Depictions of Women in STEM: Cosima Niehaus

August 04, 2017

Written by: Alicen Ricard

This post contains spoilers for Orphan Black.

It's Vancouver pride month, and in recognition, we are profiling Cosima Niehaus (played by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany), an LGBT character who is the perfect candidate for this special Pride edition of Depictions of Women in STEM. I remember the first time I watched Orphan Black, I was so excited that a show about science is also all about women. Orphan Black is all about five clones, following their lives and the consequences of cloning. The Leda clone project (named after the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan) was run by Susan Duncan, a brilliant albeit morally questionable scientist. She isn’t, however, the only woman in STEM in the show. One of the clones, and the subject of this post, Cosima, is both the science and a scientist.  

Source: What Else is on Now?

Cosima is a PhD student in the Experimental Evolutionary Development biology at the University of Minnesota—something that comes in handy once she discovers that she’s a clone. While there she meets Delphine Cormier, who poses as an immunology student. She falls in love with Delphine even though she doesn’t always trust her. She has to drop out of school to study the biology of the Leda clones, as well as to find a cure for the respiratory illness that seems to be slowly affecting some of the Leda clones, including herself. Delphine trys to convince Cosima to take a position at the Dyad Institute, which eventually she does to try to learn Dyad’s plan for the Leda clones and to study their biology. There, she starts working with Scott Smith. Scott doesn’t look down at her because she’s a woman, in fact he does the opposite. He always seems to find working with Cosima and Delphine to be really cool. Scott really respects Cosima, especially after he realizes she can kick his butt at the game "Rune Wars." While it took him a while to find out that she was a clone ("Variable and Full of Perturbation"), his first words were, "It's an honour, Cosima. An honour to be working with you."

Source: Redbubble

One of the first things yet another clone, Rachel, says to Cosima is, "So, you're gay," ("Governed by Sound Reason and True Religion") to which Cosima has the perfect response, "My sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me." That's just the thing: Cosima may be bisexual but it doesn't define who she is as a character any more than her being a clone does; it's just another part of her. The show didn't introduce Cosima with a giant banner saying, "Here's our gay clone!" There was no big reveal. The writers of the show have made it clear that the reason they have "so many" gay characters in their show is because there are gay people in the world and it just makes sense. There has been backlash over the years about these characters and a lot of questions asked. People have wondered if Cosima being gay was her choice since she is genetically identical to the rest of the Leda clones and only Cosima and Tony (who is transgender) identify as LGBT. Tatiana was asked that very question in an interview and her response was, “By no means are we saying that Cosima chooses to be gay. [...] It’s by no means that. It’s just that there are so many biological factors into the mother’s womb, into the conditions of the womb. So much of the research I was doing about clones was about identical twins, right? Identical twins would actually be closer in expression than clones because clones are birthed from different wombs. And there’s so much information that gets fed through the mother. I think we’re not saying anything about that in terms of choice and biology or whatever. We’re saying more that everyone could be anything.”

Source: We Heart It

Delphine starts out as Cosima's monitor (someone who keeps track of the clones and reports back to the Dyad Institute), which means right from the beginning it was questioned whether Cosima and Delphine's relationship was real or whether they were just manipulating each other for information—especially after Cosima figures out who Delphine really is. They do seem to be used against each other a fair bit, but that has less to do with their sexuality than the actual storyline. It would be the same if Cosima's monitor had been a man and she fell in love with him. What is more negative about the way that Cosima is portrayed as LGBT is the fact that she is essentially dying. Cosima has had a respiratory illness that has slowly been killing her since the beginning of the show. To be fair, every character in the show is constantly in danger - but out of all the main clones on the show, it is the one who identifies as LGBT that is dying. This could be seen as an example of the "bury your gays" TV trope. In this article, IndieWire examines how more LGBT women are being killed off of TV series than ever. With this trend, it is disappointing that Cosima is the one dying.  

Source: ThinkProgress

The character of Cosima is based on the show’s science consultant Cosima Herter. The real life Cosima is a PhD student in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine program at the University of Minnesota, studying the historical development of biotechnology. When interviewed in an article by BBC America, she was asked what her role is in making Orphan Black. She answered, “I’m a resource for the biology, particularly insofar as evolutionary biology is concerned. I study the history and the philosophy of biology, so I do offer some suggestions and some creative ideas, but also help correct some of the misconceptions about science. I offer different angles and alternatives to look at the way biological science is represented, so [it’s] not reduced to your stereotypical tropes about evolutionary biology and cloning, but also to provide some accuracy for the scripts.”  Cosima Herter's direct consultation and influence on the show helps make the fictional Cosima a positive representation of women in STEM.


The former Obama Administration's White House fact sheet lists 3 goals for fictional representation of women in STEM. We are noticing a trend in the movies and television shows we have reviewed - they meet some of the following goals better than others. Orphan Black does pretty well.

1.  Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): There are so many Women in STEM in this show ranging from good characters like Cosima and Delphine (maybe, we don’t really know whose side she’s on), who are both also LGBT, to great antagonists like Susan Duncan.

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: The whole show is about the impact of science. It doesn’t necessarily portray a positive impact as it shows all the consequences of human cloning—the good, the bad, and the deadly. However the series also shows how cool science can be, even if that science is fictional.  

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: This show portrays science as anything but boring. It’s exciting and scary and unpredictable. You constantly see the characters marvel at the fact that this science is possible (in fiction, of course). The scientists in the show have all worked extrememly hard to get where they are.  

You can watch an interview with Cosima Herter here. Let us know on Twitter or Facebook if you think they did justice to portraying Cosima as an LGBT scientist.