Our Favorite On-Screen Women in STEM

February 28, 2012

What do Temperance “Bones” Brennan, Hermione Granger, and Abby Sciuto have in common? They’re all inspiring female characters who are science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals in movies or on TV. They serve as role models for girls who may have never considered a profession in those fields or for grown women who are having trouble navigating the “boys’ club” attitude that many STEM careers still maintain.

In 2011, the Entertainment Industries Council presented their inaugural Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) Awards commending the entertainment industry for its encouragement of STEM. That inspired me to ask our staff here at AAUW to submit their favorite women characters who can inspire a girl’s interest in STEM.

Here were some of our favorites:

Abby Sciuto

The forensic scientist on NCIS does database searches and DNA analysis without falling into the drab, dorky stereotype we often see scientists take in the media. Her quirky personality and gothic fashion sense make the forensics side of crime-scene investigations seem a lot cooler.

Temperance “Bones” Brennan

On Bones, she worked as a forensic anthropologist at the fictional Jeffersonian Institute in Washington, D.C., before she began consulting with the FBI when they needed her to identify murder victims.

Kari Byron

On the reality show MythBusters on Discovery Channel, little girls and grown women alike can love Byron for making STEM fun. Not only does she blow things up, but she can also explain how and why.

Hermione Granger

Harry Potter’s closest female ally, Granger was a master in her potions class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If she hadn’t been recruited for magical training, she may have been one of the best chemists that fictional Europe had ever seen.

Grace Augustine

In Avatar, she pulls samples from the trees of the alien planet Pandora and explains the biological neural network that connects the native people to their environment, all while running the Avatar program.

Ellie Arroway

Jodie Foster plays this character in 1997’s Contact. The sci-fi movie is largely based on Jill Tarter, who was the director of the most comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence, Project Phoenix. Tarter credits her inspiration to help women in STEM to an AAUW meeting she attended in the 1970s.


Sandy Cheeks, SpongeBob SquarePants

Camille Saroyan, Bones

Angela Montenegro, Bones

Ellie Sattler, Jurassic Park

Penelope Garcia, Criminal Minds

Susan Test and Mary Test, Johnny Test

Maddie Fenton, Danny Phantom

Megan Hunt, Body of Proof


According to a recent study by the Girl Scout Research Institute, of the 81 percent of girls who report interest in STEM careers, only 13 percent say it is their first choice. Our 2010 research report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics found that a girl’s perception about a gender-appropriate job can affect her career choice in the long run.

Media can be a massive influence on a child’s perceptions of the world. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that in 2009, the average 8- to 18-year-old consumes about four and a half hours of TV each day, peaking with 11- to 14-year-olds, who watch more than five hours a day.

The Entertainment Industries Council was established to improve the messages entertainment sends to these viewers. Its Picture This: Engineering publication focuses on the impact entertainment has on our country’s call for more STEM educators and workers. It also provides suggestions to entertainment creators on ways they can inspire viewers and improve the outlook on STEM.

Who else is a great STEM role model for girls and women? Tell us your favorites and learn about the SET Awards nominees at www.eiconline.org.

This post was written by AAUW Marketing and Communications Intern Marie Lindberg.

Marie Lindberg By:   |   February 28, 2012


  1. Avatar Ming says:

    I’m a year too late in replying to the comments but we forgot Special Agent Dana Scully in The X Files!! She’s a doctor and highly intelligent and appealed to a lot of girls in my class when I was in high school when thinking about possibly going into STEM fields.

  2. Avatar Pam Lanford says:

    The original twitter post asked for “fictional” characters, so I had been thinking in terms of books – Violet Baudelaire from A Series of Unfortunate Events came immediately to mind. I love Violet: she is an inventive and quick-thinking engineer.

    I also really love the “Fireside Girls” that are frequently part of Disney Channel’s Phineas and Ferb (which I just love in general). They frequently arrive on the scene just in time to provide some major feat of engineering to save the day.

  3. Avatar simplynareida says:

    As a mother of two you’ve helped me realize the value of the female roles in animation – I would have never dug deeper into viewing the impact of having strong female roles in cartoons vs standard film and tv shows. Thanks for the insight.

  4. Avatar artzent says:

    I totally relate! My daughter is a CPA who deals with the boys club almost every day. Thanks for the great blog!

  5. Avatar Woman in the Middle says:

    My daughter, the second year mechanical engineering major, was inspired by the real life women of the Society of Women Engineers. They held an event at a local college and my hubby dragged both daughters off to it when they were middle school age. The other daughter became an English major (can’t win them all) but our youngest decided to go forth in STEMs. She picked mechanical because she wanted to go where fewer women have gone before! So, that being said, I love this article! I just wanted to salute the real women in STEMs as well!

  6. Avatar The Sandwich Lady says:

    Love that you included Sandy Cheeks, a real kick-ass scientist with serious “kara-tay” chops!

  7. Avatar dweebcentric says:

    Your Honor, I must object to this over-representation of forensic scientists.

  8. Avatar HB says:

    I have to give a shout out to my “Battlestar Galactica” ladies. Starbuck is the best fighter pilot (male or female) in the post-nuclear-holocaust universe, and Cally is a spacecraft mechanic.

  9. Avatar Miriam says:

    I do love Hermione Granger… 🙂 Great post!

  10. Avatar Just Me With . . . says:

    Great article. I have four girls and having them see these very smart women is a positive influence on them. They love Abby and Bones. Although it’s very soap opera-ish, my teen girls are also inspired by the female docs on Grey’s Anatomy. One of my girls now says she wants to be a doctor.

  11. Avatar edrevets says:

    I realize this post is about women in STEM, but the current situation of women in media is not great either. There are vastly more men who are actors, directors, behind-the-stagers, broadcasters, etc.

    So let’s get out there on all fronts. Forward!

  12. Avatar Raaj Trambadia says:

    Haha 😀 Nice post !! Inspirational I must say 😛 Cheers

  13. Avatar matthewhyde says:

    Good list – glad to see Kari on there! I also want to echo the people who’ve said Chloe from 24 and Astrid from Fringe should be on there. And Kaylee from Firefly and Sam Carter from Stargate!

    • JK JK says:

      I second Kaylee from Firefly, and I would add River Song from Doctor Who– the only other person (male or female) to match the Doctor’s knowledge of the space-time continuum. Many times she knows more than him!

  14. Avatar Wilhelmina Upton says:

    Thank god for those characters or else I would think I’m an idiot for studying engineering!! Well, not really since I like it. Nevertheless I always enjoy seeing more of the fictional female science loving characters out there.

  15. Avatar nehaguptablogs says:

    So cleverly put! I see a change in the media trend already, inspiring young minds with creations of like-able female geeks 🙂

  16. Avatar OAG says:

    Agreed! I have another suggestion to make. “Kaylee Frye” from Firefly as played by Jewel Staite. The series may have only been short lived but Kaylee was a fantastic, down-to-earth character. She was the ship’s Mechanic and stated in one episode that engines “Just talk to me” or something like that. I think this shows that you don’t have to be book smart to be good at something like that.

    I think the expectation that a woman in a technological field has to be smarter and meaner than her male counterparts put a lot of people off as it makes it sound like you would have to work harder to get to same point… which in a lot of cases is still true.

  17. Avatar Kathy says:

    Really enjoy your blog today found on the freshly pressed of WordPress. Thanks for such a professional voice encouraging and showing women how easy it is to follow your dreams and create more with our sciences.

  18. Avatar woodsie2008 says:

    I’m kind of sad that Amy Farrah Fowler from The Big Bang Theory didn’t make this. Not only is she played by Mayim Bialik (TV’s Blossom), but Mayim Bialik has a PhD in a STEM field!

  19. Avatar James' Stuff says:

    Hey, great post. STEM subjects are soooo important. Part of my job is to entice students into science based courses at University level, and it’s tuff: there’s not many role models, it doesn’t have much reality to their everyday lives, and bad experiences put a lot of kids off. Hopefully such role models can sexy this subject up – but most of them are just actors, arn’t they? BTW, Robogals is an international initiative that promotes engineering into Highschools.

  20. Avatar ismaeljoy says:

    very nice and excellent for women…its the best,,,!

  21. Avatar Lulu Simawati says:

    I think my favourite is Hermione Granger

  22. Avatar versipellusfenris says:

    A couple on the tech side would be real life Morgan Webb who is a video game reviewer for G4 and Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of the Millenium Trilogy. Both are smart, sexy and strong women working in a predominantely male field.

  23. Avatar cielotech says:

    Great post–excellent subject matter. I write a blog on engineering education and certainly know that women in the technical (STEM) workplace are few and far between. I never really understood why until I heard a “grandmother” tell her granddaughter–“You will never catch a man dear if you act too smart.” Reality is, she acts dumb and catches a dummie that can’t or won’t take care of her for the long haul. Women in STEM professions bring a great deal to the party–differing viewpoints, better and less conventional ways of doing a given task. As you know, a great number of ladies now occupy assembly jobs throught industry so, it is wonderful if those jobs are analyzed by ladies who understand the rigors of design and application.

    Again, great post.

  24. Avatar Charlotte says:

    Love this! I launched Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering, & Science (FEMMES) at Roanoke College about 2 years ago and love hearing about Women in STEM! Fun post!

  25. Avatar Claudia Richards says:

    I am glad seven of the characters, I love inspired others. Great job! Keep these kinds of posts coming!

  26. Avatar sonalee says:

    Great Post. I would dedicate it to March 8th,Womens day 2012. Congrats for being freshly pressed.

  27. Avatar Therese says:

    Computer Science geek Chloe O’Brian from 24

  28. Avatar Peggy Woods-Clark says:

    Great post! I love Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) and Dr. Bernadette Maryann Rostenkowski (Melissa Rauch) on Big Bang Theory. Although all of the show’s characters have issues with social skills (nerd stereotype), their intelligence and abilities are not called into question by the male characters.

  29. Okay, if we’re really going to do this…I must say that a few of my favs NOT on the list are:

    ***Astrid Farsnsworth from “Fringe”***

    ***Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard’s truly heroic characters in “Contagion”


    …and, while not completely legal, a major shout out for the “T” part needs to be given to

    ***Rooney Mara for her tech-strong role in “Girl With the Dragon Tatoo”

    I mean, what girl doesn’t now want to grow up and be a computer hacker? Is it just me?

  30. Avatar susielindau says:

    i am surprised that girls are still being effected by gender specific careers. I never thought about how those awesome women on TV could be inspirational. Thanks for pointing that out.
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  31. Avatar Kathy Korman Frey (@ChiefHotMomma) says:

    Love it! Go @AAUW for making an accessible entry point to this important topic of STEM. You all are the BEST.

  32. Avatar The Hook says:

    Some great choices here! Nicely done!

  33. Avatar Mikalee Byerman says:

    I love that you’re highlighting the importance of women in STEM…and that a character from SpongeBob Square Pants is a runner up. AWESOME!


  34. Avatar MJ, Nonstepmom says:

    There’s too many “Housewives” and Kardasians and fallen pop stars out there …loved this !

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