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Talking Nerdy with Cara Santa Maria – Senior Science Correspondent at Huffington Post

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

January 2, 2013

Cara Santa MariaHuffington Post’s senior science correspondent and host of the “Talk Nerdy to Me” series. She is a North Texas native who currently lives in Los Angeles, who prior moving to the west coast taught biology and psychology courses to university undergraduates and high school students in Texas and New York.

Her published research has spanned various topics, including clinical psychological assessment, the neuropsychology of blindness, neuronal cell culture techniques, and computational neurophysiology. She has appeared on Larry King Live (CNN), Parker/Spitzer (CNN), Geraldo at Large (Fox News), and I Kid (TLC). She also co-produced and hosted a science talk show pilot for HBO.

 

Kylie Sturgess: How did your interest in science begin? What were some of your early influences?

Cara Santa Maria

Cara Santa Maria: It's funny, because when I was really, really young, I was obsessed with dinosaurs, and I would try to dig up dinosaur bones in my backyard. As a kindergartner, I was sure that I was going to grow up to become a paleontologist.

Cut to high school, when I was scared out of my mind of science and avoided science like the plague, and I don't think that I was really well-prepared for that dream. I found out later that you have to study rocks and dirt and all sorts of things that I didn't care about.

So I ended up actually studying psychology in college, after making a switch from vocal jazz performance—a random, winding road! It wasn't until I got really into psychology that I realized how fascinating the brain part of the equation, and the brain-behavior relationship, was. So I decided to stick around after I got my undergrad and study biology—specifically neuroscience—for my master's degree.

Kylie: So how did that lead into journalism, and then into communicating science?

Cara: It happened so randomly! It's kind of that “a door closes, a window opens” situation. And that's something that I always try to tell kids, too, when I have talks with them or when I can get involved in the community: don't expect that exactly what you think is going to happen is going to work out, and be open to the twists and turns because sometimes they lead you to places you never would've thought you'd go.

I was actually in New York, working on a PhD in clinical neuropsychology, and I was miserable. I had moved from Texas. It was a great program and the people were great, but New York was not for me. I was sad and lonely and really cold. And at the same time, I had started dating somebody who lived out in Los Angeles—I would go visit and come back home and come visit and go back home.

And eventually, I think the relationship started to take over, and I thought that it was really important to try and put my stock into that. So I moved out to Los Angeles. I left my program, moved to Los Angeles, and had no idea what I was going to do!

I was out here for a while, and through a bunch of random flukes and twists and turns, ended up doing a couple things on-air; ended up basically being able to expand the classroom. I had always loved teaching a little more than I liked doing the bench-work anyway. I had a great opportunity to be on “Larry King.” I got some bigger breaks, and then I was able to put together a pilot for HBO. That didn't end up going anywhere, but I think it got me some of the exposure that I needed.

So eventually, Arianna Huffington actually came to me and said, “We don't have a science page. That's crazy. We need a science page, and I want your help putting it together.” So that's how I got started as a science correspondent at The Huffington Post.

Kylie: So what's it like at The Huffington Post? Whenever I mention it to people, if I recommend a link or a site, I get a massive range of reactions, from, “Oh, they're just gossip columnists promoting this, that, and the other,” to “Oh yeah, they've got great articles.” How do people generally respond?

Cara: First of all, it's a great place to work. I have so many amazing colleagues, and also some really good friends that I've made from being here. And it's interesting, because it's kind of split up all over the country. There's a huge newsroom in New York. I'm out here in Beverly Hills, and it's a much smaller newsroom. So we don't quite get the energy of the New York newsroom, but at the same time, we get to have fun pool parties and go to the beach! They've actually got beer on-tap in the kitchen.

Kylie: That sounds very Australian!

Cara: Does it? Oh, awesome! But when it comes to the actual way that The Huffington Post works, I can't really speak to a lot of that because I came in so late in the game. From what I gather, HuffPost actually started as a blog site. So it was just a community of a lot of people who were educated and informed but also very opinionated, and they would write blogs and people could go there to read different stories from a lot of different perspectives.

Obviously, politics is a really big vertical in terms of topics, but it is so broad at Huffington Post. You can go there to read about celebrity gossip if you want. You can go there to read hard-hitting political stories. We have some amazing White House correspondents and some amazing political reporters. You can go there to read about your interests. We've got these great voices; Latino voices, black voices, gay voices. You can really go and find your interest and get involved in the community.

So, I focus on science. I can't speak to what shows up on other pages, but on science, we try to make it really solid, really evidence-based, and also kind of fun, a place for nerds to come and hang out and read what's going on in the world of science.

Kylie: How did the video series “Talk Nerdy to Me” happen? Why video, in particular?

Cara: It's kind of strange! When I first started here I was kind of rudderless, I guess you could say, because we hadn't launched the science page. I started about three months before it launched. So I was involved in the launch process, but we didn't have an editor and were still trying to come up with the direction. Arianna Huffington had seen me do some on-air work, and actually, when I had done the pilot for HBO, we had called that pilot “Talk Nerdy to Me.” It kind of sparked the idea of doing this video series online. I think that maybe the pilot was a little edgy. It was a little new. It felt very new-media, on a more traditional format. So I think to be able to translate that into a new-media Internet format just made perfect sense.

So when I first started here, I did some video and some not quite long-form writing, more medium-form writing. And I played around with infographics and doing a lot of fun and different ways to present scientific stories. I think that video is my medium. It's fun for me to be able to go in front of the camera. When you can add visual components to a story, they come alive in a way that they don't always come alive just on the page, with words.

And also, now that HuffPost Live has launched, which is this great online streaming network, I have the opportunity to go downstairs to the studios and check in with the HuffPost Live hosts at least a few times a week and be a little more off-the-cuff and talk about all of the interesting news of the day in science.

Kylie: Speaking of the interesting news, sometimes it's controversial news. Do you ever get pushback due to content? You've covered global warming, homeopathy; I love the one where you said, “I'm an atheist, and I went on ‘The Young Turks’ to talk about it”! How do people respond to the controversy? How do you respond when people complain?

Cara: It's funny. The places where people can complain are aplenty online. So they can go into the comments section and speak their minds, and I always encourage them to do so, and I try to get involved there. They can go on Facebook and Twitter; I encourage them to do that as well.

Also, when my pieces end up going on YouTube, especially if I do work for “The Young Turks,” for “The Point,” which is separate from HuffPost, I see a lot of comments. Obviously the YouTube comments are just the most colorful in all of the Internet. And I have a forward-facing email that people find, and they can send me responses there.

A lot of times, I get very positive feedback. I get feedback from people saying, “My kids watch your show, and they were able to bring it into the classroom,” or from people saying, “Man, I think a lot like you, and it's really cool to find somebody out there who's outspoken about their atheism or who thinks that science is cool, who rocks the geek label without fear.” But I also do get some backlash. I get vitriol a lot of the times. I get a lot of hate mail. I think my favorite one said that I was the Antichrist himself.

Kylie: Gosh. Wow.

Cara: It's actually a long, intense, fun email! I keep it around, just for giggles, whenever I need a pick-me-up. But for the most part, I take it with a grain of salt, because I know that some of the things that I talk about, though they're not scientifically controversial, can be taken as politically or, more often, religiously controversial, and it cuts to the core of people's sensitivities. Sometimes I like to take a no-apologies approach. Other times I think that it is important that I be a little softer in my approach. I think it really varies, depending on what the topic is and depending on who I think my audience is going to be.

The big thing that I've learned, though, being online and being really out there, is that you have to be yourself. The truth of the matter is, with me, what you see is what you get. I'm a terrible actress. I'm not a good liar. So when I'm on the air, you are seeing Cara Santa Maria: 100 percent, the same as I am with my friends.

The biggest thing that I've realized is going into the comments takes a certain amount of fortitude. It takes a certain amount of strength. And so, there are days when I'm not up for it, and I have to avoid them on those days. There are other days when my sense of humor is where it needs to be, when I'm feeling good about myself, when I'm feeling productive, when I'm having a good day, and I can go in and I can take the good with the bad. But if I know I'm going to be sensitive or take something too personally, or take something the wrong way, I just avoid the comments section that day, and I think that that's the healthiest approach.

Kylie: One of the things that can sometimes overwhelm women online is the backlash from men, or sexist attitudes in general—which can come from both men and women. How do you respond to the imbalance of men and women in science? I mean, take yourself for example: you worked in research, and now you're working in journalism. You're putting yourself out there in terms of communicating science. Do you think that this is a good way for scientists, especially women in science, to go forth and be a role model, as it were?

Cara: I think that there are so many more men in science, naturally. But also, I think, when it comes to the general public, it's funny because I kind of have a built-in audience of middle-aged men. Middle-aged men are generally more interested in the sciences. That's the demographic Discover and National Geographic are trying to reach out to. But I know that there are a lot of young women, a lot of younger men, a lot of kids, and a lot of minorities that are interested in science. I try to tap into those groups—not in any sort of targeted marketing way, but just because I am one of those groups. I'm a young Latina woman, and I know that there are other people like me out there. The first thing that I try to do is not be exclusionary.

But speaking to what you were asking about sexism or about misogyny; that happens. It really happens, and I think that it takes all types. Women are not monolithic, and even female science communicators are not monolithic. Some women want to be, I think, a little more anonymous. They want to keep the work very heavily focused on the work.

Obviously, I have a face to the name. Obviously, the title of my series is “Talk Nerdy to Me.” It's already tongue-in-cheek. I take the attitudes that can come along with it with a grain of salt. As a general rule, on my Facebook, for example, I respond to almost everybody. I get emails on my Facebook fan page all the time, and I really like to take the time to respond to everybody.

But when I get an email that's just an overtly sexual email or it's asking me on a date or something like that, my silence is my response. I don't engage that kind of behavior. What ends up happening is that on my Facebook page it falls away, because people realize that it’s falling on deaf ears.

But if they want to have a really in-depth conversation with me, if you want to really talk about the last piece that I made, talk about the piece that I made. If you want to talk about the way I look in my T-shirt? I'm not going to talk back to you.

I think it's hard for a lot of women, because sometimes men, I think, think that they're complimenting when they could be saying something that's offensive. For me, I try to figure out intent. I try not to lump all, I guess you could say parenthetical comments together and say, “Oh, that's misogyny and I'm not going to stand for that!”

The truth is, if somebody says, “Wow, I find you beautiful and you're smart, too! That's amazing!” Obviously, I think to a lot of women they'd be like, “Oh my God, dude, are you serious?” But I think you can sometimes tell when the guy really honestly thinks that he's trying to compliment you.

Kylie: How do you avoid false equivalencies when doing science reporting? What sort of resources do you lean upon?

Cara: That's a really good question. Honestly, it's tough. For me, that's one of the most important things that I do in my day-to-day; I don't stand for false equivalencies. I try really hard not to make those errors myself. When it comes to science, oftentimes there's a right answer and a wrong answer. Sometimes we don't know. But when we talk about this side of the argument or that side of the argument, a lot of times what we're actually talking about is science and anti-science, non-science, junk science, or pseudoscience.

And it's very difficult for the casual reader of science to be able to tell the difference, because that's the tricky and intelligent thing about pseudoscience peddlers. That's why we call it pseudoscience, it sounds like science. It uses the same words. You can trick people that way, when a lot of times what we're really looking at is self help books or quack medical things, alternatives to try and make money off of an unsuspecting public.

I'm actually really into the whole debunking side of things. I like to read strong skeptic magazines. I read Skeptic. I read Skeptical Inquirer. I'm really interested in reading things I hear about on “Point of Inquiry.” A lot of times, that will give me ideas for new stories. I like to figure out what seems mainstream but is actually totally bunk.

If I can do a story about that and inform just a few more people, then that's fine. Sometimes it's heavy, and sometimes it's really tongue-in-cheek. I did a piece about whether or not redheads are really going extinct, because this kind of meme has been on the Internet for years. There are so many articles about it. And genetics doesn't work that way. This recessive trait is not going to be bred out of the population. Don't worry, redheads, you're not going extinct!

Kylie: What advice would you have for someone who's hoping to follow in your footsteps? Do you think the milieu is going to change dramatically over the next five years for science writers and for communicators out there?

Cara: One thing that I like to tell people who are in high school, in college—when you're looking through the course guide, if a class sounds interesting to you, take it. Take interesting classes and you can figure out what that means for your future as you go along.

For me, if I had studied straight journalism I might not have been exposed to the science that I wanted to be exposed to. I'm starting to notice a lot of people—if your school doesn't offer a multidisciplinary or an interdisciplinary program, make it yourself. If you really like chemistry and dance, take chemistry and dance and figure out how to make those things work for you.

If you specifically are interested in science communication, I definitely recommend taking all the science classes that you can, taking math, taking statistics. But also taking writing classes, and I don't just mean journalism. Take literature. Take poetry.

On top of that, try and become knowledgeable about the political landscape in your country. Try and become knowledgeable about the history and the civics of your country. Because I think all of those things end up coming into play.

Psychology is important, too. Understanding how the reader or how the viewer is going to perceive science, understanding some of the nuances in science denialism that's out there and figuring out how to be able to get in the heads of the reader and really communicate to people are both very important.

One thing that I hope that I can do, one thing that I always try to do, is follow in the footsteps of my personal hero, Carl Sagan. Because I think that he managed to communicate science in a way that showed how incredibly human, how incredibly emotional, and how incredibly poetic science really is. I'd like to see more of that out there, because I think that it will inspire more people to become scientifically literate and to think scientifically about the world.

Talk Nerdy to Me can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/talk-nerdy-to-me.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.