It's been a rough day at Lego's Research Institute. The minifigs are dosed up on coffee, sitting through droning presentations, battling with balky computer systems, and pushing to publish papers. The toys' triumphs and frustrations are captured in the @LegoAcademics Twitter account, a running feed of photos and commentary coming from the perspective of the female scientists at the fictional institute.
The Research Institute is a set that was originally introduced by a Lego fan and creator on the Lego Ideas site. It garnered overwhelming backing from other enthusiasts and finally won approval to go into production from Lego itself. A big part of the attraction is that it features women scientists (a Lego rarity), including a paleontologist, an astronomer, and a chemist. It promptly sold out and is now going for around $60 on eBay, quite a mark-up over the original $19.99 price tag.
Donna Yates, the person behind the Lego Academics account, is an archaeologist in a criminology department at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. She draws on her own academic experience and those of her close friends to fuel the minifigs' humorous Twitter escapades.
- Lego Academics (@LegoAcademics) August 13, 2014
Yates is one of the lucky few who managed to get her hands on a set. "I was waiting for the release and I ordered it the first day it was out," she tells Crave. It was already sold out in the US, but she got onto the back-order queue for the UK site and received her set before it was sold out in the UK as well.
The @LegoAcademics Twitter account was born on a rainy Friday in Glasgow. Yates was slogging through a lot of paperwork. The set was delivered. "My office mate and I took a break from what we were doing and put them together. As the day wore on, the Legos started to re-create the scenes that Dr. Marguerite Schinkel, my office mate, and I were living. I posted those to my personal Twitter account and people liked them," Yates says.
From there, a dedicated Twitter account was a natural next move. "I couldn't get the dino out of my head; he was rampaging," Yates says. With a mere 23 tweets under its belt, the account already has nearly 23,000 followers.
Interestingly enough, Yates is hesitant to label herself as a scientist. "I am not quite sure I think of myself as a scientist. I am an archaeologist, which means I skirt the edges of quite a few types of academic research," she says.
She notes that many archaeologists are scientists, but that her specialty is in digging things up and taking the samples to scientists for analysis. "I study the looting of archaeological sites and the illicit trafficking of cultural objects," she says. "I do fieldwork, but it is more sociological than anything else."
At Yates' hands, the minifigs have tackled a host of familiar academic challenges, including the peer-review process for papers, leftover conference food, the mire of administrative requirements, and the pressure to constantly publish new work. But they're also living their dreams. The entertaining takes on common academic frustrations are punctuated with the occasional photo of a minifig hoisting a dinosaur bone or a flask with the simple caption "Dream job."
Dream job. pic.twitter.com/LjvmCcGO8b
- Lego Academics (@LegoAcademics) August 10, 2014
The dinosaur that comes with the Research Institute set may seem like a bunch of plastic bones, but Yates has imbued it with a distinctive personality. "I imagine him as the mean voice inside of all academics pushing them to work harder," she says.
Yates is pleased she can make her followers chuckle, but she doesn't shy away from seeing a deeper purpose to the account and its depiction of women scientists. "I will say that, somehow, it is important to me that the academics in the scene are all women and that none of the jokes are plays on gender or gender stereotypes. You could put men Legos into the scenes and they would still work," she says.
PUBLISH OR PERISH!!!! pic.twitter.com/a5333nDd4F
-- Lego Academics (@LegoAcademics) August 8, 2014
"I hope for a situation where a Lego set (and a Research Institute) that just happens to be filled with women isn't notable. I don't want to push or force the idea of women in science and academia, I want to normalize it. I don't just want little girls to dream of becoming an astronomer or a chemist, I want little boys to not think of a man, by default, when they hear the word 'scientist'. I think that is very important," she says.
Yates reflects on the popularity of the Twitter account, saying it "isn't going to normalize the idea of a woman as a scientist. But at the very least, as a female academic, I can make my scenes reflect the society that I hope for. You know, with dinos. We really should have more dinos." More dinos is something we can all agree on.