The term ‘nerd’ is most often associated with things like a very passionate love for roleplaying games, comic books, all things Star Trek or Star Wars, and other hobbies that are considered ‘fringe interests’. And it is often synonymous with a lack of social skills and a certain awkwardness. Especially due to the last part, the term is, more often than not, still seen as a derogative. The rise of geek and nerd culture in recent years is slowly changing that perception. But even with DC and Marvel movies or TV shows like The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones outperforming their competition, there are still a lot of people who don’t really know what being a nerd really means. Take Cara Santa Maria and her podcast Talk Nerdy. You’d be hard-pressed to find discussions of the latest or upcoming superhero movie on there. Here, the science end of the broad nerd spectrum takes centre stage. Cara Santa Maria – a nerd, a science geek, a podcaster, and so much more…
► Cara, you’re not an easy person to pin down, in terms of what you do. When you meet someone new, how do you introduce yourself?
Generally? Hi, my name is Cara. (laughs) Seriously, though, when someone asks what I do, my go-to reply and the most descriptive answer is, ‘I’m a science communicator’. The problem is that a lot of people don’t know what that means, but I think saying I’m a science journalist is too narrow. I do a lot of journalism, but a lot of what I do is also entertainment or infotainment, getting people excited about science and trying my part to improve science literacy. So communicating science, talking science, evangelising science, if you will, is important to me.
More lately in my career I have gotten involved in other aspects of production, kind of broadening my scope. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m getting away from science. I’m probably rethinking how I define science and scientific thought. I think talking about politics, social justice or civil liberties are still scientific conversations. It’s really about getting away from thinking of science as a discipline and moving toward thinking about science as a way of think about our world – basing our decisions on evidence, instead of our guts or emotions, looking at track records, bringing reason into the conversation, not being afraid to be intellectual or academic. I think we can bring a scientific approach to almost any problem, and it doesn’t have to be a science conversation.
► And when you get out of bed in the morning, your brain is still booting up, and you look into the mirror: How do you see yourself? How does Cara Santa Maria define herself when there is no one around you have to explain anything to?
I’m still trying to figure that out, to be honest. I guess I look at the mirror and say, ‘I hope I’m on the right track’. But I think we are always redefining ourselves and trying to figure out what we do and what it is we love, how we can contribute in a way that is meaningful to us. If I look at myself two years ago, four years ago, ten years ago, I see a completely different person at each stage. I was working in academia for years to become a scientist. That really informed the work I do now, but I am not a scientist. I don’t work in a laboratory. I’m not actually doing science.
As I said before, I’m talking science. I help translate science from the laboratory to the public. That’s a role I’m much more equipped for and that I am much better at. And there was a time when I didn’t even know that this role was a possibility. If you would have asked me, ‘Do you see yourself on TV?’ while I was still working on my graduate degrees, that question would have seemed laughable to me. So who knows how I’ll feel about it and about myself in five years? You know what? I still feel like a kid. So maybe the answer is that I look in the mirror and think, ‘I’m not that old!’. (laughs)
► And I want to say, ‘You really aren’t!’, but I know what you mean. There is this internal-external divide between your mental or emotional age on the one side and your biological age on the other side.
Well, and you’re right, I’m not even that old. But I did just turn 31, and in Hollywood years that’s ancient. And yet I’m still figuring out who I am and trying to understand myself in a new context. I used to understand myself as an undergrad in Texas or as a pothead who used to go to raves, then I understood myself as a struggling grad student who was really broke and really cold in New York. And now I’m trying to understand myself in the super weird, surreal world that is Los Angeles, where, for whatever reason, being smart is not that cool. It’s really hard to find common ground and to meet people who share your interests and your values. I’ve finally been lucky, after about five years here, to find a really close-knit group of friends. We call ourselves the Nerd Brigade. It’s a smart group of interesting people who all do similar things to what I do – taking science out of the laboratory and bringing it into the public eye. It’s cool to have that now, to be able to support one another and go on dorky field trips together. When you don’t have that? That’s when it gets hard.
► Do you think it is easier to figure yourself out in this kind of environment, because you get to do and try out so many different things, or is it more difficult, because you are expected to do and be so many different things at the same time?
I think it’s both. Of course figuring out who you are goes beyond what you do and how you get paid. So in a sense it’s harder because you are up against so many values. I’m certainly up against a lot of values in Los Angeles that I disagree with – there is a lot of major ageism around here, there is superficial obsession with the way you look, with how skinny you are, with what some people might define as talent. Which is a lot different from how I would define talent.
► What’s the difference in the definition there?
I’d say what is generally considered talent here is lacking in depth and lacking an intellectual component, which I think is important. So those are differences that make it more difficult to figure yourself out. I’ve been in jobs where I had a lot of pressure from above to look a certain way, to act a certain way, talk a certain way, all things that definitely were not me. ‘Wear that short skirt, instead of that tie. Carry yourself in that way. Back off a little and let the boys do the talking.’ That kind of thing. And that’s just never been my personality. At the same time, I can draw a lot of parallels to growing up in Texas in a Mormon family. Sometimes, when you are so different from the norm, it strengthens who you are. Sure, there are times when you are lost. But then there are times when you see that you are so different from everyone else that you can’t help but be yourself. It might not be easy to figure out who you are, but it is easier to be yourself than try to fight it.
► You mentioned your own, private Nerd Brigade. Your podcast, of course, is called Talk Nerdy. Have you completely escaped the stigma that was once, and often still is, attached to the term ‘nerd’?
You know, it’s funny. I sometimes have teachers reach out to me – even semi-young ones, who have about five to ten years on me – and they say, ‘I love what you’re doing, but you don’t want to call yourself a nerd. That’s mean!’. But it’s not. We’re still trying to rebrand the term from being pejorative. But it’s a process. I really think being nerdy is a point of pride. It means that you care a lot about your chosen subject, despite the fact that other people think it is uncool. And, let’s face it, you do care about what other people think. We all do. It’s a stupid trope to claim that you don’t. So your nerdy passion is in spite of those adverse opinions. And it is generally correlated with pursuits one should be proud of. They might not seem all that positive when you’re in fourth or fifth grade or even ninth and tenth grade. But when you’re grown up, you realise that the nerds are inheriting the world. (laughs) Now I’m thinking: If only somebody older would have helped me see that to take ownership of that brand is really the best way to fight back. If you’re a nerd, you’re a nerd. And the truth is, it’s pretty awesome. It’s just the powers-that-be at a younger age that make you feel like it’s not.
► Do you actively remember the moment when you realised that you are a nerd – in a positive way or what you perceived to be a negative way?
No. Probably because I was a super weird kid. I wasn’t just one thing. Maybe that brings us back to me still trying to figure out who I am now. When I was in school, I was in the most competitive honours classes. I was in a programme called International Baccalaureate – that’s basically an Advanced Placement course on steroids. By the time you finish that, you have two years worth of college under your belt. I ultimately dropped out of IB, but that was because I dropped out of high school early to start college. So I was definitely competitive in an academic sense – Math Olympiads, all the extra curricular activities – but at the same time I was in jazz choir, which is also kind of dorky, and I was a cheerleader. I definitely roamed in both tribes. Which always made me either the dorky cheerleader or the really cool nerd.
Everyone was my people – yet no one was my people. That definitely made me feel a little bit like an outsider.
► Which probably sounds good to someone who has never been part of two groups that have so little in common. But anyone who has experienced something similar to that…
…will know that it means you never really belong to either group, yes. I had friends in both camps. Everyone was my people – yet no one was my people. That definitely made me feel a little bit like an outsider. And that’s a theme I have experienced a lot throughout my life. Yeah, some kids called me a nerd, and not in the good way. But then other kids thought I was really cool and looked up to me. And I always would try to empathise with both sides. Even now I sometimes see fan mail or comments on YouTube videos and recognise people from middle school or high school, and they say, ‘Cara was always really nice to me in school’. Reading that is super nice and really makes me happy, and I guess I can attribute that to the fact that I walked in everyone’s shoes. But, let’s be honest, I was probably still a total dick to someone. All kids are. So there is probably someone who thinks, ‘That girl was such a jerk’. In the end, I guess I was in a very lucky position to have a foot in both camps and therefore be able to empathise with both.