Written by Mary Andreski
At the Denver Starfest Convention 2018 I had the chance to sit down and chat with Doctor Erin Macdonald (the astrophysicist behind Dr. Erin Explains the Universe) about science and science fiction.
I have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Macdonald while I was the programming coordinator for Fort Collins Comic Con. She runs an awesome track of science panels at conventions throughout the county each year. It was great getting a chance to speak more in depth with her about her background, work, and outreach she has to bring science into the sci-fi and pop culture communities.
Mary Andreski: I am here for Nerd Team 30 at the Starfest Convention with Dr. Erin Mcdonald. If you could go ahead and introduce yourself and just a little bit about your background.
Dr. Erin Macdonald: I'm Dr. Erin Mcdonald and my background is in Astrophysics and I did my doctorate with the Lago Collaboration - searching for gravitational waves for things like dead neutron stars and colliding black holes, which is really awesome. I actually left the collaboration before they made their detection, which is fine. Now I work as an aerospace engineer and I also work as a consultant, helping writers with their science fiction as well as coming to these (conventions) and teaching about the science behind science fiction.
MA: So, what spurred you into the comic and science fiction world and why did you combine your career with that or vice versa?
Dr. Erin: I’ve always been a sci-fi fan anyway, which helps. While I was kind of working on my PhD thesis I was putting off writing it, and I was like, "I bet I can calculate how a warp drive works". So I tried to calculate how a warp drive works and did. At the same time I was starting to attend a lot of conventions just as a thing, and a few of them had science tracks. Not many, but a few did. So I started giving talks that were very science focused - just pure gravitational waves and astrophysics talks. Then I started to get more interest. I started talking about the science of Mass Effect. It was a really big one for me because the science is so expansive and interesting in that game. I found over the years that it was a great way to reach out to people and teach science in a different way. You get people at these conventions who they really are interested in science but don’t have a background in it. They love being able to make those ties between their popular culture and learn some real science behind it. It's great too, because kids get engaged as well.
MA: So you were saying that you were always interested in science fiction. Is that what brought you into science in the first place?
Dr. Erin: I never really had a real life mentor - as it were - as I wanted to get into science. I actually grew up watching the X-Files, so I had Dana Scully. And I loved aliens. For me being able to see a red headed woman, you know, don a lab coat and fight aliens was awesome. So, that's what kind of got in my head. I wanted to be an astrophysicist. Not even kidding, I literally found out Dana Scully had her undergraduate degree in astrophysics and I went, "Oh, thats a real degree. I want to do that degree". There's a straight line for me between Dana Scully and becoming an astrophysicist. So, yeah.
MA: What’s your favorite part of giving talks at conventions and bringing this knowledge from the science world to the outer world?
Dr. Erin: I think for me its meeting the people. People are so engaged, they’re so enthusiastic. You know, if you’ve been to these convention before you know how friendly people are, it really is a sense of family. But for me the most rewarding thing is when I get kids come up to me afterwards. I don’t know if you saw at the end of mine (panel earlier) there was a girl who came up and she just said, “This is great I get to meet a real scientist and I always wanted to be a scientist.” If people are able to see themselves in me or kids get excited about maybe becoming a scientist because they see a woman with tattoos, and think I like tattoos and I like science, maybe I could do that one day. That’s really my big reward.
MA: What would be some of your advice for someone who is aspiring to be a scientist if they have no idea where to start, or if there's so many options that they just get overwhelmed by the choices?
Dr. Erin: I think for young kids who are maybe are going through a high school or going into college it's just ask questions and do everything. I started out wanting to maybe be a biologist. I learned really quickly that was not my thing. But I loved space, and so I started to do more space. I started to do research in space just as I went through my undergraduate career. And I was able to find stuff that clicked. You know I ended up also with a math degree just by taking math classes. It was so cool that I wanted to learn more (about space). So it's keeping that curiosity, keeping that enthusiasm.
For people who might be later career, or second career I think what it really is - don’t be afraid to jump in and don’t be afraid to ask for help. People who are in science love science and are always happy to talk about it. So asking those questions and keeping that curiosity is really important.
MA: Now you come to conventions, do you have other ways of bringing your knowledge to the outside world? Do you have a website, do you have a podcast, things like that?
Dr. Erin: Yeah, so online I’m @drerinmac on Twitter and I do a lot of science outreach on Twitter. Actually last year, because of all these conventions I started a Youtube channel. It's called Dr. Erin Explains the Universe. I put out a chunk of episodes and I am filming a bunch more now that will be coming out later this year. It's just short videos on the science behind science fiction. I take questions from people, they give me ideas for new talks. Some of them are more science, some of them are more science fiction. I just think its a great way to reach out to people.
MA: Are you going to be at any upcoming conventions in the area or across the country in the near future that you know of yet?
Dr. Erin: So, I’ve done a few already this year. I did Emerald City Comic Con, I also did Awesome Con. I’m here at Starfest and it looks like I will be at Fort Collins Comic Con here in Colorado as well as Dragon Con out in Atlanta. That’s all I have now. There's a few more I’m still talking to. I usually do about a half dozen a year. It’s fun.
MA: As far as examples and role models, you mentioned Scully was one to you. Is there anyone else, whether real or fictional that's inspired you in your life? Not necessarily in your career choice, but just inspired you to keep going?
Dr. Erin: Yeah, for me, its Captain Janeway. (Laughs, points at star trek badge on her shirt) “Captain Janeway represent.” Honestly, I didn’t discover Star Trek until later in life. My family wasn’t into it. I didn’t have a lot of friends in school who were really into it. As I went through high school into college that's kind of when Voyager was airing its run. Oh man, I got hooked. I just felt an instant connection with Captain Janeway. To the extent that I actually dedicated my PhD thesis to her. You know, for me, I was so lucky to find women who inspired me even though they were fictional. Honestly, going through graduate school, going through undergrad, being a scientist in general can be really hard and lonely sometimes. So it's good to have mentors real or fictional, that you know. I will just burn out and put on a Voyager episode and go, “Okay now, I can do this.” That's really important to me. So I see the value in science fiction, I see the value of having representation. You know, for anyone. If they’re able to see themselves in characters and connect it goes a long way towards pushing them and inspiring them.
MA: As a closing question what would be some of your hopes as far as where you would like to see science go?
Dr. Erin: Obviously I would like warp drive. That’s the goal. You know Star Trek managed it about 2060-ish. So yeah, we’re hoping on that. But you know I think there’s so much out there. What I’d really like to see, what I’m excited about, is more gravitational wave discoveries. Because that’s allowing us to really - I use it as an analogy of almost hearing our universe whereas we’ve always looked at our universe. Now we have a different way of doing that, so I’m excited what we learn with that. I’m also excited with what we are learning with Quantum physics. Quantum entanglement and how we can start using that in our technology. So, I’m curious to see where it goes. And Warp Drive.
MA: Well, Thank you so much for your time and its been a pleasure listening to your talks and hearing you inspire those around you.
Dr. Erin: Thank you, I appreciate it.