"Get outside! Explore the natural world around you. We need girls at the helm of the next generation of scientific discovery." - Maggy Benson
This week's #FanGirlFriday is the AMAZING Maggy Benson, who is quickly taking the science world by storm (no pun intended)! Maggy currently resides in Washington D.C and produces AND hosts a science television show at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, all while juggling being a new mom. We are blown away by her passion and dedication to science and her desire to share that knowledge with children around the country.
Keep it up, Maggy! You're changing the face of science and we couldn't be more proud :-)
Every Ella: Hi Maggy! Tell us a little about yourself.
Maggy Benson: Hi! My name is Maggy Benson and I live in Washington, D.C. I grew up in a town just outside of Scranton, home of Joe Biden, "The Office" and really delicious pizza. Growing up, my mom had one rule: stay outside… unless you're bleeding or broken. While many broken bones and stitches brought me inside, this rule, without a doubt, led to my deep love of nature… and ultimately working at one of the largest natural history museums in the world.
A creek and small wooded area bordered the back of my house and my siblings and I spent hours each day exploring it. We had tea parties on stumps, build countless forts and tromped through the creek daily. We knew how to collect wild onions for dinner, where the wildflowers bloomed and where the crawfish liked to hide. I captured those crawfish and all sorts of other critters: worms, caterpillars, salamanders, frogs and basically anything else that was slow enough to get caught. Instead of telling me that worms were gross, my mom challenged me to make a worm farm. The worms in my farm died and the frogs escaped, but my love of nature and science persisted.
What did you study in college?
I decided to study biology at Northeastern University in Boston. I spent several semesters working at the university's Marine Science Center as both an informal educator and research assistant. I taught students about marine ecology and oceanography and did my own research project under the direction and supervision of a faculty member. I was scuba diving during my lunch breaks, studying interactions of snails and crabs (not gross!) and introducing Boston-area kids to the marvelous marine-world in their backyard. These experiences hooked me and paved the way for a career in science communication and education.
You produce and host a science show called “Smithsonian Science How.” Can you tell us more about your program and how it started?
"Smithsonian Science How" is a live webcast that brings Smithsonian scientists directly into classrooms nationwide. Each episode is broadcast online and features a live interview with a Smithsonian scientist explaining his or her work and use of collections to study important questions in the fields of life, earth and space science and anthropology.
We've built in interactive features like polls and Q&A so that students can interact directly with the scientist during the show. Each program comes with teaching resources which are all aligned with science standards, easy to use and completely free.
We launched the program in January 2014 in an effort to put science and natural history collections "into" classrooms nationwide and to broaden access to students who might not visit the museum or have access to Smithsonian resources. Since launching, we've completed 20 episodes and have 8 more programs scheduled for this school year.
Can you tell us more about one episode in specific?
Our season premiere is "Rise of the Dinosaurs" with paleontologist Dr. Hans Sues on October 8th. It's been a ton of fun preparing for that show. We've filmed some great features, including 200 million year old dinosaur tracks and a huge grave of amphibians that went extinct.
What are your goals with this show?
Our primary objective when we launched “Science How” was to create a new type of science education tool that could reach students nationwide and show them that science is exciting, relevant, fun and even cool. We’re comfortable saying that we have that tool in “Science How,” and now we’re looking at the impact we’re making. Ultimately, we’d like to help transform students’ connection to science and the natural world, helping to create the next generation of science-literate citizens. I’d be thrilled if we’ve inspired even just one student to study science and pursue a career in it.
How does "Smithsonian Science How" help girls?
Women and girls are underrepresented in STEM-- science, technology, engineering and math—education and careers. According to a report authored by the White House, women, who comprise 48 percent of the U.S. workface, have remained below parity and make up only 25 percent of STEM professionals.
One of our main goals with the “Science How” program is to start chipping away at this disparity. We’d love to inspire girls to consider pursuing STEM education and professions. One way we do this is by profiling women in science careers on the show.
All of our scientists paint a picture about what their career path is like, but the women also integrate, many times, information about how you can be a woman, mother, and scientist all at once. It’s this kind of mentorship that we hope inspires girls watching at home to consider a STEM education and career.
Have there been any challenges being a woman producer on your show?
The challenges I've faced are typical challenges for working women. There are circles that I have to break into and stereotypes that have to be disproved. At the end of the day, though, I work in an extremely supportive environment where there is a culture that respects women and diversity in the workplace.
Have you always wanted to be involved in television or was this something that came about organically through the museum?
The truth is that I never had an interest in being on camera or involved in television. I always thought that I'd be a doctor or scientist. I was quite content working in the realm of science education, but as "Science How" was becoming more and more of a reality, it became clear that I was going to be it's host.
How did you feel about being on camera?
The first time I went on camera, I was terrified. My heart was beating so hard that the sound technician had to adjust my microphone because you could actually hear the "thump-thump-thump" on the audio track. After a minute or so into the program, it all fell into place though. I forgot I was on camera and was able to relax. I talked about a family of fossil whales discovered in Chile and how scientists raced to excavate and 3-D scan them before their graveyard was paved over by a construction crew. Students from all over the country were asking questions and it was SO awesome to facilitate a genuine conversation between those students and one of our Smithsonian paleontologists. By the time it ended, 30 minutes later, I could not believe we were already done. I couldn't wait for the next show.
We’ve completed two seasons and 20 programs now. While I know I’m still a newbie to broadcast, I feel more comfortable with every program. I will say, though, that I feel tremendous pressure to deliver. There is such a huge team effort that goes into the development of each one of these programs. I know that I have to really do a great job to reflect just an ounce of the amazing work that my team puts in. And then there are the teachers and students from all over the country who have committed their class period to “Science How.” That just makes it that much more important that we develop a great program from the start and do our best to deliver a quality live show.
We also understand you’re a new mom. Congratulations! Has it been challenging to balance a baby with a career?
Thank you! I had my daughter a year ago and I am completely obsessed (the proof is on Instagram). To me, she is the cutest, smartest and most amazing little person that I’ve ever met. As a new mom, I think the hardest part for me is dealing with the guilt (and exhaustion, but that’s a given). I feel guilty putting her into day care and not seeing her every move and putting her down for every nap.
But the thought of not working makes me feel guilty too; I’d be squandering an amazing opportunity to produce a program that connects students nationwide to one-of-a-kind science programming. I’ve channeled the old “take it day-by-day” mantra to make it work. If each workday can be productive and I get to spend time with my daughter, it’s a win. It helps, too, that I work in the coolest place I could ever imagine. I don’t know of many other professions where you can see 200 million year old fossil tracks in the morning and then a 13-year old colony of leaf-cutter ants in the afternoon. Everyday is a new adventure—at the Museum and with my daughter.
Do you think you’ll continue to produce other shows?
As long as the Smithsonian lets me!
After just about every show that we’ve made so far, the guest-scientist and I look at each other and usually say something like, “wow, we can do a whole series of shows on this topic!” We have so many fascinating research stories and so many amazing scientists that we could do programs like this for a long, long, long time.
Eventually though, I’d love to do some episodes of “Science How” from the field locations where the discoveries are made. Smithsonian scientists do work all over the world, from the Arctic to Antarctica, deep ocean canyons to arid mountaintops. I’d love the chance to broadcast shows from some of these locations, giving students a window into where science is being done and who is doing it. This, I think, would be an ultimate inspiration to creating a whole new generation of science-literate citizens.
What’s the biggest obstacle you have faced in your career thus far?
Learning how to mix motherhood with a career. It sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. Nothing prepares you for the exhaustion and brain-drain that follows child birth.
Name one female who has really inspired you.
I continue to be most inspired by the smart, strong women that I encounter everyday. But at the end of the day, my mother has been the biggest source of inspiration for me. She has raised four children while battling an autoimmune disorder for the past 30 years. She’s had countless surgeries, ICU stays and years of suffering. Somehow, though, she has always made it work. She took us out for walks into the woods whenever she could and urged us to look a little closer at the plants, insects and especially the rocks we’d encounter. She helped us collect and organize our rock collections and would search endlessly for arrowheads and fossils.
What advice would you give to girls today?
Get outside! Explore the natural world around you. We need girls at the helm of the next generation of scientific discovery.