Studying the vast complexities of our universe is an endeavor that requires patience, skill, intelligence, a sharp wit, and a keen sense of humor. Dr. Erin Macdonald is the living amalgamation of these attributes.
She is an astrophysicist, science fiction consultant, and aerospace engineer, who specializes in general relativity and hosts the online series, “Dr Erin Explains the Universe.”
Dr. Erin has previously worked in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration searching for gravitational waves, and currently consults with science-fiction writers, teaching STEM through popular culture.
We recently chatted with Dr. Erin to learn more about her work, science, exploring the inner-workings of the universe, how life imitates art, and more!
This Face the Current Culture Feature is published in Issue 24 / July-August 2019 Edition. Order PRINT here, SUBSCRIBE to digital membership for unlimited access, or continue reading this article below.
Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” – Carl Sagan
Jennifer Sodini: Can you recall the moment when you first fell in love with science?
Erin Macdonald: I don’t really remember ever not loving science. Like most kids, I was enthralled by space and dinosaurs. I can probably point to the joy I felt as a young kid going to visit our local science museum and getting to see dinosaur bones and pictures of space up close. I didn’t have the internet while I was growing up, so those trips were the only exposure I got to what scientists actually worked on and what they got to see.
I also loved watching PBS in the afternoon and “Bill Nye the Science Guy” had great segments for doing science at home; that really started me down the path of becoming a scientist because I loved replicating those experiments. One that sticks out in my mind was being able to fill a jar with water, put a piece of cardboard on top of it, flip it over and the cardboard stays put when you move your hand away. I probably showed that “trick” to everyone who came over, and of course proceeded to explain how air pressure made it happen. I’d make a terrible magician!
JS: How did that moment alter the way you looked at the world and the universe?
EM: All of those experiences made me feel like the world and the universe was a puzzle to be solved, and that scientists were the ones who try to solve it. I loved that there were questions yet to be answered.
JS: What is your all-time favorite science fiction film or series?
EM: That’s such a hard question to answer! Nostalgia-wise I have to say The X-Files because I have so many memories of programming the VHS player to record episodes and then watching it in secret. Not just that, but the fact that Dana Scully was the coolest person I ever knew and all I wanted to do was become her so I could use science to solve problems and fight aliens. Another movie that resonated with me was Contact with its awesome balance of science and philosophy, not to mention a strong female lead. I did however discover Star Trek later in life, around my undergraduate studies, and I always find myself coming back to these series with Deep Space Nine being my favorite. I love the community of fans and how much Captain Janeway in Voyager kept me going through graduate school. In fact, I have Star Trek on in the background right now!
JS: As the saying goes, “life imitates art”, but when it comes to your work, I guess one may say that you inspire “art to imitate life.” What inspired you to pursue such a unique path of exploring the science within science fiction?
EM: There are a few paths that led me here. When I was doing my dissertation—and of course procrastinating—I was watching a lot of Star Trek, as I mentioned, and realized that I was doing my PhD in general relativity. That meant I could actually calculate how warp drive worked! However, that was just a fun passion project for me at the time. Once I realized that I did not want to pursue a career in academic research, I felt very lost in how to fulfill my desire to continue teaching. I discovered that some sci-fi conventions were having scientists come to talk about their work, so I started attending those and purely giving science talks. My own passion for science fiction (like calculating warp drive in graduate school) led me down the path of wanting to share my own “science of science fiction” with the public. I discovered a huge audience of people who have always loved science but never went into it, and who take any opportunity to learn more. Linking it to their favorite fandoms gives an anchor for references and makes it seem a little more accessible.
JS: How has your life changed since you started that exploration?
EM: As the amount of talks that I gave started to grow, and I was attending multiple conventions across the United States, I started meeting people in the entertainment industry. Some of them were even involved in the shows or movies that I was talking about. I decided to move to Los Angeles so I could be closer to this community and started helping science fiction writers with their work. This work really is my dream job and I’m so happy when I get the chance to use science to solve a problem in a creative world. The icing on the cake is when I get to go to the public to talk about how this connects to actual science and teach them along the way.
JS: What is your best memory (so far) on this journey?
EM: I have had so many wonderful experiences so far—it’s difficult to choose. I have met amazing friends and been able to be a part of some of my favorite worlds, getting to experience them as a fan and then being an ambassador for other fans. I have also had amazing opportunities to meet women who were my idols growing up; women who really played a role for me that shaped who I am today. All that said, a few years ago I was introduced at a convention as “Dr. Macdonald, a warp drive expert” and felt that I had finally made it!
JS: How do you feel using the scientific method in the creative process can open people’s minds to otherwise dense or hard-to-grasp concepts?
EM: In my classroom, I had mentioned that the Kepler Telescope had discovered an exoplanet (a planet orbiting a star other than our own Sun) that seemed to resemble Tatooine—Luke Skywalker’s home planet in Star Wars. The class instantly perked up, the questions flowed.
JS: What has it been like being a woman in a predominantly male-dominated field? What has been your biggest challenge and what has been your greatest triumph?
EM: My biggest challenge in my career was finding a mentor. While there were some other women in my field, there were none I necessarily related to or could see myself being. In those moments where you really need a mentor to help guide you, I found myself turning to those fictional characters who inspired me in the past, mostly Dana Scully and Kathryn Janeway. They were incredibly inspiring and motivating characters for me, but it was hard to not have anyone I could talk to. In terms of success, I really do love teaching. When I go into a classroom that is expecting “Dr. Macdonald-who-will-talk-to-us-about-Astrophysics” and a woman with bright red hair and tattoos walks in, the reaction always makes me smile. There are a lot of kids who go in with no interest, but my appearance being contrary to their expectations causes their minds to open and realize that science and math may be more accessible and fun than they realized. Since I started putting portions of my talks online (“Dr. Erin Explains the Universe”), I’ve had parents talk to me about how much their kids love my shows and how I’m starting to inspire them to become a scientist.
If my work manages to shape one kid’s future, that is the greatest triumph of all.
JS: What advice do you have for someone who is interested in pursuing a career in the sciences?
EM: Find a mentor; find your inspiration. Science is difficult and it can be lonely. In those moments, you’ll want to have a foundation to turn to that reminds you why you got into this in the first place and will help keep you going.
JS: Can you share what you’re currently working on and what we can expect to see from you in the future?
EM: I can’t share the details of my current project, but I have some fun appearances coming up! I will be giving some special science talks at Star Trek: Las Vegas, and will be back as a guest at Dragon Con in Atlanta later this summer. Other ones will be announced soon so stay tuned!
JS: How can we learn more about your work and stay in touch?
EM: You can find some of my talks on YouTube at “Dr Erin Explains the Universe”. My live appearances are updated on my website at www.erinpmacdonald.com and I also spend a lot of time interacting on Twitter: @drerinmac!