Ok, I admit it. As a science communicator I was thrilled by the opportunity to interview Cara Santa Maria, science journalist and former host of The Huffington Post’s “Talk Nerdy to Me,” for our Cool Jobs feature in the fall of 2012. Since I last interviewed her, Santa Maria has undergone a bit of a career change. I sat down with her again to discuss her new gig and how her love of science and science education plays a part in this new role.
D: When we last spoke with you, you were hosting a show called “Talk Nerdy to Me”. Since then you have made a career change. Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now?
C: I am co-hosting and producing a show called Take Part Live on a new network called Pivot. The show is tailored toward young people and is somewhat cause-driven. This network was founded by the Participant Media film production company, a company which produces a lot of socially conscious films—documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and Food Inc., and narrative films like The Help and Lincoln. Many of these films are promoted alongside related social action campaigns. Take Part Live is a live, one-hour news/talk show that discusses what’s going on the news and politics. And, quite often in this role I get to talk about science. It’s really exciting for me because I still get to be a science communicator, but now I get to present science within the greater context of what’s going on in the world. Now I am really able to reach people who may not specifically be seeking science content.
D: Many of our Cool Jobs professionals spoke about the transdisciplinary nature of STEM. It seems that you are touching on this idea with your mention of the “greater context.” Do you often find that STEM concepts play an unseen role in issues that one might think are removed from these fields?
C: Yes. I recently traveled to Washington DC to moderate an event on the topic of science communication. I got to meet and spend time with wonderful science professionals who work in labs, but also with professionals who studied journalism, business, and marketing. These latter professionals are now using their educational background to communicate science effectively.
When we are presenting our news stories there is almost always a scientific side that may not be visible at first glance. We might be able to incorporate components of science, math, or technology in a story that appears strictly political in nature. I think it still comes down to making sure that we are utilizing our critical thinking skills in all of our conversations—that, fundamentally, is what underpins all of STEM education. Science, technology, engineering, and math are all fields that use heavy critical thinking, and we should use evidence-based thinking to make decisions that are not based on intuition but rather the data. I think that’s something we need to see more of in the news.
If, for example, we are leading a discussion on the sequester, this type of conversation can sometimes get very heated and complicated. We often look for someone to blame, and we want to get at the root of these issues. Being able to use the evidence and data available instead of just jumping to conclusions can empower us to formulate educated opinions. I often use the tools I gained from my science education when presenting different topics.
D: Then do you think it’s a fair statement to say that communication can serve as a bridge between many different stories and concepts?
C: Definitely. It is so obvious now in the digital age that there are great scientists doing great things. But, if nobody is around to tell the public why those things are great, the work of these professionals can seemingly happen in a vacuum. Changes in legislation and opportunities for funding are often prompted by public support. People have to know what’s going on in science. They don’t only have to know about it, but they also have to know why it matters to them, why it’s important.
D: You talk a little bit about how your network is geared toward cause-driven work, but can you explain how empowering people with information can lead to action?
C: Every time we do an interview with someone who has done something impactful, we provide the audience with information for how they can get involved. You also don’t have to be an active participant to take action—even when you’re passively observing you are still participating in the news.
I think that’s a really important point to make. One-way communication is still participatory, because every time we learn something new it illuminates our understanding. Knowledge takes us out of a fearful state. If the information isn’t available to us, and if we don’t take the initiative to choose programming that will bring us that information, it can be difficult to break out of that fear cycle.
I just interviewed a man who wrote a great book about nuclear war. He wanted to write this book because our younger generations weren’t alive during the Cold War, and we didn’t grow up with fallout bunkers and bomb drills. But there are still nations with massive nuclear arsenals, and nuclear accidents still happen, which makes this issue a political problem with major STEM underpinnings. The takeaway from his interview was that it is important to know this stuff. How better to be prepared than to know what you are being prepared for? I think that’s a really important point.
D: During the last interview, you spoke about how you didn’t initially plan on a career in science journalism, but rather you basically fell into it. Do you know people who work as science communicators and always knew that was the career they wanted?
C: I don’t think I know one person in this field who always wanted this type of career. I have met some young people who are starting to work toward it—they are taking both science and journalism/communication classes and are putting together their own curricula—but every science journalist, on-air personality, and writer that I know didn’t follow a clear path into their respective professions. It’s funny how many things actually happen during the career phase and not necessarily during the education phase.
I do, however, think that we are one of the first generations for which this has become a viable career choice, so it’s cool to see young people making their own path. When someone asks me how they can work into a career like mine, my biggest piece of advice is not to be afraid to walk through doors that are open, even if they don’t appear to be on the path you envisioned for yourself. Almost everyone I know that has been really successful in my field or related fields never anticipated that this was what was in store for them; they either really loved science and grew to love outreach, or they were writers and journalists that stumbled upon science.
D: Is there a piece that you’ve worked on in your new job that you are particularly proud of or that you thought was particularly interesting?
C: There’s a cool segment that we have on the show called NewsVille, which is the game show-esque segment of the show. During this segment we pair an audience participant with one of our comedians, and we ask them questions about the news. There are three different segments of NewsVille: the first one is Headlines or BS We Just Made Up, in which the participants try to discern real headlines from fake ones. In the second segment, called Now or Then, we ask participants to determine whether certain headlines are from 2013 or sometime in the past. In Science or Science Fiction, the third segment, we determine how well participants can separate real science news from fictional science news. I find it particularly fun to work on Science or Science Fiction because we get to present science stories that aren’t necessarily common knowledge. Sometimes we may discuss the discovery of a new species of animal, and sometimes we report a new improvement in solar technology. It’s interesting how often people don’t really realize how far along we are in scientific technology.
I’m also developing a new segment right now, so hopefully in the coming weeks I will be doing a regular “wow” piece about something really interesting happening in science news. I’ve also been able to interview some really great people, which is always one of my favorite parts.
So there. Now that you are well and truly inspired by this communication powerhouse, what do you think you can be doing to blend your love of science with communication?