When Emily Calandrelli started sketching out plans for her new Netflix science show, she knew right away what she wanted one of her first experiments to be: making a pool full of oobleck, the gooey slurry of cornstarch and water that’s become a science class staple.
“Ever since I had played with it and learned about this whole non-Newtonian characteristics, I had wanted to create a pool of this stuff, to be able to run across,” she said.
The show, “Emily’s Wonder Lab,” gave her a chance to make that childhood dream come true. Now, Calandrelli is hopeful the program — which premiered last month — can get other kids interested in everything from tornados and clouds to slime and static electricity.
“Emily’s Wonder Lab” isn’t Calandrelli’s first foray into science education or even television. The MIT-trained engineer also hosted the show “Xploration Outer Space,” co-hosted the Netflix reboot “Bill Nye Saves the World,” and has penned the “Ada Lace” series of children’s books about a young girl who loves science and gadgets.
STAT spoke with Calandrelli about her new show, science communication, and STEM representation. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How do you approach talking about science to kids?
I don’t shy away from the science because I think kids are very clever and know way more than a lot of people give them credit for. So the first thing I try to do is approach the kids as if they are peers. I don’t talk down to them. I want to make sure that I don’t treat them like little kids, I treat them like little scientists and I treat them like people who have the ability to understand complex topics.
The challenge then is to make sure that you explain these complex topics in a simple way, in a way that everybody can understand it, and that challenges me to make sure that I know the topics really well. There’s that famous quote that if you can’t explain it simply then you don’t understand it well enough, and that hits home when you do a science show because you really need to find a simple way to explain everything you do.
What was the hardest scientific idea to explain in the show?
In our first episode we talked about phosphorescence: understanding the chemical luminescence and how things glow. That was something I hadn’t learned about. So, to find a simple way to explain that, I had to break down why I was having a hard time understanding it. One of the reasons is because the words themselves seem really intimidating because they’re hard to say. And so you have to find a way to get down to the basics and explain it in a really fun colorful way so that the kids get excited about it.
You’ve spoken about how many scientific figures in pop culture — including the hosts of science shows — are men. Why is that significant, and how would you like to see it change?
When somebody looks like you, everything that they’re doing and saying feels a little bit more relatable. I’d like to see the people who host science shows represent the demographic of the people in our society, because there isn’t enough BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] representation in science shows. There are not enough women hosts of science shows — not because there’s a lack of interest but because the people at the top consistently make the same decision of hiring and promoting men, typically white men. So I’d like to see that change and I’m very thankful that Netflix gave me the opportunity to help change that demographic just a little bit.
How should science communicators focus their efforts?
I think that the field of science communication is so incredibly valuable. We should always be focusing on how we can translate the valuable work that scientists and engineers are doing to people who aren’t scientists and engineers, because we need the public to understand how this science and technology affects them. We don’t need the next Bill Nye, we need a thousand Bill Nyes.
We need people who have lots of different types of personalities that will reach different types of audiences. And we need people with expertise in different areas of science, because the world’s progressed to be so scientifically and technologically advanced that just one very general science communicator isn’t going to cut it. We need people in the field of space and in the field of medicine, even in the field of immunology, Covid, wildlife management, deforestation, earthquakes, and natural disasters. We need science communicators in all of these fields. I’d like to see an entire generation of people become science communicators.
What barriers do you think need to be broken down for people entering the scientific field or working in it?
I think representation is a huge barrier for students to get involved in the STEM community. I always talk about feeling different, because I was a woman in these rooms, but I was also white, and most of the people in the room were white, so people who are not white, they feel this feeling. It feels especially challenging for them at times.
Of course, sexual harassment and the pay gap. Like in many industries, you can see these problems also occur in STEM. It isn’t super welcoming to [having] families. There’s this assumption that if you’re going to have a full-time STEM career, that you’re not going to have very fruitful personal life. In many ways, you’re punished for having one. There is one large study that showed women in STEM, after their first child, 40% were likely to either leave their career entirely or cut down to part-time work, or just transition to a non-STEM career. That’s a huge, scary number to see.