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Real science, fictional role models: Astrophysicist Erin Macdonald on Women in Science Day

This February marks the fifth annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science. We hear from astrophysicist and science advisor Erin Macdonald, who tells us about her role as a science advisor in the Star Trek franchise, the real (and fictional) role models that influenced her career and how she landed in Glasgow for her PhD. She is a Middle Years Programme (MYP) and Diploma Programme (DP) graduate based in the United States.

The following Q&A is an edited transcript of this episode of the IB Voices podcast.

Real science, fictional role models: Astrophysicist Erin Macdonald on Women in Science Day

Erin, thank you for joining us. Tell us a little bit about what you do, for our listeners at IB World Schools.

Erin Macdonald: Thanks for having me. A little bit about me, my name is Erin Macdonald, I’m currently based in Los Angeles, but I attended the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) and Diploma Programme (DP) out of Poudre high school in Fort Collins, Colorado. I’m an astrophysicist, and I currently work as a science advisor for the star Trek franchise out here in LA.

Why did you choose to be a part of an the IB programme?

“I would say the writing skills that the IB programme gave me was invaluable to my success as a scientist”.

What brought me to the IB programme? It was a little bit of just one of those random flukes, because the IB World School in our town was on the other side of town and I wasn’t in that district to go to that school. It just so happens that my neighbor who was about six years older than me went to the IB programme—and between her parents and my parent’s kind of discussing options and thinking about it, they highly recommended that I would fit in and have a good time.

And in IB, and the way that our school district is set up, it actually meant that I would leave our middle school programme, which would typically be grades seventh, eighth and ninth. I would leave that a year early and then the only ninth graders at this high school were IB kids. So, it was a little bit of a bonding experience, just one of those random things that was a life-changer and very happy with it.

What does a day in your life look like? Both pre COVID-19 (Coronavirus) day and how that’s changed since?

I mean, in terms of my career and what it looks like before COVID, and now after that—beforehand I actually was juggling multiple jobs. I was working as an aerospace technical advisor in an aerospace engineering company, as well as doing science advising for writers. And then when COVID hit, I was actually just back from the star Trek cruise—the last cruise possible. And that was when I made the decision to just focus on doing the science consulting full-time. As a full-time science consultant, my entire life has been on this virtual world, but really it hasn’t slowed down where I fit in, because my role as a science advisor is much more on that pre-production side.

Working in the writer’s rooms, working on developing scripts—and that’s all something that can be done, you know, from our homes. And for the most part, I don’t engage with people during the day that much—I get scripts sent to me and I review them. Some of the shows that I work with will send earlier concept documents, like outlines or story plans, but it’s really, you know, me doing a lot of reading, interacting over email. And then about the handful of times a month, I’ll hop into a writer’s room and we’ll discuss a story idea, or we’ll just do like a Q&A brown bag discussion.

You mentioned there’s this one big skill—writing—that you use now, and that you started to develop during the IB programme? Tell us, when did you really feel like I’m a writer or get engaged in a writing topic in a serious way?

It’s so crazy thinking about how IB influenced my writing ability and how that transitioned up until even this year. I don’t think I would have considered myself a writer professionally, but now that’s becoming clearer that is the path that I’m going down. But even before, I would say the writing skills that the IB programme gave me was invaluable to my success as a scientist. Particularly because when I went into my undergraduate, it was a lot of people who didn’t necessarily focus on their writing skills when they were in high school. But I had that strong background to be able to communicate very well. And then even more so when I went onto graduate school, because I went overseas for graduate school and people had different backgrounds and really didn’t have as much of a writing experience while going into the sciences.

And so that ability to write and communicate very concisely very clearly in a way that can be read by different audiences, I would say is what IB taught me to my ability as a scientist. And that’s actually one of those things that kept me as a major player, both in research and the research world, and then moving into industry that ability to communicate and write was a huge factor in my success. And I credit IB a lot with that.

Was there a teacher or a moment in a class that left a strong impression on you?

So, funny you were thinking about my that stick in my mind. I would say I had two major teachers that I’ll never forget. I went into physics in college, but I did not go into high school and the Diploma Programme, even Middle Years Programme thinking that I would be a physicist. I barely knew what that was, but I was also a dancer and I liked science. I took part in science extracurriculars and, but I always kind of was more drawn to biology, but then the dance teacher in high school, uh, I ended up dropping that class and the only other class available was a physics class. And it was taught by Mr. Lenczycki who is our IB physics teacher. And I loved it. I loved it. I fell in love with it, and he was very engaging. He made it make sense and made it exciting in a way that realizing that I could actually go to university and study that.

“A lot of the stuff that I’ve learned in that class has stuck with me and I feel like it’s made me a more well-rounded person”

And just, that was awesome. And it was super exciting. The other teacher that really stuck with me and actually, you know, we’ve continued to keep in touch since high school was Chris Hays, Ms. Chris Hays, she, the head of the diploma programme while I was there. And she was our history teacher. And so, you know, we did higher level history classes with her and she was very engaging and personable in a way that she taught history, not as a series of facts, but as a series of stories and was able to break down that part of history in a way that I always since then have found history fascinating, and I’ve always wanted to study it more. And a lot of the stuff that I’ve learned in that class has stuck with me and I feel like it’s made me a more well-rounded person. And then Chris, just personally, she would tell people—if you want to find my desk, it’s the one with Mulder and Scully and Snape on it—and she had a standup Aragorn in her office. This was, you know, the early 2000’s—so we got along, it was no question.

That was a perfect segue into the next question—what were the big shows that influenced you? Not as a scientist, but as a person in the science fiction realm?

I didn’t really grow up in a science fiction household per se. My parents weren’t big sci-fi fans that wasn’t part of what we would watch in the evenings. But I was this little geeky redheaded kid who loved aliens and then I got to see this redheaded woman wear a lab coat and fight aliens with science—and that was all I wanted to be a do. And I worshiped the ground that Dana Scully walked on. And so, X-Files was hugely influential into getting me more into science fiction, but also leading me down a path of, like I said, when I had Mr. Lenczycki as a science teacher, that was kind of the first time that I realized that physics was an option. But then also knowing my background war with the X-Files very deeply. I also made the connection at that age that Dana Scully did her undergraduate degree in physics. And so I’m not going to lie, that was a major factor in me deciding to pursue that in college—because logically, if I want to be Dana Scully, I need to get an undergraduate degree in physics.

Did you have friends or family members that were also interested in the STEM field that helped guide you to answer those questions? Or did you have to look for resources yourself?

My dad is a scientist, he’s a meteorologist and he worked as an air quality consultant. So, I wasn’t necessarily around the university academic aspect of science. My dad was in industry and it was one of those jobs—you barely know what it is when you’re a kid. It’s like, you just know he does some stuff in the air. But I still at least had that—where if I had problem with my science homework or my math homework, then I had someone who was able to help me and support me through that. But certainly, our interests and my proclivity to get into space, to study space, to study physics, that wasn’t necessarily what my dad’s background was in. So, I didn’t feel like I was following that same path that he was in, but I definitely had that support.

My mom on the other hand is a writer. So ironically followed that path and she’s a professional librarian as well, even though I wasn’t raised in the science fiction household, I can at least credit my parents with having that balance of arts and sciences that I think is unique and important.

We talk all the time with the IB about interdisciplinary learningand you’re saying you inherently took all these subjects and mixed them together!?

Yeah. I think that interdisciplinary idea is really important. And when we talk about engaging with kids too, it’s this idea not just STEM, but STEAM is another term that’s used a lot—that’s adding arts into the science, technology, engineering and math. I do think there is a major crossover.

For me, I always thought that they were fairly incompatible just in a sense that my mom was a writer and an artist. My dad was a scientist. And so those are two different people—and two different paths that I could go down. But I was obsessed with X-Files. I was obsessed with movies. I loved—you know, this was the nineties—when you would get the double VHS tape that had the making of video that came with it. And I loved film and I loved storytelling from that aspect, but I saw it growing up that I needed to choose one or the other. And somehow, I have shoehorned it and made it come back together to have both of those in my life together. Completely compatibly. So, yeah—I love it.

This would be a great time to talk about your MYP projectwe no longer need to ask you “why aliens?”but tell us a little bit about your MYP personal project and what sort of skills you came out of that with afterward?

“Even if I wasn’t discovering anything new, I was learning how to make these threads and make these connections and tell a story in a way that I hadn’t done before on something completely open-ended”

Thank you for leading that question—I can give a very good answer for that for sure! Yes, my MYP project obsessed with aliens … I decided to dig into the lore and the history of aliens and UFO’s in American culture. And it was just purely because this [project] was an open-ended prompt. I almost couldn’t believe it—okay, for your MYP project, choose whatever you want to do? I was like: “Oh my God, like, I can actually just research aliens and like, write an essay on that and figure it out?” I was reading redacted FBI files—anything could get my hands on because I loved it. I thought I was going to get in trouble with the government for the amount of UFO searching I was doing.

But, I would say doing the MYP project and having this open-ended projects that I could come up with—that I could personally use my interests in and have a mentor help me figure out how to do this research, but really it was up to me … this is how you look up research papers, this is how you look up redacted government documents—all of that helped me hone that skill of turning what is just this vague interest into something tangible. And even if I wasn’t discovering anything new, I was learning how to make these threads and make these connections and tell a story in a way that I hadn’t done before on something completely open-ended.

And that skill, I would say it’s amazing looking back—I was doing this MYP project, and then going into the Extended Essay, then going into college and particularly in the STEM field—you know, it’s not what you can memorize, it’s not how many tests you can pass—it’s learning how to do research and learning how to do research projects. I was doing honors projects as an undergraduate at university and then going into graduate school or post-graduate school and doing a PhD programme—and those skills, that’s exactly what you need because you’re given open-ended projects and being able to do that research and independently and confidently say: “This is what I’m interested in. This is what I’m going to do my project on.” And going off and learning how to do that. I think that skill carries on way more into industry than we think about at the time, because it just feels like a project, but it’s really a skill that can build on itself over the years.

That is a spot on—but I also hope it’s the truth!

Absolutely. The truth. I really, I fundamentally believe that. And it wasn’t until even we were talking about my MYP project and the extended essay that caused me to even reflect back because I always attribute that skill, really, to learning about scientific research when I was in university—but then actually realizing that that started much earlier in those skills that IB gave me—just the confidence to be able to do my own research projects is huge. And I, I didn’t give it that much credit until we were just talking about this now.

Speaking about the truth … what excites you in the world of science fiction right now, or the world of aliens? It was X-Files. What have you moved on to now?

So, my current relationship with science fiction? Just a little bit brief about the kind of career trajectory that I went on—I went to university, studied physics, loved astrophysics, studying space with that went into graduate school overseas, did my PhD in astrophysics continued to do research. Then I moved into teaching community college and at local museums. I started working as an aerospace engineer, mostly out of necessity for paying bills—because unfortunately teaching doesn’t pay as much as we would hope it would sometimes—and so I started working as an aerospace engineer, but all through that track, particularly when I left academia, I really missed teaching. I love teaching at the core of my heart. And so, I started going to science fiction conventions and teaching at those conventions, the science behind science fiction franchises—whether that was video games or Star Trek or even Star Wars—and just pulling out little science things.

“My relationship with science fiction has very much evolved into that, using it as a tool to teach”.

And people loved it—that big crossover of sci-fi fans and science enthusiasts is huge. And a science fiction convention was like this really weird quirky opportunity for science enthusiasts to also geek out about what they love and learn some science along the way. My relationship with science fiction has very much evolved into that, using it as a tool to teach. And I think that’s very effective because science fiction provides an anchor reference point for people that you can at least be like, all right, well, this is a teaching moment. This is why that wouldn’t happen because of science. And we can explain why that is, and cause and effect and all that fun stuff. Right now, as a sci-fi fan, I’m obviously immersed in the star Trek universe because I have to be, but I am also am a fan. I also think as a science consultant—and someone who uses science fiction to teach science, I have seen an increase in more hard-science [based] science fiction.

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When you talk about science fiction, it’s a spectrum from science to fiction. Sometimes on that far end of the fiction, it’s just fantasy that happens to be set on a space station or set in space. The science side, that’s where you’re more including how artificial gravity works or different planets that we’re exploring. I think we’re currently sitting in that realm a little bit more just with the pure content that’s coming out. I would say things like The Martian and The Expanse kind of have driven us more toward that [and] people just find it really interesting—it’s like that near future science fiction, where we can see where humanity will be in the next hundred years as opposed to the next thousand years.

I was going to bring up The Expanse, I read that series and really enjoyed it.  I have two more questions on my list I’d love to cover—could you tell us about the transition from MYP to DP?

I think from the MYP to the DP programmes—I do remember it being a fairly significant transition. The thing for us was the way our school was set up, it was that same group of kids that if you wanted to do the DP, you had to do the MYP and it was at the same school. So, we finished the MYP and there were some kids that did not continue to the DP. But I think that in terms of the workload, [our teachers] were very clear with expectations—they viewed your MYP project as an entrée—this is the kind of workload you can expect. And there’s going to be a lot more [discussions about] expectations—how you choose your higher level [HL courses] versus standard level [SL courses], what our programme is going to, you know, say everyone takes these higher level ones and you can choose these other options.

I changed and ended up in SL physics almost out of necessity, not necessarily knowing that I would personally have an interest in it. At the time, I was doing HL biology as my fourth higher level option, so I didn’t have to take physics at that level. However, I ended up dropping biology and took English, history and math as my HL subjects. I’m glad we had the option to take HL math because it never came easy to me. But knowing that it would be necessary for the field that I was now finding I had an interest in, it was more like ‘No, that’s probably the smart thing to do—is to take it at higher level’. I ended up choosing those subjects and that’s the nice thing of having that subset of people within a bigger school where we were just the IB kids.

The rest of the school was different from us since they were taking other classes. It did create this kind of community because we were isolated from everyone. That helped us get through the DP and the expectations from teachers were great and very clear. They told us to start making friends, showed us when we would have our free periods and how we were going to be doing our work. Now that I think about it, the DP prepared us well for university because you had to manage your own workload, multiple classes and people taking different things. Some people were in SL math and I took it at higher level. Finding that community who can help you is very important and is something that carries on

Just out of curiosity, what inspired you to pursue a PhD in Glasgow and would you recommend it to other people?

The decision to go do a PhD in Glasgow was a bit of a random process. I’ve always had an interest in Scotland because my parents took us there on a big trip when we were kids. It was a heritage culture trip and was a place that I wanted to visit for an extended period of time. When I became older and was going into university, I ended up staying in my state. I went to the University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder because it was a great astrophysics university. I was able to pay in-state tuition, but I was doing a double major and didn’t have the opportunity to study abroad. And that’s what most of my fellow IB graduates did.

I think a lot of us were interested in studying abroad seeing as there was a big emphasis on international travel and community—it was a nugget that was planted in everyone’s head and was something that we wanted to do. The IB curriculum is very focused on having a global worldview so much that you ask yourself ‘Alright, you are 18—get your passport! Does everyone have their passports?’. All my fellow IB graduates and friends studied abroad but I was never able to fit that into my schedule or plan for university. So, when it came to looking at postgraduate options, I was looking at different universities that were available and was thinking career wise, as well as my wish to want to live in the UK.

If it was Scotland, great but I never got this chance. From a practical standpoint, I just wanted to keep studying astrophysics and I wasn’t going into graduate school with the mentality that I was going to be a professor. I was going into it thinking that I liked my research projects and wanted to study more and have a PhD. Once I knew that, I started looking into graduate programs overseas and the ones in the UK actually fit my career goals much better than the ones in the United States. I had extensive research experience as an undergraduate because I started doing research when I was a sophomore at my university. I had two and a half years of experience under my belt and the way the UK programs are structured is that it’s like an apprentice program, as opposed to a full mentor thing.

You don’t have as much in the school curriculum and it’s nowhere near as long of a program. You come in with a research plan and they sit you in front of a desk and say ‘All right, you’ve got maximum of four years to write a PhD thesis’. I don’t have a master’s degree and jumped right into a PhD programme because of my research background. I applied to a few programmes in the UK but fell in love with Glasgow after having that knowledge and deciding that it was the path I was going to take. There was a professor in Glasgow that I clicked with and he said ‘You know, I think you’d be a great addition with your research background and here’s the expectations’. The IB made me a glutton for punishment with workload that I was going from one thing to the next, and I didn’t know how to stop working in a good way. I graduated the first week of May with a double major in maths and physics and then three weeks later, started my PhD programme in Scotland. I picked up my stuff, drove right in and finished my PhD three and a half years later at the age of 25. It was a lot of work, but it was a great experience for sure.

Do you have any advice for young girls and women interested in STEM?

“You still have that shared experience but when it comes to mentorship, I always tell people not to be afraid to have a fictional mentor—they help you get through those trying times when you are struggling with all kinds of stuff”.

Try and find a mentor and community—I’m a white woman so I have some advantages, but I think that there’s a lot of under-representation when it comes to gender in the sciences. As an undergraduate, there were not a lot of other shared experiences and I didn’t have professors who looked like me that could be my mentor. However, I do think that the IB allows you to bond with your classmates considering how hard the DP is and the challenges you have to overcome at such a young age.

This bond lasts well into adulthood and I am still very close with my friends. So, when I didn’t find that group as an undergraduate and was in student classrooms with tons of strangers, that was my cue to find other people in the class who I could commiserate with and share my experience. It’s like this peer mentorship that carries on even if you’re not at the same university or going into the same field. You still have that shared experience but when it comes to mentorship, I always tell people not to be afraid to have a fictional mentor—they help you get through those trying times when you are struggling with all kinds of stuff.

I didn’t have a professor that was struggling with my classes. I would watch the X-Files and think ‘Okay, he knows Scully man, he’s cool, he can handle it and I can do this’. When I was an undergraduate, I was exposed to Star Trek. I didn’t know much about it but there is a big crossover between physicists and Star Trek fans. I really go into Star Trek: Voyager and that’s the one with Captain Janeway who was the first female led captain in the Star Trek series and like Scully, I was attached to her. I saw myself in her shoes as science officer because her character was able to mentor me. It sounds a little bit weird if you haven’t experienced it before, but I think for underrepresented groups we are starting to see ourselves in the media. It’s through storytelling that we find those characters that motivate you even if they aren’t in the same field. It’s the type of person that you want to use as a mentor because they will help you get through tough times.

What’s one piece of advice you have for someone looking ahead to a career in the sciences or any discipline?

My biggest piece of advice, particularly for students, is that you’re not locked into anything at any given time. I feel like that was a big thing that I struggled with because like I mentioned, I did my undergraduate at CU. Before that, I actually went to a different university in my freshman year and it was out of state. It didn’t work out for me; I wasn’t happy at all and my professors helped me figure out that CU would be a good fit for me. So, I went back home and that was the right decision. I went through all of these life pivots that I had made because I’m basically a one-woman career panel for a degree in astrophysics at this point. All of those experiences have just been a point of reflection to say ‘Okay, this isn’t working for me but what skills do I have?

What do I enjoy doing? When I left academia, there was a lot that I didn’t like but I wasn’t forced out. This constant moving of career track and striking a work-life balance was not something that I saw myself enjoying for a period of time, but I liked the project management aspect. I enjoyed leading a team, mentoring and teaching. Taking those opportunities and trying to build a career off of that, as cheesy as it sounds, has allowed me to pursue my dreams. I loved science consulting, teaching science and reading science fiction. I have spent seven years going into conventions during my down time and it’s allowed me to build a community of people who also enjoy that.

But then one day I thought to myself ‘I wonder if I can work Hollywood into this because I’ve always loved it’. It’s at these conventions that I met actors, showrunners, writers etc. and I used my networking skills that I have been working on since the DP to connect with them. I would say that there is an element of practicality when looking at your life plan, trying to figure out a degree that’s going to set you up very well. I’m not going to lie—having a PhD in astrophysics has gotten me far and has helped me a lot in all of these different career transitions. It’s those skills that help you make those pivots and give you that tenacity to not give up.

Thinking outside of the box is a big thing as well. The fact that I was like ‘All right, I love Hollywood and film-making and I also really love science and space so let’s shove them together and I’ll just make a job for myself out of it’ is amazing. It’s possible but it just took a lot of work and the IB sets you up very well for that. I really do credit it and I’m a huge IB nerd and advocate. I want more people to know about it and see the benefits that it can have on someone’s life. Like I said, I really believe that it had a huge impact on my success and how I’ve approached my life.

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Erin Macdonald is an internationally recognized space science expert, writer, speaker and consultant. She was born and raised in Colorado, U.S. and earned her PhD in astrophysics from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. She currently lives in Los Angeles and is working as a writer as well as a science consultant for the Star Trek franchise. She also enjoys playing video games on her partnered Twitch channel (DrErinMac), dancing, crafting and binge-watching science fiction.

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