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Mythbusters Jr.'s Tamara Robertson on getting girls into STEM careers

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Jan 12, 2019, 1:02 PM EST

Tamara Robertson was the last woman standing on Mythbusters: The Search and hosts SciJinks. Now she’s taking on hosting duties over on Mythbusters Jr. On top of that, she's also very active in getting young women interested in STEM. We got a chance to chat with Robertson about the new show, the bullying she went through as a kid, and using pop culture to get kids into science.

Many young girls talk about feeling left out of science and math. Do you think this contributes to a disparity in gender in the fields?

I think it’s definitely something that wasn’t really pushed towards us. I was talking to my roommate about this the other day. In my high school, we didn’t have the option to take shop as girls. We were forced to take home economics. It was like, this is where the girls are supposed to be and this is where the boys are supposed to be. And this is how life works. Just as much as, if a boy wanted to take home economics, he couldn’t, it wasn’t an option for me to take shop.

What were the things when you were a kid that steered you towards a STEM career?

It is funny, and I’ll back up on this. I didn’t go into college for a career in STEM originally. That was because it was very hammered into me as a youth that it was not OK that I liked building. Bot of my parents are military and my dad was deployed and or stationed elsewhere for the majority of my youth, up until my late teens when he retired. When he would come home, most often he was going and working on jobs so he could continue to pay the bills. I grew up, before I was even able to walk on my own, in car engines, helping him pull wires through the outlets and conduits, on buildings and rooftops. From there it progressed to where it is today, where we’re rebuilding roofs together. 

I grew up in a very Southern society. I was already the kid who was in boys’ hand-me-downs from my godbrothers because we didn’t have the money, so on top of that, being into building and liking science and being really good at it, was something that was a point of bullying for me. I accused of being a boy constantly. I was run out of girls’ bathrooms and called a pervert because I had short hair, because I had a Marine mom who didn’t want to deal with long hair. So I actually stayed away from science because, even though I was really good at it, it was something that was getting me labeled as a boy. It was something that I got bullied about a lot. I loved building and making with my dad. It was the only chance I really got to spend time with him, because, if you weren’t on an odd job with him, you just didn’t see him. It was a very tormenting part of my life. It was a part of my life that made it so I could watch Star Trek with my dad, and I could go and spend all day with him if I could be another set of work hands. I was the one that was bringing him all of his tools, but then I’d go to school and it would be this point of contention, and part of the reason I’d spend every day in the library at lunch, and part of the reason I love libraries. It’s also part of the reason I did learn so much.

It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college with way too many minors, because I was used to not being challenged in school, when I had an advisor say, "Your math and science scores are off the charts. Why aren’t you in engineering?" I started laughing and I said, “Girls don’t do that. That’s a boy thing.” And she was like, “No, actually, it’s not. We’re taking a field trip to NC State. The first time I walked into a room there were boys and girls and everyone was excited about science and I was getting to ask questions. I kind of decided at that point that I wasn’t going to look back. I was going to embrace that people like me existed and that they weren’t made fun of for being that way. If it wasn’t for the fact, honestly, that it was my rite of bonding with my father, I probably would have run for the hills and never gone back to science. 

What was weird to me was that it wasn’t just the boys that made fun of me for liking it. The girls were really harsh as well. It was not OK at all, to not be the long hair, make-up wearing girl. When I go in I talk to these girls that STEM camp, the trope of the catfighting girls is alive and well in STEM, and it is their generation's job to kill it and to make it go away. We as women would like to point the finger at men and say that men held us back, and men aren’t letting us progress, but at the end of the day the people that have held me back the most in my engineering career and my science career have been women, and that breaks my heart. In our minds, we’ve decided that there is only one spot for a girl. There is only one spot. And we are going to fight for it. We’re going to hold onto it. We’re going to kick back and anyone who comes to try to get it. We are proving that we can flood the gates. We can all be there. 

I’d love to know some examples of women who are inspiring to you in STEM, in fiction as well as real life.

In fiction, Captain Janeway was so badass to me. I was like, what? A woman can run the Enterprise? What is going on? This is amazing! So I loved her, and I love Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus. I know she’s a teacher and she’s a normal archetype, but I think that she took science beyond the classroom. She didn’t focus just on the hard sciences like biology and physics and all that. She showed kids all the cool stuff too. We were learning about all the different places that science exists without it just being in a lab. This is what you always do. And then in real life, there is this amazing organization GoBeyond. It was founded by a girl from my college, Jenn Halweil. It basically is using a platform to elevate women who are doing glass shattering work in STEM.

One of the big issues we have in society is that we say, we’re the women in STEM, and women in STEM don’t exist. They’re doing amazing, incredible things, but we as a society don’t recognize them as subject matter experts. Every time we need a subject matter expert, we automatically go to the guy who looks exactly what a guy who is an expert in this subject matter is supposed to look like. We don’t go through diversity and inclusion when we look at subject matter experts. So what she is doing is elevating and hyper-focusing on these women who are doing incredible work and patenting things every day. It’s one of the most shocking things when people find out that I have a patent that is in 90 percent of the world’s polypropylene. They get weirded out. You only hear about guys that have patents. We have two kids on Mythbusters Jr. that as young girls had patents already. They’re helping to really change that mindset of what it looks like. 

Then obviously for me as a woman, a pop culture icon that changed my life was Kari Byron. She’s phenomenal. She didn’t just walk the path that I’m hoping to walk. She forged it. She was the one that had to go out there, just like those of us in engineering who are the only girl, she was the only girl building across the genre. There weren’t YouTube girl builders or online girl builders. There was no one. There was only Kari. The way that she did it with such poise. She was still a girl. She didn’t go in and act like one of the dudes. She was herself 100 percent of the time. Gosh knows what she dealt with behind the scenes as a woman in science. I can’t even imagine. But she kept with it. It was never because she wanted to change the world. It was because she wanted to do what she was doing. She was hanging out with her friends. Because of that, she changed the world. If you don’t see the example of what you want to be, be that example for the next generation. When I left engineering in 2015 to try to get more girls in STEM, I never realized that this is where the journey would end up. I had no idea.

You talk about reading a comic and I know you do a lot of camp work, so tell us a little bit about some of the things you’re doing to help STEM careers be more visible to younger else.

My main outreach is through what I call superhero science. It comes in a lot of different platforms. I do keynotes at nonprofit camps, a lot of them being all girls. A lot of them are about gender equality. I like it when we mix it up. One of the things I say is that we need everyone at the table, and that includes boys. [laughs] I do keynotes and Q&As with young girls and I’ll be part of the camp with them. I actually become one of the kids. That’s the great thing about being short! You can integrate pretty easily. [laughs] 

I do these things were I go around and do Marvel science and superhero shows where I take actual physical science that I think kind of reminds me of like my favorite superheroes and I show it to them... my focus is on kids, because we see that if you don’t help them when they are young, they integrate away from it. Even if they love it, they kind of get told by society that it’s not where they belong at such a young age. In elementary school, it’s so important to be able to keep them excited about this.

We also have a STEM comic that we are finalizing. In 2019, more will come out about that. In it, we tackle real-world problems, and we do Q&A with a living scientist, and one of the biggest things for me is that we include a DIY experiment that cost under five dollars for kids to do at home, that lets them be the scientist. We want to include the diversity and science, but also the vastness of choices kids have if they go into those career fields. We’re trying to highlight very, very different sectors of science. We want to show that there is science in saving the ocean and that there is science in stopping pandemics. 2019 will include MythBusters Jr., when it comes out, which will be another form of what I do, where I get to spend all season meant touring these amazing kids in STEM. Two of them I had already been mentoring before that, but getting to actually be with them and help them through the design and build process was really cool. One of my missions, when I came on, was that I want all the girls to know how to weld. I was very excited about that. I had an incredible weld instructor that helped me accomplish that. It’s kind of whatever it needs to be. I do Q&A with classrooms remotely across the nation. I’ve been taking part in 2020 day. There is a really amazing girl in Texas who just got bullying prevention as a citywide edict in San Antonio by the mayor. So every year, I’ve been part of her anti-bullying campaign. She is just incredible. It looks different everywhere, but when I’m not filming, this is when I’m on the road doing. I am definitely not sleeping!

In 2019, I will also include some cosplaying stuff. I think if I had known that cosplaying existed when I was younger, I think I would have stayed with the sciences because I would have met my tribe so much quicker! Introducing the ease of cosplay and how you could do it with pennies is a mission of mine. I want to showcase. Everyone sees the tops of the tops, but there are so many people who are doing it with next to nothing in their kitchens and bedrooms.

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