Emily Calandrelli, The Space Gal
Emily Calandrelli is an MIT engineer, also known as 'The Space Gal'. In this video she talks about her career as a science communicator, women in STEM, and the power of media.
Emily Calandrelli is the host and co-executive producer of the hit Netflix series Emily’s Wonder Lab. She is also an accomplished writer and speaker on the topics of space exploration, scientific literacy, and equality. Her chapter book series, The Ada Lace Adventures, centers around an eight-year-old girl with a knack for science, math, and solving mysteries with technology. Emily is an MIT engineer who frequently gives talks about the importance of science literacy, the benefits of space exploration, and the challenges for women in STEM careers. Through her work, she wants to make science relatable, easy to understand and more exciting today than ever before in history.
Watch 'Emily Calandrelli, The Space Gal' (21:03)
(Duration: 21 minutes 3 seconds)
[Screen shows Emily Calandrelli, she is wearing a jumper that reads, ‘Fly me to the moon.]
Hi everyone, my name is Emily Calandrelli. On the internet I am known as The Space Gal and I am so excited to talk to you all today. Today I'm going to talk to you a little bit about my career as a science communicator, women in STEM, or really the lack thereof, and the power of media.
So, first and foremost, I am known as The Space Gal mostly because I studied science and engineering for eight years with a focus on aerospace. I went to West Virginia University and got an undergrad degree in mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering. And then I went to grad school at MIT where I studied aeronautics and astronautics engineering for my master's and then got a second master's in another program called the Science and Technology and Policy Program.
But today I am a science TV show host, a science communicator, a children's book author and we're going to go through all of that but it all started with me becoming the host of a show on Fox on Saturday mornings called ‘ Xploration Outer Space’ where I get to travel all around the country to different NASA centres and private space companies and universities and highlight the coolest things that are happening in the space industry today.
[Screen reads, ‘Xploration Outer Space’ with a background showing planets and nebula. In the bottom left corner of the screen is a circular image of Emily in a space suit.]
So that's everything from rockets and spaceships and rovers on Mars and searching for aliens and everything in between. For a space nerd like myself, it is quite literally a dream job and I get to have so many fun adventures through that show.
After I started doing ‘ Xploration Outer Space’ , we've been doing that for seven years now, but after I started doing that I became a children's book author of the ‘ Ada Lace Adventures’ .
[Screen shows Emily pick up 5 books and hold them up to the screen, fanning them out to reveal the covers. The books are titled, ‘Ada Lace’.]
Ada is a third grader who loves science and technology, and she goes on these adventures to solve mysteries with technology and gadgets that she builds herself.
[Screen shows 5 Ada Lace books appear along the bottom of the screen, titled, ‘on the case’, ‘sees red’, and the important mission’, ‘take me to your leader’, ‘and the suspicious artist’.]
It's kind of like a girl after my own heart and really a girl that I kind of wished that I was like when I was younger.
[Emily holds up the book titled, ‘Ada Lace, take me to your leader’.]
The fun part about that one is the third book in this series, this book, actually went to space through this wonderful programme called the Story Time From Space program.
[Screen shows a picture of the Ada Lace character on the right-hand side of the screen, wearing an astronaut suit and waving. On the right-hand side of the screen is the Ada Lace book floating inside a rocket.]
It was launched on a rocket, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and sent to the International Space Station and read aloud by astronaut Anne McClain. So if you go to storytimefromspace.com you'll be able to see an entire video of an astronaut floating in the space station reading my book with the image of sometimes the inside of the International Space Station in the background but sometimes the image of the Earth in the background. It's very surreal, very, very cool. That's a highlight of my life for sure.
After I started doing that, I became a correspondent for the one and only Bill Nye and ‘ Bill Nye Saves the World’ on Netflix. That one is a little bit different than ‘ Xploration Outer Space’ because it's way more international. That one, it's on Netflix so it's in like 38 different countries or something like that. And so for that programme, I got to travel to India and cover a number of science stories in India for Bill Nye which obviously as you can imagine was very, very cool.
[Screen shows an image of Emily holding a balloon, with two children on either side, they are all wearing brightly coloured overalls. The screen reads, ‘A Netlix original series, Emily’s Wonder Lab’.]
And then most recently I got my own Netflix show called ‘ Emily's Wonder Lab’ where I get to share my love of science and experiments and explosions with kids all around the world. That is, it's probably my proudest project that I've ever worked on. It's a way that we can make science feel more accessible to kids all over and it's just a really, really, really fun show.
Fun fact, I was also nine months pregnant when I filmed that entire series. So now there's a nine-month pregnant woman on Netflix talking about science and I just think that's really cool.
One thing that I think is important to point out though is that this is not the career that I envisioned for myself when I was a kid especially when I was in high school. I did not consider myself one of the smart kids in high school. And that was because I grew up in a college town and the kids who were considered the smart kids in my high school were ones who had parents who were professors at the local university. They were kids who had parents who had PhDs, who were scientists and engineers. These were kids who had tutors for their SATs. They had all of the right help to apply to colleges and they applied to all the great colleges and they got into the them. And I was just not one of those kids. And so it took me a while to kind of build that confidence in myself to learn that you can make yourself smarter.
You can make yourself gain knowledge and skills and most importantly confidence over time. But I didn't know this secret until a little bit later in life. When I was a high school senior the way that I chose the major that I was going to major in in college was I Googled all of the majors one could major in and I looked up their starting salaries. And I found that engineers often made the most money. And so I chose to go into engineering thinking these are going to be the worst four years of my life, that it's going to be hard and it's going to be awful, but I'm going to end up with a good job at the end of it and it's all going to be worth it. And so I learned that actually I'm good at this, and secondly, it was actually a lot of fun. I had really, I had so many adventures throughout college because I had chosen to go into STEM, because I had chosen to go into engineering.
[Screen reads, ‘Do your homework weightless!’ beside an image of Emily and another person wearing coveralls and floating inside a craft.]
And so when I get to West Virginia University, I know that I want to do engineering, but I don't know what type of engineering. And I'm walking down the hallways and I see this poster on the wall that has a student floating weightless and it says something on the poster like, ‘ Do your homework weightless.’ And I was like, what is this? Is this a nerdy metaphor or something? What does that mean? And it turns out that it was a class that you could take, if you studied aerospace engineering, to fly on something called the Vomit Comet. And if you don't know what the Vomit Comet is, let me blow your mind. It is the coolest thing you will ever learn about. The Vomit Comet is a plane that flies in the air like an 8,000-foot rollercoaster. And it does this so that the people and the experiments inside this plane float weightless like astronauts. And so when it goes over the hump like this, everything feels weightless for about 25 seconds, and then when it goes under and it starts diving back up, everything feels really heavy for about 25 seconds. And so you feel weightless and heavy and weightless and heavy and weightless and heavy and weightless and heavy for an hour and a half, which is why they call it the Vomit Comet. Because if you rode a ride that intense for that long you might get sick.
And so this was the reason I chose to go into aerospace engineering because I had to ride on the Vomit Comet, and let me tell you, it was the best decision I've ever made. It was the coolest experience of my life and I just want to show you a few short clips of what that was like.
[Music playing. Screen shows a series of clips of Emily and others inside the Vomit Comet. Emily is walking in what looks like zero gravity, before spinning, eating while floating and juggling.]
Before we land, I have a few things left on my Zero-G bucket list, a space walk. Plus some acrobatics. Oh my god! Eating like an astronaut. Snacking. And even juggling. I can actually do it on the moon.
[Screen shows Emily holding a hula hoop while Sam floats through, then Emily floats through the hula hoop. They do this a few times before opening their coveralls to show a superman shirt underneath.]
Here's another experiment, jumping through a hula hoop.
Now that I've seen Sam's attempt, it's my turn.
Yay! She's a pro, she's a pro!
Let's face it, if you're going to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, you might as well have some fun.
[Screen returns to Emily wearing a jumper that reads, ‘Fly me to the moon.]
So that's my story of how I got into engineering but I'm a bit unique because while women make up 57% of the US workforce, we only make up about 29% of STEM jobs. And when you get to the higher positions in STEM companies, the executive positions, it's much worse. And to highlight this discrepancy, we can look at those who make it to the highest positions in the space industry and check out the demographic of people who have been to space.
[Screen is titled, ‘Women in space’. Below the title reads, ‘in 1963 Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, just two years after the first man Yuri Gagarin. But since her pioneering flight, how many other women have followed?’. At the bottom of the screen is a graph using figures of people, one woman is represented by an orange person, of which there are 59 women. One man is represented by an aqua blue person, of which there are 429. Text above the graph reads, ‘Since 1961 almost 550 people have been to space* but less than 11% have been women.’ Beside this text is an arrow with a text box above it that reads, ‘Updated 2021 (now 12%)’.]
Out of the 560 some people who have been to space, only about 12% of them have been women. And one of the reasons this is a big deal is because going to space is a very unique experience. The astronauts who have gone to space talk about how they've experienced something known as the overview effect.
[Screen shows an image of the earth from space.]
Now the overview effect is this cognitive shift in perspective of how you think about our planet and the humans on that planet. From that vantage point it becomes immediately clear that we as a species are all living on this tiny, fragile ball hanging in the void of space.
And these astronauts who experience this, they come home and their lives are changed. They want to be a better neighbour to each other. They want to be a better steward of the environment. They write books, they give talks about all their experiences, but all of these powerful stories are from a very limited perspective, mostly male, mostly white, mostly American, mostly scientists and engineers because these are the people who have gone to space. So I want you to consider how might the world change if more people from diverse backgrounds experienced the overview effect?
What art, music, or poetry would be created? What education plans would be put in place? What laws would be written? What new Justin Bieber song would be created?
And I say that only half as a joke because if more diverse people from diverse backgrounds could have this perspective and create new things, they would reach a different audience, an audience that's not traditionally reached. And I personally think the world would change for the better.
Now, NASA in particular is doing a much better job of selecting female astronauts, but that wasn't always the case. And back when they sent their first female astronaut, Sally Ride, into space, the NASA engineers on the ground weren't that diverse either, and here's a story that really drives that point home.
So back when NASA was sending Sally ride into space in 1983 there was some question about what to put in her personal kit. And the NASA engineers on the ground had to figure out how many tampons Sally Ride would need for a seven-day mission in space. Seven days, keep that in mind, seven-day mission in space. And they asked her, ‘Is 100 the right number?’ For a seven-day mission in space. And she said, ‘No, that would not be the right number.’ For anyone listening who has not had the, let's say, wonderful experience of having a period themselves, that number is too high. That number is too high. And so Sally Ride said, ‘No, that would not be the right number.’ And so the engineers responded and they said, ‘Well, we know that that's more than you need ‘but failure is not an option.’ And so she said that you could easily cut that number in half and still be wildly, obscenely safe.
Now, of course, this is just a silly example of what happens when your team is not very diverse. But unfortunately this is just one example of lack of diversity leading to inefficiencies. Here are some more.
If you've ever been in an office that felt just a little too cold, that might be because the formula to determine standard office temperature was developed in the 1960s around the metabolic resting rate of the average man. This has resulted in office temperatures feeling like five degrees too cold for the average woman. I'm sure we all have stories like this. But when I went to visit my mom at her office when I was a kid during the summers, it was always freezing in her office. And her and all of the other women who worked in the office had a little space heater under their desk in the middle of summer. In the middle of hot, humid summers, they all had space heaters under their desk, kind of like their way of sticking up for themselves or something. It was all wildly inefficient.
If you've ever waited in a long line in the women's restroom and noticed that there was absolutely no line in the men's restroom, the reason for that is likely because when civil engineers and architects, both male-dominated fields, are designing restrooms, they often allocate the same amount of space for both men and women's restrooms. That seems fair, right? A few problems with that. So one, in men's restrooms, there are both urinals and stalls, meaning more people can relieve themselves in the same amount of space. Also, women need about twice as much time in the bathroom. And the majority of elderly and disabled are women. They need more time in the restroom. Children are more likely to accompany women to the restroom, they need more time. All of this adds up, right? And so it's not as simple, is it really fair to allocate the same amount of space for both men and women? How would bathrooms look different if more women were in the room when we were designing them?
These examples of not including women in design are a little bit annoying and inefficient, right? But not including women in design and technology can also will be dangerous. So personal protective equipment like body armour for police and even face masks have typically been designed for the average man. And because there are differences in chest, hips, and thighs between women and men, women can often end up with ill-fitting protective equipment. There's a story of female police officer, of this female police officer who had breast reduction surgery simply because her body armour was too uncomfortable for her to wear. And when her story came to light, 700 other women in the same force stepped forward to state that their standard-issue protective equipment was ill-fitting for them as well.
Cars have traditionally been designed using car-crash dummies based on the average male. Because of this, women, when they are involved in a car crash, are 47, 47% more likely to be seriously injured and 71% more likely to be moderately injured. And it wasn't until 2011, 2011, it's like really not that long ago, that the US government required car manufacturers to even use female test dummies for their safety tests. And even sometimes the female test dummy is just a scaled-down version of the male test dummy. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as that. Women are not scaled-down versions of men. We have different muscle mass distribution, lower bone density, different vertebrae spacing, and all of this influences how we might be injured in a crash. And now, unfortunately, this is an inefficiency that I think about every time I step into a car.
And finally, lack of female representation can also be found in the medical industry. A new study that just came out from UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago looked at 86 different medications approved by the FDA and found that women experience adverse drug effects nearly twice as often than men. This is because drug dosages have historically been based on clinical trials conducted on men alone. For decades, women were excluded from clinical drug trials based in part because of unfounded concerns that female hormone fluctuations rendered women difficult to study. Excluding women from clinical trials comes at a cost, the health of women.
Now these are just a few samples but you can see that when you don't have women involved in various stages of design for science and technology, it leads to problems. At best, it's just inefficient and annoying, like too many tampons in space. But at worst, it's deadly, it's affecting our health. This isn't good for companies, it's not good for our country and it's definitely not good for women.
So what can we do about it? Well, here are three main areas that I think have a lot of room for improvement. And the first is the representation of women in STEM in media. hat's books and TV shows and movies and anywhere that we consume media because at a young age, we use this media that we consume to figure out what image to formulate in our brain when we think of the word scientist or engineer. And two, we can make STEM more welcoming to people who want families, particularly women who want families. Right now that's not necessarily the case. And three, we can market STEM careers a little bit better to little kids. And I think we can do that by highlighting the altruistic aspects of STEM careers, meaning the parts of STEM careers that help make the world a better place, the jobs that help people through science and technology. And that will work a little bit better because studies have shown that women and that little girls and minorities prioritise that altruistic aspect when deciding what to be when they grow up.
So we've talked about my career as a science communicator. We've talked about women in STEM or the lack thereof and the problems that that causes and a few key areas that have room for improvement. But I want to end this talk by talking about the power of media, because a lot of people, they see me and they see degrees from MIT and they see that I now do stuff on TV and they're understandably confused by that. So I want to talk about the influence that media, social media or otherwise, has on our society and why I think it's really important.
First up, the Jolie Effect. You may remember that back in 2013, Angelina Jolie announced that she had the BRCA gene and went ahead and got a preventative double mastectomy. That's because people who have the BRCA gene have a 50 to 85% chance of getting breast cancer in their lifetime. She was being incredibly brave by being very public about this very hard decision. Well, according to a study by Harvard Medical School, there was a 64% increase in American women getting genetic tests for breast cancer in the two weeks after Angelina Jolie's article came out. Harvard now refers to this as the Jolie Effect.
Next, you may remember ‘The Hunger Games’ and its lead character, Katniss Everdeen, who wields a bow and arrow throughout the book and the movie. Well, when the movies came out and took the world by storm, membership in USA Archery, the governing body for the Olympic sport, more than doubled with most of that membership being driven by little girls. The Archery Trade Organisation saw this as an opportunity. They rode the waves of The Hunger Games success and they shifted their advertising dollars to encouraging more teens and girls to pick up the sport. They really shifted their entire brand due to The Hunger Games success. And NPR, which was for recording on the story, they reported that indoor shooting ranges, which were once taken up by camouflage and hunters, after The Hunger Games were now taken up by little girls in ponytails.
Next, the HBO series ‘Watchmen’ based on the comic of the same name. The show highlights the infamous Tulsa race massacre of 1921 in which Tulsa's affluent Greenwood district, most commonly known as Black Wall Street, was burned to the ground by a bunch of racist white people, killing hundreds of innocent Black people in the process. It's an awful part of history, but as one of the most severe events of racial violence in US history, a very important one to remember. But it wasn't included in Oklahoma curriculum. In fact, many people from Oklahoma, many people from Tulsa even, had no idea. They hadn't even heard of it. That was until HBO's Watchmen came out and now Oklahoma's education department is incorporating the Tulsa race massacre into their student lesson plans across the state. This is an instance where a popular TV show is changing education. It is changing what we decide is important to learn and to remember.
These examples are all to show that we shouldn't underestimate the power of social media, of books, of TV shows, of movies, of our own voice, because these things, they change the collective consciousness of society. They influence what we find to be important, how we see ourselves, how we see others, and they can be used to share things that we are passionate about. For me, that's sharing my love of science and space exploration, and hopefully, changing the demographic of these fields in the process.
[Screen reads, ‘N Series’, below this reads, ‘Emily’s Wonder Lab’, ‘Xploration Outer Space’, ‘the space gal’, ‘Emily Calandrelli’ and ‘www.thespacegal.com’ with a background showing planets and nebula. In the bottom left corner of the screen is a circular image of Emily in a space suit.]
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