Astrophysicist Erin Macdonald on the science of sci-fi and fictional mentors

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Aug 17, 2017

Today, I’m talking to Erin Macdonald, who has a Ph.D. in astrophysics. After she got her degree, though, she realized that she didn’t want to take the traditional academic path. Now she is a science advocate, public speaker, consultant for the entertainment industry, and a global education resources manager for the UN-directed World Space Week. She also speaks at conventions on the science of sci-fi. And she’s here to discuss her background, nontraditional science career, and women in STEM with Fangrrls.

Swapna Krishna: How did you decide on astrophysics? And why did you choose a nontraditional career in the sciences?

Erin Macdonald: I have gone down a weird path as a scientist. I started working as a research when I was an undergraduate. My degree was in physics and astrophysics, and I got another degree in mathematics. I enjoyed doing research, so I decided to pursue a Ph.D. The graduate programs in the UK were of particular interest to me, both for how they were structured, as well as an opportunity to live overseas. I went to the University of Glasgow and got my Ph.D. in astrophysics. From there, I got a position as a postdoctoral researcher at Cardiff University for two years, continuing my research with the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

While I was a postdoc, I started going to sci-fi conventions speaking about the science behind science fiction. Once I decided I did not want to follow the career path of academia, I moved back to Colorado and started teaching, both in formal and informal settings. I worked as an adjunct professor for community colleges as well as an educator with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, giving talks in the planetarium and answering questions in the space science exhibit. I also briefly worked as an engineer for a federal contracting company, giving technical advice to the government. As this work started to grow, I increased my speaking engagements and got involved with World Space Week.

SK: Talk to me a little about your experience as woman in STEM, and what it’s been like for the other women in your field.

EM: I have found throughout my career that the amount of women in my field hovers around 15%, and I generally have got used to it. When you start studying science early in your professional life, that becomes your norm. Overall I have been very lucky with my peer group and have not had to face as much discrimination as others. 

My two biggest difficulties were when I was working as a postdoc. I was the only female staff member in our small research group, and though the group was small and supportive it still felt lonely at times. I had a great mentor though, who recognized the difficulties and even went so far as to say that he couldn't imagine being in my position if the genders were all swapped. My other hardest time was deciding to leave academia. While many people leave academia for myriad reasons, it has a much higher impact when it's a woman, simply because of numbers. Another way of thinking about it is that in a research group of 10 with 8 men and 2 women, if 1 man and 1 woman leave, the absence with regard to gender balance is sharply felt. 

With regard to mentoring and support from other women, my own experience has been fairly lacking. The harshest critics in my research career were some (not all) of the older women in my field, which made it hard to find support, but it taught me to make sure I don't do that to women who follow in my footsteps. 

Earlier in my career, I didn't have any real-life female mentors to help push or inspire me, so I ended up clinging to fictional ones: Dana Scully and Kathryn Janeway. I still argue that it was good for me to have them, and it doesn't matter if they were fictional, it's having representation that matters. 

SK: What’s your favorite part of your job?

EM: All of it! But seriously, I LOVE giving talks and having young kids want to meet me afterwards, because they want to be scientists. Like I said, the lack of a "real-life" mentor impacted my life, and if even one kid can see me and think that they can do it too, then I'm happy. One time I was invited to a talk at a school and my tattoos were against their dress code, so they asked me to cover them up. I respectfully declined, stating that it's important for kids to see that scientists come in all shapes and sizes, and the school was understanding. I can see it on the faces of the kids when they hear that "Dr. Macdonald" is going to be speaking with them about astrophysics, and a young woman with red hair and covered in tattoos walks in. It changes their perspective and can possibly have a huge impact on them. 

You learn pretty quickly in science outreach that you have to adapt, and that having an audience of five or an audience of 5,000 doesn't matter if you are able to impact one person. 

SK: Is there anything out of the ordinary that you’ve done that’s helped you in your career?

EM: When I was in Cardiff, like I said, that was the first time I started doing "Science of Sci-Fi" talks, and I was recorded for a video, and I was absolutely mortified looking back on it. I had clearly not spoken to a non-scientist stranger in five years. I immediately tried to find a hobby and started taking acting classes with Actors Workshop. It took me out of my shell and improved my speaking skills and stage presence. I fell in love with acting so much that I also currently do work as a voice actor and take every opportunity I can to be performing. It gave me so much confidence and allowed me to find my true passion, which was communicating with an audience through any medium possible. 

SK: Do you have any advice for young women — or even women who are looking at a second career — about becoming a scientist?

EM: Remember to be yourself; it's very easy to try and “fit in” in any career, and science is one where there is not much diversity, so embrace your differences! As long as you are doing good work, and are easy to work with, you will be fine. 

Also, good communication skills are key, and will get you much further professionally if you can effectively communicate your work. Remember to get out of your comfort zone from time to time. 

Learn more about Erin on her website and follow her over on Twitter!