Mark Russell and drawn by Ramón Pérez, tackles the 1976 “Madbomb” arc of his eponymous series, which was created almost solely from the mind and pencil of the King himself, Jack Kirby. In it, the nefarious scientists/engineers of Advanced Idea Mechanics concoct a device that will enrage everyone within the explosive’s blast radius, for … reasons. When it goes off, much of New York City is at each others’ throats, as are Cap and his regular partner, the Falcon.

After the horror, the superhero community helps rebuild the city, but as seen in Marvels Snapshot, not all parts of it. Definitely not the South Bronx, where teen tech wiz Felix Waterhouse has his college dreams shattered when repairs to the family business eat up his tuition fund. In the real world, inability to pay and other factors continue to contribute to minority and female underrepresentation in STEM fields.

'Marvels Snapshot' tackles underrepresentation in science

Marvel Comics

Of course, scholarships do exist, so it would be nice to think college attendance is truly based on merit, at least on the highest intellectual levels. But it’s also based on grades, and if Felix has to worry about helping to keep the family business afloat (along with other neighborhood perils), will he excel as much as classmates and peers throughout the country who don’t have those hurdles? Beyond that, accumulating research suggests poverty itself inhibits brain development, hindering memory, planning, and decision-making abilities from the jump. Killmonger truly was a superhuman to make it to MIT.

And it’s harder to believe you can overcome those obstacles if you don’t see any evidence of it. “You can’t be it if you don’t see it” is a popular slogan, one that’s admittedly reductive and maybe a little disrespectful to those who have blazed trails, but it rings surprisingly true in practice. Virgin Islands-born microbiologist Odaelys Walwyn-Pollard told the 2019 NECSS conference that a group of young black girls “literally had tears in their eyes” when they met her, as being a scientist had never seemed possible before. Latasha Wright of the mobile SciComm laboratory, the BioBus, often has girls exclaim, “Scientists can wear dresses?!” when they see her.

'Marvels Snapshot' tackles underrepresentation in science

Marvel Comics

So yeah, it’s not always great for women, either. There’s a longstanding assumption that women and girls just aren’t “as good” at math and science as men and boys, but decades of research simply don’t back that up. If anything, the causal relationship seems to go the opposite way, as girls being discouraged from taking higher science classes may actually lead to real disparities. At the university level, much of the old guard (consciously or unconsciously) still sees science as a “boys club,” and studies show more women excel in and STAY in engineering majors when they have a female mentor.

Such underrepresentation doesn’t just affect the individuals who can’t find their way in; it affects all of us. Seat belts still injure proportionately more women than men, because designers, who tend to be male, rarely use female analogous dummies during testing. Most children born in America today are not white, and, needles to say, half of them are girls. If most of tomorrow’s workforce has more difficult access to STEM fields than they should, would the U.S. inevitably cede its position as a top, global innovator?

marvels snapshot aim offer

Marvel Comics

But then, even having an advanced scientific degree doesn’t guarantee a level of success that would let a person automatically reject a lucrative yet morally iffy offer from AIM. A master’s degree will usually do you good in the private sector — many of my geology and geophysics colleagues ended up working for oil companies, and you can make your own moral judgments on that — but PhDs in America have largely been left in the lurch. Many are forced into capriciously maintained and offensively underpaid adjunct positions at universities, and those who do try to get into industry, astoundingly, often find their degree to be a hiring detriment.

So maybe more scientists aren’t what we need, after all. Maybe college isn’t right for everyone. With the advent of smart homes and driverless cars, coders may become the most important tradespeople of the 21st century. Felix Waterhouse would fit right in at South Bronx Middle School M.S. 223, where software engineering is a core class starting at sixth grade. Captain America said it himself at the end of his Marvels Snapshot — “A broken world doesn’t need heroes … so much as it needs repairmen.”

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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