Depictions of Women in STEM: Michael Burnham

February 03, 2020

Written by: Alicen Ricard

To celebrate Black History month, we are bringing you another woman of colour for our media depictions post this month. Decades after Nichelle Nichols played Uhura on the original Star Trek series, Star Trek Discovery came to our television screens and brought us a woman of colour as the lead. Michael Burnam started as a xenoanthropologist before becoming a science specialist on the U.S.S. Discovery.

Source: Wikipedia

She grew up among the Vulcans after her parents were killed and attended the Vulcan Science Academy, where she studied quantum physics. Although she graduated at the top of her class, she was unable to join the Vulcan Expeditionary Group because she is human instead of Vulcan. They had to choose between letting Burnham join or letting Spock join (who is half-human), and ultimately they chose Spock over her. Sarek, Burnham’s foster father and the one who made the decision, hid his shame at making this decision by making Burnham think she was inadequate for the job. Turns out this was all for nothing, as Spock decided to join Starfleet instead of the Vulcan Expeditionary Group. However, the damage was already done and Burnham had an underlying fear that she wasn’t good enough.

Sarek then got her a job on the U.S.S. Shenzhou, where she served as a xenoanthropologist (like a regular anthropologist, but in space!) She rose to the rank of Commander before things went wrong and she ended up having to commit “mutiny” in the name of the war against the Klingons. After things went wrong on her previous ship and she ended up being arrested for the mutiny, the captain of the U.S.S. Discovery had Burnham released from her sentence early so she could come work for him and be the science specialist on the discovery and help them defeat the Klingons. 



It was on the U.S.S. Discovery that Burnham was assigned to studying the Tardigrade that they had captured. With help from Sylvia Tilly, an ambitious Starfleet cadet, they discovered that the Tardigrade was connected to the mycelial network. This discovery allowed them to use the full power of the spore drive in order to stop a Klingon attack.

Star Trek has always been known for its diversity, but Star Trek: Discovery takes it to a whole new level. Michael Burnham, portrayed by Sonequa Martin-Green, was a first in many ways for the Star Trek universe. Not only was she the first character to be the lead of Star Trek that isn’t the captain of the ship, she was also the first woman of colour to be the lead character. 



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.

1.  Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): This show has more women and minorities in STEM than any Star Trek before it. It definetely meets this goal. 

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: Burnham has more than one different STEM career in the show, and many fields are covered. This show meets the goal.

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: Although the show depicts her being told she isn't good enough because she's a girl and a human, she ultimately finds a place to pursue science and make a difference in the world aboard the U.S.S. Discovery.

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