Q&A with Emily Calandrelli

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By Patricia J. Murphy |

Emily Calandrelli is Newton’s First Law of Motion in action (an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion unless a force acts on it). That’s because Calandrelli is constantly on the move. An MIT engineer turned Emmy-nominated science TV host, Calandrelli (aka @TheSpaceGal) is the host and executive producer of Fox’s Exploration of outer space and Emily’s wonderful laboratory on Netflix. She is also the author of the Ada Lace Adventures chapter book series, with Tamson Weston, and the first picture book reach for the stars, illustrated by Honee Jang. Calandrelli spoke with TP on how choosing to study engineering at university broadened her universe, what changed the orbit of her career, and why she focuses on laser to help her readers and viewers stay curious and continue to explore STEM.

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEAM?

I didn’t grow up knowing scientists and/or engineers, and I’m the first person in my family to graduate. My dad grew up poor in West Virginia and worked his way up to the middle class. So when I was in high school and trying to decide my college major, I had his legacy in mind. I thought about how hard he had worked to get to where he is today, and I wanted to take that and go further. I literally Googled all the majors I could take in college and their starting salaries, and found that engineers made the most money after a four-year degree. So I chose to explore a career as an engineer. I thought it was going to be the hardest and worst four years of my life – I wouldn’t have a social life, etc., but I believed I would end up having a good job that would make my family proud.

What happened next ? Has your hypothesis come true?

When I went to college and started learning about all the opportunities open to a STEM student, I became obsessed with it – and had the best time. I was able to do so many different things, including flying on the Vomit Comet [a NASA program that introduces astronauts to the feeling of zero-gravity spaceflight] and travel the world. I lived in California during my internship at NASA, and in China during my National Science Fellowship. So while my story started reluctantly in STEM, I became passionate about it and went on to complete two undergraduate degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Aerospace Engineering, and two Masters in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering and Technology and politics. And, now, I’m trying to share what I’ve learned about science and the exciting opportunities that can come your way with a career in STEM.

How do you think the spark in college ignited your love of science and influenced your career path?

Because I don’t come from a family of scientists or engineers, I went through university very intimidated by it all; and, I think it might have taken me a little longer to learn science concepts than if I had grown up with family members talking about electronics, dismantling radios, or working on cars . Because of all of this, it’s really important to me that my work makes science welcoming and accessible to people from all walks of life. I also want it to be normal for girls to be enthusiastic about science, including engineering, and see STEM as a career path. Right now, I don’t think it’s very welcoming. and I want to change that.

What are you doing to change that and make STEM careers more female-friendly?

For me, representation is a big thing, and I try to increase the level of female representation with my books and programs. As little girls, we don’t often see many people who look like us in STEM careers. It makes it harder for girls to imagine us going that route. With that in mind, I want girls to have someone to look up to and be like, “Oh, that person kinda looks like me, maybe I could do that!” There is certainly progress being made, but it is not happening as quickly as I would like.

Why do you think more women in STEM are crucial for womenand society?

The presence of women in science has an impact on the functioning of our society. When there are no women involved in the science, engineering and technology design process, there will be inefficiencies that exist, and these are going to be detrimental to women. So we need more women involved in the design process to help make society more efficient, productive and safe.

What roles have education and chance played in your STEM career path?

When I was a graduate of MIT, I was looking for a job that was probably going to be in DC working for a policy-related science venue like the Office of Science and Technology Policy, when I got a call from a production company . They had seen my engineering videos online and asked if I would like to host a new show called Exploration of outer space. I thought it sounded like a fun adventure and it married a lot of things I’m passionate about, including talking about science in a way that people can understand, present, play and space. They gave me the chance to travel the country and talk to the people doing the coolest things in the space program. And, so, I said yes. This decision completely changed my career.

By hosting/producing Exploration of outer space, you had the chance to work with Bill Nye the Science Guy. What did you learn from him?

After meeting and then interviewing Bill Nye, I got a job as a correspondent on Bill Nye save the world. I have always held him in high esteem because he is a master of his craft. He’s good at being both knowledgeable about science and smart about entertainment. I learned from him that it’s about tapping into the human experience in a very thoughtful and wonderful way.

And then something even more wonderful happened: you have your own show…Emily’s wonderful laboratory– on Netflix! How did this come about and what makes your show different from other science/STEM shows for kids?

I had worked with a producer for a number of years on a possible children’s science show with me as the host. We shopped it on different networks and got a few nibbles, but nothing came of it. But then someone at Netflix who had heard our previous talk thought their network might be a good place for our show since they were looking for a science program. So, we launched on the network, and they liked it! They tweaked the idea a bit, but then they greenlighted the show. I think what defines Emily’s wonderful laboratory Along with the other science and STEM shows, we’re doing an experiment at the end of the show that kids and parents can do at home.

In fact, I have a book coming out this fall called Stay curious and keep exploring: 50 amazing, sparkling and colorful science experiments to do with the whole family [Chronicle]. It is inspired by the reaction of our viewers to these scientific experiments. In the book there are 50 of my favorite experiments that are very accessible and don’t require too many ingredients – most of which you can find around the house – and teach some interesting things. My goal was to give kids and families more resources to be “curious and keep exploring” [Emily’s Wonder Lab’s tagline].

Besides creating a STEM-based children’s TV show, how and why did you start writing children’s books?

It started when I thought about the books I wish I had read when I was a girl. I wanted my first children’s book to include science, adventure, and a female lead character, and to be fun while teaching a bit about science and technology. This is how I created the Ada Lace Adventure series. The story features a third-grade girl, Ada Lace, named after Ada Lovelace, the English mathematician, who loves mysteries and uses technology and gadgets to solve them.

You also used your experience of becoming a mother as inspiration for your first picture book, Reach for the stars. Can you tell us how it inspired you?

I wrote the story in the first months after the birth of my daughter, Rose, and through the postpartum emotional lens of becoming a new mom. I wrote down all the feelings I had about becoming a mom for the first time. There were also so many things Rose was learning every day, and things she was literally striving to achieve. So I started imagining all the sorts of things she would achieve throughout her life, and then I associated them with all the things I hope to teach her. The story takes the reader through a parent-child relationship as the child goes through all stages of life, from infancy to leaving home for college. I wrote this book for my daughter and for all parents and children to continue reaching for the stars

reach for the stars by Emily Calandrelli, ill. by Honee Jang. Holt, $18.99 April 5 ISBN 978-1-250-79734-6


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