Making the science in science fiction come alive, with astrophysicist Dr Erin Macdonald and Rabbi Jacob Rupp

In addition to the actual teaching, I was in front of students and kids who may find inspiration in a punk-redhead woman covered in tattoos who also happens to have a PhD.

Dr. Erin is an astrophysicist and aerospace engineer with a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Glasgow (Scotland), having done her Bachelor’s at the University of Boulder (Colorado.) She currently works as a consultant for the US Air Force and with SAIC. Erin’s specialty is general relativity, having previously worked in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) searching for gravitational waves.

In addition, she is a self-professed science fiction nerd and works as a consultant to Hollywood writers and producers imparting her knowledge and scientific accuracy for projects including video games, TV, and film, most recently consulted on Orbital Redux. In fact, Erin credits her interest in becoming an astrophysicist to her love of the character Dana Scully from The X-Files, her favorite show growing up! Erin can be found speaking at conferences across the country on the scientific theories behind many science fiction franchises. She is already booked to speak at Future Con’s upcoming Awesome Con, Big Easy Con, and Rose City Comic Con in 2019!

Dr. Erin loves that her career allows her to work with writers, teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) through popular culture — she’s using the Netflix series Voltron: Legendary Defender to teach kids about spacetime, and fulfill her life goal of becoming a warp drive expert! Never one to be too serious, she is also a tattooed Scottish-American N7 Slytherin Rebel from Starfleet.

Share your backstory and why you got into the science field?

Like a lot of children, I found myself drawn to the awesome mysteries that are space and dinosaurs. As a child born in the late 80s, I was lucky to be exposed to some great media that fostered this interest. First was the after-school “Bill Nye the Science Guy” who explored all sorts of cool science ideas I wasn’t learning in school, and even better, had some at-home experiments that kids on the show demonstrated. I loved replicating these- though I’m not sure my parents appreciated the mess some of them made! More influential; however, was an incredibly popular science fiction show that featured a red headed woman in the FBI, fighting aliens with the power of logic and science. Dr. Dana Scully (The X-Files) was everything I wanted to be, and I spent most of my teenage years wearing awkwardly-fitting pantsuits hoping others would see the connection with her that, to me, I so obviously had. In a throwaway comment in one episode, they mention her undergraduate degree in physics and that she wrote a thesis on Einstein’s Twin Paradox. Already driven by a passion for science and astronomy, my obsessive self looked up the Twin Paradox- and having learned that it was taught in astrophysics- I immediately decided this was what I wanted to study. For me as a teenager, it made perfect logical sense: Dana Scully was everything I wanted to be as an adult, and if I wanted to be just like her, then I needed to follow the same path. Maybe not necessarily medicine, because I thought bodies were squishy and gross, but physics was enough of a start. That kickstarted me down the path of an astrophysics degree, which (thankfully) I ended up loving… a perfect example of the so-called “Scully Effect” on getting women into STEM.

How did you select your career/science speciality?

Dana Scully wasn’t the only woman I looked up to, but combining her with another powerful fictional woman, Dr Ellie Arroway in “Contact” kept driving me down the path of a career in astrophysics. I didn’t necessarily relate to Dr. Arroway as much as Scully, but I loved the image of a smart, independent woman making a big astronomy discovery. I wrote my high school thesis on the “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” and originally went to the University of New Mexico to study astrophysics (where the Very Large Array, featured in “Contact”, is). One of my astronomy professors found out I was from Colorado and highly encouraged me to go to the University of Colorado at Boulder, since I got in-state tuition and knowing how many great research opportunities there were for students. Thankfully, I took their advice and transferred after my first year. A semester later, I got a part-time undergraduate research job working in Radio Astronomy (perfect!) and finally felt like I had accomplished a huge feat the moment, a few years later, that I got to operate a radio telescope at the Green Bank Observatory.

I loved my research project and was trying to find something similar for a PhD. I never had the opportunity to study abroad as an undergraduate because I was trying to dual major in four years, including the transfer and I had always wanted to study in Scotland. I looked up the PhD programs in the UK and they were far more in line with my experience and what I was looking for. I reached out to a professor in Glasgow who studied neutron stars (a source of radio signals). He kindly wrote back and said that he was no longer in radio astronomy but rather working with the LIGO Scientific Collaboration looking for gravitational waves and he was hoping to recruit some more students with an astronomy background into this search. Three weeks after graduating, I picked up and moved to Scotland to attend the University of Glasgow and pursue a PhD in general relativity.

Though seemingly by chance, I have always pursued areas that pique my interest. In addition to doing my degree in astrophysics, I also found that I loved mathematics, and pursued an undergraduate double major in that as well. While I enjoyed radio astronomy, my newfound love for mathematics fit brilliantly with the (at the time) theoretical search for gravitational waves. It was only during this PhD that I made the connections with science fiction and realized I had a great opportunity to combine the two.

Could you share a funny or strange story that’s come up along your career path?

When I was working in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, we were in what we called “Initial LIGO” where the detectors worked, but were not very sensitive. Something really unlikely was going to have to happen for us to make a detection. However, this was a great chance to test the whole process as a proof of concept, and we did a lot of work in injecting fake signals into the LIGO data to see if we could detect them. There was also an agreement that the “higher ups” in LIGO could inject a signal directly into the detectors to test our process and not confirm or deny until the collaboration had written the whole paper and it was ready for publication. This was really important for a collaboration of (at the time) about 1000 scientists from over 50 institutions trying to make a discovery that would no doubt result in a Nobel Prize and initiate a whole new field of astronomy.

Sure enough, before the Initial LIGO detectors went down for a 5-year upgrade, we got a signal that we named “Big Dog” as it was a huge signal and appeared to come from the Sirius constellation region. Now, the likelihood was so low that it was real, we all kind of knew it was fake, but we had to go through the whole process. It was exhausting from all aspects. It required a huge amount of work, and a lot of analysis, debate, and concurrence among many different personalities. It was so fascinating in fact, that there was a sociologist who observed the interactions for his own research and subsequently wrote a book on the whole process (“Gravity’s Ghost and Big Dog” by Harry Collins).

The final stage in the collaboration process for publication is to take the draft paper to one of our biannual face-to-face meetings for a review of a results and a vote to approve and send to a journal. It wasn’t until this stage that the LIGO leads would tell us if it was real or not. Again, we were all kind of expecting it to be fake, but there’s always that voice in the back of your head that thinks it might be true. So in a room of hundreds of scientists (certainly the most crowded I have ever seen one of these meetings) they revealed that yes, indeed the signal was fake. At which point half the room immediately stood up and went across the street to the bar where they spent the rest of the evening. To say we shut the place down would be an understatement. It was a beautiful, weird, entertaining experience for me and I’m grateful to have been there for it, particularly because I left the collaboration one year before they actually made their prize-winning detection with the upgraded detectors in 2015.

What was your biggest challenge in your career and how did you overcome it?

My biggest challenge was for sure making the decision to leave academia. I had never gone into my PhD with the end goal of becoming a tenured professor; my goal was to get a PhD and contribute to scientific discoveries. I found the postdoctoral life exhausting and not worth my level of ambition. The career requires seeking your own contracts and work for around 5–10 years at probably 3–5 different universities, likely in other countries. However, I had discovered a huge passion for teaching. I started teaching introductory physics and astronomy classes and found that I had the ability to explain difficult concepts at a really basic level, and loved seeing students break through and understand. I also had started speaking at popular culture conventions such as Dragon Con on the science behind science fiction and found a huge passion for that connection. In addition to the actual teaching, both of these activities put me in front of students and kids who may find inspiration in a punk-redhead woman covered in tattoos who also happens to have a PhD. I was convinced that if I left academia, I would no longer have the opportunity nor the authority to inspire and mentor others to get into science. I agonized over this decision for months, and over many discussions with my best friend, another woman in the field and at the same point in her career, we agreed that if I was able to just keep that motivation in my sight, and not stop finding opportunities to teach I would be able to find another career. I was also drained from the amount of work required to be a researcher with not enough passion to make up for it. I had started taking acting classes in the evening to have something else in my life and realizing that academia did not allow for much of a work-life balance, it was another nail in the coffin that leaving was the correct decision. So I left my postdoctoral research and moved back to Colorado with half a plan, and no career.

How did you become involved in working/advising the Air Force and Hollywood?

In Colorado, I started off working part time as an educator/actor at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and being an adjunct professor at the local community colleges. While I loved this work deeply and found a lot of satisfaction, my income barely even covered my rent, not to mention my student loans. After working a third job in a coffee shop for a few months, I started trying to find work in the aerospace industry. Thankfully a small aerospace company was looking for someone to replace a woman who was retiring and they actually read my cold-submitted resume carefully and realized a lot of what I did in academia paralleled their systems engineering work. With my background, doing highly technical data analysis was not something new to me, and I found that my teaching background also made me a great fit in the government consulting field. I could use the data to answer questions they hadn’t thought to ask yet, but I could also communicate why those findings were important. That’s my “Rocket Scientist” hat.

The other hat that I wear is that of “Warp Drive Expert”. Kind of like Superman to my Clark Kent. As I mentioned, I had been teaching science using science fiction at popular culture conventions and this had started to really take off. The convention organizers started to note the high attendance levels and enthusiasm attendees have for learning science while also geeking out over the latest superhero movie. I started taking these talks to a number of conventions around the country and through this process, I began to meet a lot of writers and actors in the science fiction industry.

A perfect storm happened where my personal life started to fall apart and the contract I was on for my aerospace engineering was coming to a close, so I packed up my car and moved to Los Angeles. It was here that I started to connect more regularly with these friends from conventions and they introduced me to their peers who saw my value, again in being able to communicate difficult science, but also as a science fiction fan who knows when and how to sacrifice exact scientific accuracy for the sake of the story.

What is it like to be a woman in this specific field?

There aren’t many men or women I know who have this combination of careers, but when it comes to aerospace engineering it can be difficult to be a woman sometimes. Through my whole career, and even in undergraduate I have always been used to 10–20% women so it’s not that which stands out. Rather, it’s the difficulty in finding a mentor. The hardest memories in academia and in industry have been being publicly humiliated by a woman who tends to be a generation older than myself. However, this has taught myself and the other women my age who experience the same thing, to be careful to not humiliate anyone, and to make ourselves available to mentor junior scientists and engineers more than we were.

What are you most proud of?

There are a few recent experiences that fill me with pride and joy when I look on them, mostly having to do with being called a “Warp Drive Expert” or hearing an actor say lines that I helped write. However, as cliche as it may seem there is nothing that makes me more proud than meeting kids who say that I have inspired them to pursue science or when adults say that if they had a teacher like me they would have stuck with science. I love that my enthusiasm for space and science is infectious and I am so proud that I have the ability to communicate science in a way that resonates with people. I will never forget the look on Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager) when she saw my PhD thesis dedication to Captain Janeway. I know how important it is to see yourself in others, and that helps carry you through the hardest times, and if I can give that to anyone, even a small amount, I am incredibly proud.

What would you change about how students are educated in high school and college to make them more astute in sciences?

There are quite a few approaches that could be implemented to improve interest in science. The first one is that mathematics and physics especially are sometimes taught by those who have always had an innate talent for them, or don’t fully understand the subject themselves. Math needs to be taught like a language, with an end goal in mind. As I mentioned, I didn’t have an interest in mathematics until well into college. I tolerated it in pursuit of my physics degree, but I had that epiphany where all those years of memorizing quadratic equations and exponential curves all came together, and it was like being able to speak a new language for the first time. Math isn’t taught with that end goal, that these are all pieces to a larger puzzle, and I think that would help motivate people to stick with it or feel more invested in it. Additionally, I have found that connecting what is being taught to reference points that students understand is invaluable in making the curriculum relevant. I saw that even before I started speaking at conventions, and I was teaching students about exoplanets (planets around other stars) and made a comparison to Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s home planet in Star Wars. Immediately the class perked up, because it was relevant to something they know. It doesn’t have to be good science itself, but it can be used as a reference point to engage students and inspire critical thinking.

How can people follow you and where can they look out for you next?

I can be found the most on Twitter: @drerinmac and you can find my upcoming appearances as well as other interviews on my website: www.erinpmacdonald.com If you are interested in having me come to your local popular culture convention, just let the organizers know! I’m always happy to bring science in science fiction to the public.

About the author: Jacob Rupp is a coach, author, speaker, podcaster, and rabbi. He is the founder of Lift Your Legacy, a community that helps people live a more authentic life. He has a regular, syndicated column that appears in ThriveGlobal and Medium magazine. To learn more about him or to listen to the Lift Your Legacy podcast, search iTunes or visit his site: liftyourlegacy.live