In 2014, Taryn O’Neill, Tamara Krinsky, and Gia Mora formed the Scirens, the screen sirens for science. Their mission is to inspire science literacy in the general public through entertainment fueled by science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) storylines and featuring, as they put it, “diverse, multi-dimensional female characters” [Scirens Mission Statement].
Recently, reports published by the National Science Foundation (NSF) indicate that women at the undergraduate level take fewer science and engineering courses . These gender disparities are especially true for minority women. Furthermore, research suggests that persistence in STEM majors is lower for women and minorities, and that they are more likely to switch majors or drop out of higher education . This trend seems to largely be influenced by differences in preparation and educational experiences of these students. Beyond higher education, women hold less than 25% of STEM jobs, and are more likely to fill positions in healthcare and education .
While the causes of these gender disparities have been attributed to a variety of reasons such as a lack of female role models, stereotypes associated with gender, and less family-friendly flexibility in the STEM fields, there is evidence for the need of encouragement and support for women in STEM .
The impact of social integration and self-identification with figures and role models has been well documented in research . Work done with minority and female students has shown they are more likely to persist in STEM majors when they enroll in classes taught by instructors of their own race or gender . While social integration of African American physicists is crucial for their entry into study groups, enabling access to vital resources for academic success . Furthermore, studies looking at graduate programs in STEM fields indicate that a higher percentage of female and minority STEM graduate students had a positive impact on the persistence of female and minority students in their majors . These are just a few examples outlining the importance of increasing participation of underrepresented groups in science, and why the Scirens play a crucial role in these endeavors.
The Signal to Noise Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with the Scirens and discuss their mission to encourage science literacy and create science-infused entertainment.
The Signal to Noise Magazine (StN): At what point in your life did you realize that you had such a passion for science?
Gia Mora: I’ve always been interested in science, specifically in technology. When I was young, we had a computer in the house that I was always interested in, and I’ve served as my family’s official tech-support person since I was about age 8. I was also thoroughly enmeshed in the arts world as a singer, dancer, and actor, but I was still very curious about science. Four years ago I heard Lawrence Krauss on the radio talking about his book A Universe from Nothing. I got this crazy idea that I could use particle physics as a metaphor to discuss relationships in the 21st century. So I wrote a show called Einstein’s Girl using the narrative form to explore science. My relationship with science has always been mashed with the arts, with storytelling at large, and how we understand the world around us.
Taryn O’Neill: I had a very limited involvement in science when I was growing up. I was a competitive figure skater, so my life existed on the ice rink. I did as a child, though, have really big questions. I was this annoying child at age 5 who needed to figure out how babies are made, and I would come up with all these theories to my parents, and they would be like, ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do with her?’ After I moved to Hollywood to act I started dabbling in blogging and writing science fiction. I felt compelled to make the science as theoretically feasible as possible, so I went down the science research rabbit hole and came out a science nerd. I became enamored by the sciences as they seem to parallel the search for meaning I’ve always had as an artist. The search for what it means to be human: how did we get here, where are we going, and what is possible? The arts and sciences aim to answer these questions but from different points of view; one from a qualitative, speculative point of view and the other from a quantitative point of view. And I came to believe how important it is to the future of our society to have a scientifically literate population that can think critically and solve the problems that are going to be pressing in our future.
Tamara Krinsky: I grew up fascinated by science and science fiction, stealing the Asimov books from my father’s bookshelf. Asimov has these great, sweeping space opera stories, and they ask a lot of questions about the future – how we live, what we do, how we treat each other, how we treat the planet – I loved it! Luckily I had very supportive parents, and my dad, who had trained as an engineer, never told me that science and sci-fi “weren’t for girls.” Things changed a bit as I got older, though. I went to a performing arts high school, and unfortunately the sort of prevailing ethos of the time was that you were either an “artist” or a “science and math person.” My STEM education definitely suffered because of that. My active passion for science was reignited when they were decoding the genome and I became obsessed with it. The New York Times had all of these message boards that were full of impassioned debates: This is an amazing thing!! Wait – is this ultimately going to help us or harm us? No, no, no - everybody’s playing G-d, this is awful and people should be condemned!! But wait – if G-d gave us the ability to do this, of course we should be doing it!!! The human drama surrounding this discovery completely drew me in, and I went on to eventually write a play called Eggchild, which was about a stem cell research trial. The underlying theme explored making decisions through fear vs. embracing the unknown. Additionally, as a storyteller, I found myself embracing the “T” in STEM as I became involved with multi-platform projects such as Emma Approved, for which I won an Emmy. And in my spare time, I engaged my fascination with that space where science and the arts meet by starting a blog called Science Lush, where I’d talk about anything and everything from plays like Copenhagen to molecular photography exhibitions.
StN: How did you come together to form the Scirens? What challenges have you faced fulfilling your mission as the Scirens?
O’Neill: It started organically out of a blog post I had written in response to the 'creation debate' between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. I was shocked by the amount of support Ham's creationist views received online. So I wrote this impassioned blog post about the need for science literacy in the general population and asked the question: who could be the least likely, yet most effective ambassadors for science literacy? I argued actresses - because of our perceived stereotypes... how surprising when you see a group of Hollywood actresses excited about science?! So in the post I called out some actresses I knew who were science geeks, rallying them to the idea. Tamara is one of those original people. When we all came together, we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do, but we did know we wanted to use our platforms as actresses to support science advocacy, and amplify the work of professional science communicators and scientists. We began our mission through our social media platforms and now have embarked upon the next part of our mission: to create content that has more authentic STEM characters and STEM story lines.
Krinsky: When Taryn first posted her blog, she tagged a bunch of us with an #ActressesForSTEM hashtag, and that got some attention, which proved her hypothesis that we could perhaps be a Trojan horse for science literacy. It was exciting for me, as someone who was interested in science as a kid but then went so strongly into the arts, to suddenly connect with this like-minded group of actresses. I loved the idea that we didn’t have to be “either/or” when it came to the sciences and the arts. One of the early challenges was that we all had a lot of different ideas about what we could do. We finally honed in on advocacy and content production. Another consideration on the journey for us has been to be very clear about the fact that we are we are science enthusiasts, not trained scientists. We are cognizant of the fact that science has a lot of nuance to it, and always want to respect that.
Mora: You don’t have to be part of the academic elite to care about science or how it affects your life, whether it is about the recent election, whether it is about global warming, or whether it is about choices you make about your own health. These are all functions of science that affect everyone. I think this space at the intersection of STEM and entertainment is an interesting place to stand because you put yourself up for greater scrutiny, but you do have a chance to reach probably the biggest cross-section of people because you are coming at it from a different angle.
StN: Scientists can have a tendency to be snobbish about what they do, and being the expert about a topic, even within their own field. From that perspective, have you had any pushback from the scientific or academic community on your commentary from your perspective of the arts and entertainment?
Krinsky: So far we haven’t. I think some of that has to do with my earlier mention of the fact that we are very open about our position in this world. We are science curious and science enthusiastic, but we are not actual scientists (though we’d love to play them on TV!). For the most part, we are not doing breaking news – we are not placing ourselves in that particular crosshair. We’ve been so lucky to be embraced by wonderful science communicators and scientists and researchers who agree with our mission, with the idea that even though every single historical or scientific detail may not be perfect in Hidden Figures or Arrival, if these movies cause someone to become curious about the STEM topics their stories explore, ultimately that is a good thing. We’re not saying that entertainment is the only way, but we are saying it is a way to reach a whole new segment of the population.
StN: What are some of the ways in which you fulfill your mission as the Scirens and as individuals?
Krinsky: We do a bunch of different things. We go to events and talk to people. about what they are doing in their fields, and then we’ll share that on social media or via our blog. The first year of Scirens, Taryn and I volunteered at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) and worked with kids from local schools in the educational component. It was really fun and very cool to see the kids’ eyes light up as they got some new, hands-on experience with elements of science that weren’t necessarily part of their usual school routine. We’ve also attended events put on by Celestron, such as public eclipse viewings.
Mora: We also have a great relationship with the Science and Entertainment Exchange. They have a number of events. They bring Hollywood people into rooms with scientists so that storytellers can have access to their brains in order to make the science in their films and TV shows as legitimate as possible.
We’re looking to collaborate more as partnerships present themselves, like the editorial we wrote for DiscovHER, an initiative of the L’Oreal Foundation-UNESCO For Women In Science program. We’ve also been covering science in Hollywood as part of the press corp when new movies like Voyage of Time and Passengers hit screens. Additionally, we partner with Perimeter Institute in Canada co-hosting their live public lectures on our website. At this stage, our main focus is on developing scripts and pitches for both narrative and non-fiction shows, and we’re in the process of shopping these.
Krinsky: We’ve all moderated panels on an array of topics about the crossover between technology and entertainment and/or science and entertainment. Gia did a panel at Wondercon last year, Taryn has spoken on panels for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. I’ve done the same for Women in Film.
StN: How can bench scientists, like graduate students or postdocs, support and contribute to the Scirens’ mission?
Mora: There are so many ways that conversations can be amplified, even if it’s just through us, because what we are looking to do is point out these scientists and science communicators and bring their work to the general public.
Krinsky: I commend what you are doing with Signal to Noise. It’s not like you popped out of grad school or undergrad and are suddenly a perfect writer. (well, OK, maybe Asimov, but…). Everyone needs platforms and avenues to practice writing, to practice communication, to hone ones’ craft. I think it’s wonderful that you guys recognize the need for communication with the general public and created this platform so that you have a way to practice that. As far as “getting stuff out there,” if you are working on something, let us know! Another thought - even just snapping a picture of yourselves in lab and posting it can be important for the public to see. I think many of us would agree that the more images people – especially young people - see of the diverse group of people working in the sciences, the better.
Krinsky: We think it is so important to get people excited about science. As Taryn was talking about earlier, we need an educated, informed public. We are dealing with climate change, increased energy usage, ethical decisions about healthcare and sustainable development, to name just a few compelling topics! As the world gets more populated, we need to better use our resources, and science informs that. I think it is important to dispel the myth that science just belongs to those that spend hours in the lab or the rainforest. It’s our mission to spread the idea that you don’t have to be a science expert to be science literate.
O’Neill: You also don't have to be a scientist to think critically and be curious. We live in this soundbite culture where you read one tweet on Twitter, and then suddenly it becomes fact. The ‘fake news' epidemic revealed during the election is reflective of this problem. Understanding how to think critically, perhaps by learning about the scientific method, gives ones the tools to analyze the misinformation out there. We need more critical mindfulness when it comes to our 21st century life and the choices it presents. I think science opens the door and helps you do that. Plus, it's just really cool.
We at The Signal to Noise Magazine greatly admire the Scirens’ work and continue to be inspired by them. We hope to continue to be able to help them fulfill their mission of championing science literacy through entertainment. Thank you Taryn, Tamara, and Gia for our Science Sirens!
Scirens on Social Media:
Jennifer Lovick (@drjkyl)
Senior Editor, Science Entertainment, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Development Biology
Co-Founder and CFO, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD Candidate, Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, UCLA