Fashioning the Future With: Tamara Robertson
Science-seeking succotash! We have an actual Superhero Scientist on the blog today! She's none other than Tamara Robertson from Science Channel's MythBusters: The Search, SciJinks, and our fave new show MythBusters Jr.
Tamara is a scientist and an actress and one awesomsauce TV personality/host! But wait, there's more! Tamara is also a passionate and accomplished scicomm luminary who specializes in "putting the 'E' in STEM." (Tamara has a degree in Biomolecular and Chemical Engineering, and she is a certified Engineer in Training a.k.a EIT!). Read on to find out what drives her amazing and far-reaching STEM advocacy and what her philosophy as a working female engineer role model and STEM communicator is!
And, if you're on this page, there's a good chance you love STEM comics as much as we do, so boom! whoosh! pow!, you're in for a treat: Tamara stars in the awesome, brand new Seekers of Science comic book series alongside Dr. Tracy Fanara. Tamara also co-produces the comic which is a must-read for anyone who loves a great and fulfilling story, female empowerment, STEM, and rad women doing rad things to make the world a radder place.
We were thrilled to ask Tamara all about acting, science pranks, who inspires her, and more. Meet Tamara Robertson!
When did you know you were a scientist?
From a very, very young age I was innately curious about the world — trying to figure out how it all worked.
In general life, I was always in observation mode trying to figure out how things worked and functioned and very soon shifted to demolition mode (which my mom LOVED with my dad deployed lol) to try to innovate on their current design. I later would learn that this was “Reverse Engineering” and that when called that you are seen as forward thinking versus destructive.
I remember when my childhood asthma would land me in the E.R. how I would tinker with all the apparatuses on the wall and, while lying in the bed, would look at the ceiling trying to estimate how large the room was based on the number of ceiling tiles. I would estimate how many more machines or people could potentially fit in the room comfortably or may not some comfortably if we wanted to fill the space. I later learned that this was a form of mathematics and design that comes in handy for designing and building layouts in facilities.
So, I guess, in short — I always knew I wanted more answers to “why” than “because” or “that’s the way it’s always been”. My thirst for knowledge and my love of tinkering wasn’t something that I developed; it has always been part of me. It it wasn’t until much later in life (college in fact) that I realized that this innate curiosity and want to discover / innovate things was a form of Science called Engineering.
When did you know you were an actor?
For as long ago as I can remember I’ve been an observer of the world around me. Living in a tourist community in the South without television - people watching was my television. Maybe it was the untapped scientist in me, but I always had a curiosity about how people interacted with their surroundings — the people, the technology, animals and plants. There were similarities in some ways but also unique differences. The ability to step into the lives of everyone else and explore the world through their eyes was something that I loved.
Over time, people watching became more of a behavioral observation and from there scene study in a way. I learned how different people acted in different situations and began to be able to mimic well and evolve backstories to explain certain reactions / interactions etc.
Once I realized I wanted to live a million different lives before I died — acting became the only option that made sense. I started pursuing it professionally while in Engineering school as a side hobby, a means of getting out my creative side while existing in the regimented world of Engineering. It turned out all those years of people watching had equipped me to be a pro at character development and my mimicry skills had given me reveries that I could add to bring those characters to full life.
From training I built a resume, a reel, booked jobs, got an agent, landed larger jobs and continued to get to play make believe and amplify the stories of strangers. My curiosity from there led me to learning about the operations behind the camera – working in wardrobe design, prop design, casting, production, etc. I wanted to understand all that I could about the imaginary worlds as well as the real.
If the whole world's a stage — I guess you could say I was ready to not only act in it but to build it.
What does being a female scientist and TV presenter/host mean to you?
I spent a number of years as a union actor trying to land roles as a scientist or an engineer on television and time and time again was told I didn’t look like an engineer. I would laugh and joke about bringing in my degree and resume next time, but it never helped because it was a larger battle that stretched beyond the casting room.
In society, we are told time and time again that there’s only one type of scientist/engineer/doctor etc. — we’re shown them in television, movies, books, media — and whether it’s an unconscious bias that has led to that or a simple matter of people selecting people that remind them of them to groom and advance it’s one that has shaped the outlook of our nations' children and the adults they become.
When I was selected for Mythbusters: The Search the only goal I had in mind was to showcase to the world that women were minimally equal to men and in some skills — like welding — have proven to actually be better skilled. With each passing myth / elimination cycle that I made it through that want never changed. I went to set everyday knowing that no matter what happened on elimination day as long as I showcased honestly what I was capable of and amplified what those around me were capable of it was a success. I never expected to be the only female finalist or the only two MVP winner but knew standing there at the Finale I had accomplished my goal. Every little girl was able to see what women are capable of regardless of, or perhaps sometimes despite what we had been told as children.
Through the time with the brand and the show though I’ve learned that it wasn’t just the little girls that were watching but the boys, too. I’ve had so many parents write me, come up and tell me, thank me for what I was able to show their sons about what a woman is capable of — through simply utilizing my skills on the show.
Do you have a personal philosophy as a science communicator?
I have a life philosophy that I think spills over into the talks that I give and that is “where you journey starts doesn’t define where it ends, you do” because the narrative that we are sold as children is far from the narrative that we have to accept for ourselves. The sooner that children learn that their future is truly up to them and the amount of hard work they’re willing to put in the sooner we will have a world full of individuals that are passionate about their work versus just going through the motions. Can you imagine how much it could change the world if everyone working today was 100% invested in the projects that they were working on because it was their true passion?
Can you talk a bit about your STEM advocacy and what drives you?
Putting the “E” in S.T.E.M. is what drives me – because after years of people apart of women in leadership organizations within traditional engineering firms I realized that there weren’t enough women coming in the door to change the balance of women and men in leadership. Currently only 13% of Engineers in the workforce are women – attributable to this is the fact that only 30% of Women who do earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering are still doing it 20 years later. As a female engineer and maker, I know that more often than not I will be the only woman in the room – much like I was the only woman finalist – but that to me is unacceptable. We are 50% of the population and we should be 50% of the engineering workforce.
That’s why organizations like S.W.E. (Society of Women Engineers) are so important! They are helping to connect young girls with female mentors within Engineering that can help them navigate the harder parts of their journey towards a degree and professional life. Did you know that the NSF has found that in K-12 girls' achievements in math and science are on par with their male peers but that male students are more likely to take engineering courses (3% to 1%)?
Could it be that as we discussed, they aren’t seeing themselves in the engineers around them? Or in media? I know as a sophomore in college when I was approached by a teacher about engineering, I told her I didn’t think girls did that. Now I spend my time traveling the nation showing girls what a female engineer looks like and letting them know they can be anything they want to be – especially engineers!
What was your favorite thing about working on MythBusters Jr. as Senior Design Consultant?
When I started with the MythBusters franchise they asked me what my dream show would be and I said “A kids science or maker show” so for me the best part of Jr. was the Jr’s. I had the joy of being an online mentor to Elijah and Allie well before the chance to be on Jr. so getting to surprise them day 1 on set was a lot of fun! Then getting the chance to know them better as well as getting to know Rachel, Valerie, Cannan, Jesse and Carson was great.
Probably the best part of the summer though was getting to see everything through their eyes and watch the excitement they had for their first explosions and messy moments! The fart episode especially was full of laughs from all sides!
What’s been nice is that I continue to be in touch with them after the show and help connect them with other mentors that are aligned in their field – for instance I got to introduce Valerie to Sarah Petkus from MythBusters: The Search so it’s been like a big MythBusters Family reunion!
What was the most unexpected thing that happened on MythBusters Jr.?
One of my happiest most unexpected moments on Mythbusters Jr. was when we designed and built a compound box firing rig that was able to replicate the Homeric myth of Odysseus shooting for Penelope’s hand in marriage by shooting an arrow through twelve axe heads.
We expected to be shooting all afternoon to get it right and instead were able to accomplish it on the first shot! It was one of those moments that was too perfect to be real, but it was!
You have quite a history with the MythBusters franchise; what does MythBusters mean to you personally?
For me, the legacy of MythBusters has always been about making science fun and approachable, showcasing that it isn’t just something you do in a lab and highlighting the power of failure.
I think, like it or not, school systems have had to concentrate more on standardized testing than on learning and this has led to a lot of the wonder and curiosity that drives the passion in science to be lost amongst the written facts and verbiage. Add to that most science shown in narrative television being about labs and cubicles and it’s no wonder kids aren’t excited to pursue S.T.E.M. tracks.
Thus, it becomes vital to have a show like MythBusters where real world application of the scientific method is utilized to elevate the importance of critical thinking while also emphasizing the fun messy side of science.
Add to that the old adage of “failure is always an option” and you have a legacy that will reshape how children taught only to excel in a subject approach it. Young people have to be given the room to be curious, to try ideas and learn how to get back up if they don’t work. The ability to design, trial, fail, iterate, repeat is so important to growth in our understanding and evolution of technology. Without that they become locked in a cycle of replication versus innovation.
The shows legacy has so much to offer that I hope fans can embrace the whole MythBusters extended family – OG, 2.0, and Jr. – because within each group the common thread is the passion for inspiring a love of Science in the next generation.
Do you have a favorite prank from SciJinks?
SciJinks was such an incredible show to be a part of – getting to showcase new evolving tech to everyday people and blow their mind with science was an absolute joy! The look on someone’s face when something that just blew them away is revealed to be real is truly inspiring and honestly hard to decide which was my favorite.
Perhaps the most memorable was when we utilized Stratosphere Balloons to float a bouncy house. We built this world around a celebrity birthday party where a defeated father, played by Matt Wheeler, is trying to appease his young daughter, played by Samantha Hamilton. The everyday people get to watch as the drama in the family unfolds and then the young girl runs away into the bouncy house to escape while they continue prepping gift bags. One minute she’s bouncing and the next she’s floating high above the trees.
The moment that changed everything though was when one of the everyday people ran and in a truly maternal fashion pulled the bouncy house out of the sky to try to find Samantha. While this may not seem like a big deal – that house was taking three men to bring down and reset between each shot so she became a true case study of what scientists call “Hysterical Strength” in which an adrenaline rush in extreme circumstances can give a person superhero like strength. It wasn’t the science we meant to study or discuss in the episode, so it was an added bonus and a true indicator of how large the woman’s heart was.
What dream character would you want to play on TV/film?
There’s so much great television going on today and as a Superhero Scientist I have been loving all of the series Marvel and DC have been bringing to television! One of my all-time favorite characters is Frank Miller’s Carrie Kelley who was the first female Robin in the DC Universe. She’s a character that I cosplay and would love to be able to portray when brought to screen.
I grew up a Trekkie so I would also happily welcome the opportunity to do anything Sci-Fi / Space oriented :D
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us a little about?
Dr. Tracy Fanara and I along with our awesome S.O.S. (Seekers of Science) team are continuing the global launch of the comic — having donated 1000+ issues across the nation to Students we will be continuing the series launching Issue 2 this summer and Issue 3 later in the year!
I’m also gearing up to launch my own YouTube channel that will be a hodgepodge showcasing my skill collecting nature oriented towards older viewers as well as a series that’s built around the Superhero Science I do across the nation oriented towards young viewers and educators!
What inspired the very rad educational comic Seekers of Science?
It has been a labor of love the past year that honestly became a necessity after the incredible “Unstoppable Wasp” was taken off the market. Jeremy Whitley had included Dr. Tracy Fanara and I as living scientists in his series' Q&A section and became the comic we pointed every STEM kid we met to because of his usage of diversity and inclusion. When it was taken off the market, we asked his permission to carry on the torch of amplifying women in STEM in our own way through an outreach comic. So, over the past year, we combined the imagination and talents of our writer, Todd Black, and artist, Alex Garcia, with our obsession for science and saving the world to launch Seekers of Science (S.O.S.).
Seekers of Science is a comic that is about using real-life science in real-life situations to try and save the world. It stars Dr. Tracy Fanara and me, two real life engineers, as we use our skills and those of other experts in the field from around the world to help stop the problems that are put in front of them.
Each issue or arc focuses on a different part of the world of science. From handling pollution to the science of making medicine and so much more. It’s our hope that those who read this comic will be inspired by it and want to learn more about what science and more have to offer the world. As well as showing that ANYONE can be part of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. And it’s so diverse, that you can find something that speaks to you and your personality.
In each issue we assemble a team of Real Life Experts Scientists in the field as well as Citizen Scientists to help us take on a real world issue using existing and evolving technologies. In the back of the issues we include a Q&A with those experts so that they can share their STEM journey with our readers and we even have an added bonus of a DIY the readers can do at home to try to replicate the science they see on a smaller scale.
We run the comic in a TOMS/SPACEX manner in that for each issue bought we are donating issues at outreach camp (with 0 sold we had already donated 1,000+) and as we make money it is funneled back into the next issue. We hope to be able to increase the reach of the comic digitally as well as through public libraries so that the 35% of America that doesn’t have internet in the home can also see the real diversity in STEM professionals and fields and hopefully be inspired to pursue one of the fields themselves.
What are some of your hobbies you enjoy in your free time?
Outreach involving science/building and working with children is my passion and how I spend most of my time when I’m not filming.
When I do truly take time off it’s often about reenergizing and reconnecting with the world around me. Whether it’s hiking 10-15miles a day with my pup Dexter in Death Valley, CA, photographing wildlife in Denali, Alaska or diving the reefs in Cozumel, MX, I am happiest completely off the grid and fully immersed in nature.
Who (modern day or historical) inspires you?
There have been so many women in my life that have inspired me either directly or indirectly. Perhaps the most inspiring though are the women I still don’t know — whose footsteps, sweat and tears forged paths in silence and without recognition to enable those of us today to walk strongly forward in the light. The women who welded in the steel mills, upkept the engines, rivetted and flew on the bombers during WW2. The ones that crunched the numbers, determined the flight paths, and ensured safe landings for us on the moon. We are starting to put faces and names to these women — to acknowledge their accomplishments — but we still have so far to go.
Often in interviews I’m asked, “Why aren’t their women in STEM? How do we change that?” The truth of the matter is, THERE ARE, but like their predecessors before them they aren’t being seen. Even with all of the steps toward inclusion and diversity we still don’t look at women as Experts in their Fields and more often than not default to a male. Perhaps part of that is the humbleness of the women that are making the accomplishments, or the fact that they’re too busy working to change things to talk about them, but a definite part is a lack of amplification of their stories.
Which brings me to a woman that today inspires me. Jenn Halweil – the founder of Go Beyond – is working every day to bring to light the stories of women who are doing ground breaking work in S.T.E.M. She’s highlighting their fields, their accomplishments and most importantly their faces and names. Women like Dr. Emily Levesque, Dr. Pardis Sabeti, Jedidah Isler, Heather Berlin, and so many others.
Do you have any favorite fictional STEM characters in books/movies/other art forms?
My favorite STEM character is Marvel Writer Jeremy Whitley’s version of the Unstoppable Wasp – Nadia Pym. I love what Jeremy has done with the series to showcase Diversity, Inclusion, and most of all the ability of STEM to be utilized to save the world!
The Agents of G.I.R.L. that he’s created are a group of young women that utilize their intelligence and skills to take on whatever the world throws at them – be it large robots or most recently bi-polar disorder.
He’s helping young people to start a dialogue about the issues that they are really facing in the world – be them STEM or mental health or gender identity related - and nothing is untouchable, and I like that honesty. He’s providing young people with tools that they need to advance in the world.
If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?
Tamara's Unstoppable Wasp Cosplay IG photo: https://www.instagram.com/p/BsYbCRNBFc4/ or if you want to use hi-rez https://www.dropbox.com/sh/okrsj2wo9zq9q3m/AAAub0lLal8FCHBJxctWE7PTa/Cosplay?dl=0&preview=Credit+-+The+Variant+-+Unstoppable+Wasp+(2).jpg&subfolder_nav_tracking=1
Honestly, I would likely want a toolbelt that has adaptable and interchangeable technologies and a bit of help from Pym Particles so that I could pack items like teleportation devices, tails that enable me to climb anything, echo devices, chemistries to take out assailants, etc. all in one streamlined place. Sort of like an inspector gadget belt.
Where can people find you online?
Outreach Science Comic I'm co-producing: seekersofscience.com