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Erin Macdonald: Role Models and Communicating the Universe

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An astrophysicist and aerospace engineer, Erin Macdonald gave up researching science to communicate about it. She now wields her knowledge to help movies, TV shows, and video games keep their facts straight. She also gives speeches about the science behind science fiction and can be seen on her YouTube channel, Dr. Erin Explains the Universe, explaining the universe. With her conspicuous red hair and tattooed skin, she makes a bold advocate for truths that are often impenetrable to the rest of us. Here she explains what motivated her to take her career down this path and the challenges of being who she is doing what she does.
 
Q: What made you make the leap from science to science performance?
 
E.M: When I was growing up, I was a dancer in addition to being interested in science. When I was doing my first postdoctoral position after my PhD, I missed being on the stage, so I found a local acting group geared towards adults who wanted to start an acting career. I found that this helped my teaching immensely, and I could entertain on the stage while teaching science to the public. After I left academia, my first job was an acting position at a science museum, so I was able to combine all my passions: acting, teaching, and communicating science to a broad range of people.
 
Q: You’ve mentioned the importance of having role models on the screen. Did you want to become the kind of role model that inspired you?
 
E.M: I clung to Dana Scully (The X-Files) and Kathryn Janeway (Star Trek) because I didn't have any female role models, as I grew in my professional career, that I could look up to, and having them was incredibly important to me. Dana Scully was the first person who made me think, as a young, redheaded girl who loved space and aliens that I could be a scientist too. I think it’s so important for kids to see people who look like them and who have their interests, to help them believe that they can achieve their goals. For me, it’s not just the fact that I'm a woman, but I love video games, I have a lot of tattoos, and all my other interests I (sometimes literally) wear on my sleeve, that kids can attach to. Having people now come up to me and say how much it means to them that I teach science really motivates me and keeps me going. 
 
Q: Do you ever find yourself yearning to do research again?
 
E.M: I was really worried about missing research, but the things I enjoyed about it, such as analyzing data, finding answers to questions that people haven't thought to ask, and teaching and mentoring, I have been able to find outside of research. Of course, it stung a little when I left the LIGO Collaboration and a year later they made their Nobel Prize-winning discovery, but I honestly wouldn’t change anything, even knowing that. One of my best friends went through her PhD with me, and when I chose to leave she was struggling with the same decisions and chose to stay. We are able to live vicariously through each other’s’ successes and difficulties. 
 
Q: Can you point to an example of how you changed or influenced a script? 
E.M: Probably my favorite example was helping out with Orbital Redux. What I do isn’t necessarily changing or influencing, but more making the script as accurate as possible. I was trying to do a calculation for them so they could get the numbers right, and it wasn't working out. I realized that the scenario they had written wouldn’t physically work, so I helped them rework the dialogue to make it physically possible, then helped with the calculations. Working with them was a fantastic, collaborative experience and the kind of relationship that most writers and consultants hope to find. 
 
Q: Have you found that it's harder to be a female communicator than a female scientist when it comes to sexism and resistance (on the screen or in person)?
 
E.M: There is no doubt that there is an excruciating amount of harassment to deal with out there. Being a science communicator is difficult in general because there is always someone out there who will be more of an expert than you are in the field you’re teaching. However, many more people think they know more than you when they actually don’t, and this is way more common for women than men (in my experience). The way I handle it (which I'm not saying is the correct or best way, just how I do) is to be up front with the bounds of my knowledge, try and understand if I really did get something wrong or if someone misunderstood my point, and stand my ground. If there is an opportunity for me to learn more, then that’s great, and the whole reason I do what I do is because I'm good at communicating and that’s what I focus on. So if the person criticizing me does so respectfully, not to publicly humiliate me or undermine my knowledge, I’m willing to listen and learn. However, such criticisms rarely are intended in good faith; most people with good intentions will genuinely ask for clarification or a follow-up question and I have no problem engaging with them. That said, really don't read the comments. It’s rough out there.
 
Q: Do you have any words of advice for a young woman considering STEM (or, for that matter, a young man)?
 
E.M: I think for any young person, regardless of background, I would suggest to try and find an inspiration: what makes you interested in STEM? There is really no wrong answer; for me it was Dana Scully. Keeping that motivation and inspiration close to you will get you through the good and bad days. Don't be afraid to ask questions—be humble in your knowledge but don't be afraid to ask for help. In this age of social media there are great science communicators out there, so try to soak up all you can, and find people who inspire you. They are the ones (fictional or not) who will keep you going. 
 
Michael Abrams is a technology writer based in New Jersey.
 
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