Tamara Robertson on SciJinks and diversity in STEM

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May 20, 2018, 6:04 PM EDT (Updated)

Tamara Robertson was the last woman standing on Mythbusters: The Search. Now she’s got a brand new show premiering on the Science Channel and Discovery called SciJinks, putting her chemical and biomolecular engineering degree to use for our viewing pleasure.

The series, co-hosted by Robertson, Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory) and magician Jason Latimer, tests out science on unsuspecting marks, drawing from chemistry, physics, technology, engineering and more, with never-before-seen pranks that will introduce audiences to remarkable and unusual scientific discoveries. From showcasing classic chemical reactions under the guise of a cooking class to controlling the movement of objects with their brains using electroencephalography, the pranks not only contain mind-blowing science but a heaping dose of chaos too.

We got a chance to chat with Robertson about her new show, diversity in STEM, using superheroes to get kids into science and more.

Tell us what SciJinks is all about.

SciJinks is really neat. The show itself is a science-themed prank show and we, as co-hosts, talked a lot about the fact that the word “prank” can sometimes have a bad connotation. So we didn’t want this at all to be anything about ridicule. And it’s not. What’s really cool is that we actually utilize new and emerging technology to blow people’s minds with science. We’re taking everything from old school science like what gravity is, taking it all the way up to looking at mind control through EKG headsets and we’re using them to showcase just the awe-inspiring, really crazy fun side of science. As a legacy scientist who was out in the corporate world for a decade, really being in that cubicle environment, science pranks are a normal part of life. [laughs] Being safe, of course. You mess with your co-workers and your environment. So as a scientist, this is showcasing that really fun, cool side of science that we as scientists enjoy every day in the lab, but taking it to the streets and bringing people in. 

We got to work with the great minds from Punk’d, and learn what makes a good prank, what really sells the story to everyone. And it kind of becomes these little fake universes that you’re creating for—we call the people that come in our “marks”—so you’re creating this entire day and this entire universe for one person. And one of the cool things about the show is, after we would fulfill the prank…we would take the time to really teach them about the science. Everyone was so excited to learn more. Then we’d pull the curtain back and we’d take them into the control room and show them how many people came together that day just to let them have an exciting moment with science. They were so floored!

Can you give us an example of one of the pranks?

I was told that I could hint at things! [laughs] The promo is out and there is one in there, so it was probably one of my favorite pranks. As a chemical and bimolecular engineer, anything that involves chemistry, I get really excited about. A big part of being a “chemie” is brewing your own beer and distilling your own spirits. In that guise, we actually did a set up where, kind of like a sommelier for wine, we brought in a bunch of people that had good sniffers, so they could help us design a flavoring for a new beverage. It becomes one of those things where, I’m teaching them for the day what they’re going to be doing in the lab…and Jason is next to them, being on the ground with them…he’s heckling them and trying to get them to do funny things. It ends up in an explosive mess, as large scale chemistry can — this is an episode that people want to tune in to. It’s one of the truest moments of my co-host being thrown completely under the bus by a mark! It was the best thing! You’ve got cameras all over the room, and he’s trying to convince us that it’s 100-percent my co-host’s fault. And by the end of it, he literally spends the next two hours trying to convince us to let him have some of the chemicals so he can go put them in someone’s car. We’re like, no, we cannot let you take this! [laughs] We literally had to replace ceiling tiles.

How did you get into science when you were a kid?

It’s actually really funny. I tell people all the time that I started out as a history major and I got really lost on the way to graduation. I grew up in the ‘80s. We didn’t really have STEM. No one really talked about science. I was in a military family. I didn’t really know any engineers and people in STEM. I didn’t know any women ones. But I actually fell in love with science watching Star Trek with my dad when he’d be home from deployment. When he was around, we were always tinkering out in the garage. I was rebuilding engines before I was tall enough to see in them, with him. I grew up as a tinkerer. My mom couldn’t stand it because I would take things apart when my dad wasn’t home, and I was too young to take notes on how I took them apart, so she would be stuck without a washer. [laughs] I got better over time!

It’s funny because I was a sophomore in college and I had all of these minors in science and math because I totally loved them, and my teacher sat me down and said, “Have you ever heard of engineering?” I looked at her and said, “I don’t think women do that.” The only engineer I knew was Scotty from Star Trek. I’d never met a living engineer and I’d certainly never met a woman one. There weren’t a lot of women engineers on television. She said that we were going to go up to a college nearby, and you should come. I sat in a material science class, and I was asking the professor questions. He asked me why I hadn’t shown up to class before, and I never looked back. It’s one of those things that now, I try to get as many different types of scientists, engineers and everything in front of kids so they can see that there is someone like them somewhere, so they can get there, too.

What do you think that we as a society should be doing to continue to get a more diverse group of scientists?

There is this really great slogan that says, “They can’t be what they can’t see.” So I kind of turn it a little bit and say, “They don’t know what we don’t show.” We don’t showcase to them the people who are actually doing the jobs. It’s not just in STEM. It’s also in healthcare. My brother-in-law is a nurse, but you don’t see, and we don’t talk about male nurses. You don’t see a lot of women doctors. So I think the big thing is starting that dialogue and showcasing it to them. Start a conversation with your kids about some of the biased media that’s out there, and don’t give them an opinion. Ask about it. Ask what they see that they like about things. What’s really cool right now is that kids have so much access to the world. There are so many social media outlets and non-profit outlets that are raising these voices. I got a colleague from college that runs a great organization called Go Beyond that highlights women in STEM that are doing glass ceiling-shattering work, and every day they’re profiling a new scientist or a new engineer. It’s the coolest thing…I think on top of it, it’s not just showing them. Even if they know every scientist that exists—they know all the Kardashians, but they can’t name a single living scientist—if you also start connecting the fun side of science, which is kind of what we’re doing—I have people say things like their kid isn’t into science. He’s into football. As a parent, you’re failing them, because there is so much science in football. And his science teacher doesn’t know he loves football. So his science teacher can’t connect that for him, but you can. Just walking in the park, there’s biology…you have to start connecting it for them and making it more fun than just what you do in a lab or a cubicle. 

Tell us a bit about the superhero outreach that you do.

For me, that’s part of the reason science is so much fun. If you take a child and you say here is Albert Einstein, isn’t he a hero? The kid is going to look at you and say, “I don’t know who that is.” But if you go, "Hey, here’s Bruce Banner. Bruce Banner is the Hulk. Bruce Banner is a hero. The Hulk/Bruce Banner is also a scientist. Did you know that he can do all of these things?" You start talking about someone they’ve already elevated in their mind, and then they get excited. One of the coolest things about comics is that they’re very approachable. You can get free comics on Free Comic Book Day. You can get 99-cent comics. You can get digital…and they’re all going to be relatively affordable. Comic book characters are diverse. They’re inclusive. They teach you that one person can make a difference. Most of our favorite heroes, they have a science background in some form. They’re problem solvers all of the time. It’s so easy to say, hey, these are superheroes saving the world, but you can do this, too. You can be scientists. I’ve joined forces with a friend of mine and we’re working on a STEM comic. Tracy Fanara is doing this with me. She is one of the three people that were on [Mythbusters: The Search]. We are starting this outreach because there are not enough living scientists being elevated…ours will be a giveaway. When you do science camps, the kids can walk away with something tangible. You can fall in love with science and start a whole new sci-fi generation and hopefully some new inventive shows and scientists will come out of this. 

One more thing I wanted to mention about the show. We highlight on every episode a group of STEM students from UCLA. They’re very diverse, they’re very interested, and, though I’m not sure what’s going to end up in the edit, but we talk to these kids about their majors. One of the things that I love about SciJinks is that we are actually going to be the diversity of STEM. Not just the people in STEM, but the types of majors you can be in. There are so many different fields. That’s probably one of the things that I love the most about this show, that every single episode, we’re elevating the differences that there are in the science world. 

SciJinks premieres on the Science Channel and Discovery on Wednesday, May 16 at 10 p.m. EST.

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