Friday profile: Revenge of the nerd

Cara Santa Maria thinks our society has come a long way on a crucial issue: the use of the term ‘nerd’ as a positive descriptor.

“It’s so much cooler to be a nerd now than it was when I was a kid,” she tells me over Skype. “That makes me so happy.”

When we chat, the 34-year-old science communicator, podcaster and TV personality has just arrived home in Los Angeles, after a stint in North Africa shooting for the National Geographic TV show, Explorer.

She has come down with a cold from overworking and frankly, I’m not surprised: this scientist’s list of achievements and accolades is as impressive as it is astonishing. Alongside Emmy Awards, Huffington Post columns and TV spots on Netflix, Santa Maria hosts her own podcast, and co-hosts another, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

She is embarking on an Australian tour in November, and will appear at Skepticon, an ideas festival in Sydney. I asked about the importance of skepticism to her brand of science.

“For me, being a good scientist and being a skeptic are almost the same thing,” Santa Maria says.

“Thinking logically, and looking at the evidence before you make a decision, really are the hallmarks of good science.”

Santa Maria’s own podcast, Talk Nerdy (there’s that word again), has been running since 2014, and covers an eclectic range of topics, from pet behaviour to asteroids to the human imagination – a reflection of her self-described “generalist” approach.

Her scientific career, which began with childhood dreams of studying palaeontology, has had its share of twists and turns.

“In school, I think I had the same experience that a lot of young women have, which is that I was afraid of science and didn’t think I was good at it,” she recalls.

A gifted student, she focused on the arts, “because that’s what I thought girls were good at”. In retrospect, she sees that although math and sciences are challenging for everyone, boys tend to benefit more from encouragement in the classroom.

“It starts when we’re quite young, and it’s a societal influence,” she says.

“Math, science, logic and critical thinking require effort, they don’t come easily. Teachers don’t notice they’re doing it, but they’re reinforcing math and science as a boys’ domain by calling on the boys more, giving the boys more motivation.”

After studying vocal jazz for several years after high school, she decided to dip her toe back into science, choosing psychology because, she laughs, “I thought it would be an easy degree.”

After completing a Masters in neurobiology, Santa Maria began her PhD – a degree she now sees was undertaken “in the wrong place, at the wrong time”. Battling clinical depression alongside the rigours of postgraduate study, she found sanctuary through teaching and, eventually, through doing media.

Empowered by a supportive female mentor, she left her degree to pursue science communication, landing hosting gigs on The Weather Channel’s Hacking the Planet and Al Jazeera America’s TechKnow. Despite an illustrious television career, podcasting remains her favourite medium, partly because she is less visible to audience criticism.

“When I do TV that gets clipped out on YouTube, the comments are incredibly superficial: they’re about the way you look, your make-up, your lip-ring, your cleavage … it feels like you’re doing all this work and nobody’s listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth.

“As a woman, when you podcast and people can’t see you, I think your words carry a lot more weight.”

Now, 10 years on from her last day of academia, Santa Maria is newly enrolled in another PhD, this time with a focus on the psychology of humans facing death.

“I’m interested in the insights, the incredible emotional fortitude and perspective that people who are in the dying phase of their life can offer,” she explains.

Human behaviour and experience have always been favourite subjects for Santa Maria. “When it comes to esoteric stuff like dark matter or black holes, things we can’t really observe, sometimes I have to slap myself to keep listening,” she confesses.

“I respond much better to science that has a human element to it: I’m fascinated by the way we think, how we find joy, why we struggle with mental illness, and our relationships with one another.”

This is a nerd on a mission, and if the past is anything to go by, she’s destined for success.

Cara Santa Maria will join astronomer Alan Duffy for an evening of fun and facts called Beyond The Eye, at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne, Australia, on Friday, November 17.

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