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WOMEN WHO INSPIRE: DR. ERIN MACDONALD


by Melissa Teague April 30, 2019

We had the honor of interviewing one inspiring woman, Dr. Erin Macdonald! Dr. Macdonald is an astrophysicist, science fiction consultant, aerospace engineer, and host of the online series "Dr Erin Explains the Universe". Here is our interview with Dr. Erin! 

Dr. Erin

What is your favorite STEAM topic?

There are so many to choose from, but I have to say Astronomy! I think all of us retain that sense of wonder when it comes to space. It has a special way of uniting the world in the goal of exploring off our planet. I also fell in love with Mathematics when I was in college. I finally felt like I could speak the language of math, and I saw how it applies to everything in our lives. Math is a wonderful tool that we can use to explain the world around us.

What do you do for a living & what do you do for fun?

I wear many hats! I work as a modeling and simulation engineer, a science communicator, and an advisor for science fiction writers. All of this work is incredibly fun for me, and it keeps me very busy! With my science communication, I get to go to popular culture conventions and use science fiction to teach the public science, which is a blast for me. Being a fan of science fiction as well, I get to enjoy the conventions myself and meet many amazing people. When I need a break, I love to unwind playing video games!

When did you discover that you wanted to be an astrophysicist? And most recently a science fiction consultant?

I always liked visiting science museums, and the space areas were my favorite. When I found out that the fictional character Dana Scully from the X-Files studied astrophysics I immediately had to learn what that was. I also was highly influenced by the movie “Contact”, so the idea of going to just study space was super appealing for me. Given that I was so heavily influenced by media and popular culture, I’ve tried to merge the two my entire professional career. I started by using science fiction in my classroom to teach physics and astronomy, then branched out to teach at pop culture conventions. At these events, I met writers and showrunners who were interested in ways to bring more science into their work, so I’ve been able to create a perfect career for myself.

Tell us more about what you did when you were an aerospace engineer.

I lead a modeling and simulation team where we help people figure out how satellite systems are performing before they are even built. I love studying the big picture and using data and statistics to identify where things could be improved.

What does your day to day look like?

I still do some engineering work, so I typically get up early to get in the office by 7am. I’ll work until about 4pm, which because I’m now a lead and manager entails attending a lot of meetings, reviewing documents, and helping my team figure out ways we can add value to the big picture. After 4pm, I’ll go home and exercise while I catch up on my favorite television shows before sitting down to work on my consulting and educating. This may entail reviewing scripts, running workshops for actors, or writing talks for my next speaking event. Sometimes I get to watch a new science fiction series and take notes to prepare for teaching and explaining science within it. Other times I’ll record a podcast or work on an article I’m writing. It all keeps me very busy!

Tell us about more about your research with the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics you won for it? That’s amazing!

While I’d love to say that I won the Nobel Prize, I unfortunately left the LIGO Collaboration about a year before they made their prize-winning detection of gravitational waves! It’s not all sad though, I like to say that I helped to loosen the jar lid. Essentially what LIGO was (and is) looking for is something called “gravitational waves”. These were theorized by Albert Einstein in his equations for spacetime and general relativity (if you’ve seen the bowling ball on a trampoline explanation for a planet or star’s gravity, that trampoline is representing “spacetime”). He thought that if there was an event, like a star exploding or two objects colliding, there would be ripples sent out in spacetime, but he said that they were so small no one would ever detect them. Well, lo and behold, scientists said “challenge accepted” and built the LIGO detectors to see these ripples from extreme events in the universe. Primarily they can detect ripples from the collision of black holes. They made the first detection in September 2015 which was the first direct detection of spacetime… super exciting!!

If there any advice you would give young girls and boys who would like to be an astrophysicist? What about a science fiction consultant? Where did you start to get where you are today?

In all the career paths I’ve taken, I’ve always held two main philosophies – to stay true to myself, and to do things that make me happy. Being true to yourself means understanding what motivates you, and what you are most proud of. This is sometimes scary because it means putting your heart on your sleeve, but I believe that confidence is contagious, and if you are confident in yourself not only will others pick up on that, but they will feel confident in themselves too. Doing what makes you happy is much easier said than done, because we are often faced with realities that make it difficult to pursue happiness. However remembering what drove you to pursue your career, or what your dreams were (like for me being motivated by Dana Scully) will keep you grounded and focused. You have to stay open-minded and fearless when it comes to making changes if you are not happy. Think out of the box, stay true to yourself and you will be able to find your dream job too!

Have you ever heard of Svaha before?

I have! I’m a big fan of science and popular culture-inspired clothing, particularly clothes that I’m able to wear in professional settings. I love wearing my “geek chic” clothing on Fridays at work!

What do you like most about the Svaha brand and what would you like to tell our other customers?  

I love that SVAHA makes clothing that is subtly STEAM-influenced and is a conversation starter. The clothing is designed for many body shapes and sizes. These touches help influence the societal expectations for STEAM and emphasize that everyone is welcome. It is a welcoming brand and one that can be worn in many settings, allowing us to proudly fly our geek flag! 




Melissa Teague
Melissa Teague

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