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Fanara and Robertson Combine Superpowers to Empower STEM Students

Tracy Fanara remembers the day she knew what she wanted to do with her life. An elementary teacher was talking about the 1978 Love Canal disaster, in which barrels of chemicals from a toxic landfill dislodged and bled into the Niagara Falls, New York water table, and leached into backyards, basements and a schoolyard. The disaster resulted in the creation of the EPA Superfund and a host of new regulations.

“That’s what sparked my interest in environmental engineering,” she recalled, “protecting people from natural disasters, making sure they have clean water and food to survive.”

As for Tamara Robertson? First of all, she shared with a caller about a week she’d just spent in Yellowstone, sounding every bit like an excited 10-year-old rather than one of the top scientist-engineers in America. “The bison followed me for like seven miles so I thought I was taking one home!” she chuckled.

Which is part of the message: this STEM Superpower team is as much about having fun as creating serious science. Whether it’s an interview, a student session or the latest at NOAA or Mythbusters, they are all-in.

Tracy Fanara-Tamara Robertson
Dr. Tracy Fanara and Tamara Robinson

Then, she shared her career origin journey. It took a little longer than for Tracy, but the way it happened was equally random. “I grew up taking things apart — not always a good thing!” Tamara said. “I’ve always been a tinkerer, naturally curious. Only when I was a sophomore in college, did I realize engineering could be an option, but at the time, the only thing I knew about it was that Scotty was an engineer on Star Trek.“

Two amazing careers germinated from these casual early brushes with science — part of the point they make every day in their work with younger STEM students. Tracy, a.k.a. “Inspector Planet,” manages coastal and national modeling efforts for NOAA, a critical responsibility during major sea-level rise and coastal change. Tamara is the co-host of the Science Channel’s Mythbusters Jrs. with Adam Savage, former co-host of Mythbusters 2.0, and Engineering Consultant and Wardrobe Designer — a fascinating combination. Together, they presented a virtual session in the recent X-STEM All Access and SciFest All Access events, produced by USA Science & Engineering Festival; Tamara welcomed SciFest All Access attendees via video as well.

But since most kids and teens, and many childlike adults love comics, animation and anime, let’s start with what might be the hottest publishing property floating around STEM World right now: the Seekers of Science comic book series that they co-publish, in which characters use science and scientific application to save various endangered places, species and other situations on earth. Hundreds of thousands of students read each issue.

Through Seekers of Science, the USASEF events and their own major outreach and event schedules, the duo is literally combining their superpowers to draw the next generation into STEM-based careers.
“SciFest All Access is amazing,” Tracy said. “It’s a great resource for students to get connected with people in the STEM and science fields. Everyone has a unique story, and it’s important to hear of STEM successes, because it’s not all rainbows and butterflies; in fact, there are a lot of obstacles, and it is hard at times. But it’s all worth it in the end. You get through things you might not ordinarily; it builds character and work ethic.”

While both women place high importance on mentorship and working with kids — they run a STEM camp together in Florida — Tamara has made it a major part of her life’s calling as a chemical and biomolecular engineer. Besides Mythbusters Jr., she’s a board member for a number of STEM organizations, and devotes much of her consultancy to creating platforms to maximize student involvement — particularly girls and young women.

“I wanted to champion women, and I realized during my corporate life, in five tiers of management, there were no women,” she said. “On my own, I did research, and realized so many young girls quit STEM based learning and programs before even entering high school. Something had to be done.”

Enter Mythbusters and Superhero Science, which Tamara has championed through ComiCon panels, the live and virtual outreach camps and joint presentations with Tracy, and keynote speeches to inspire more young women to seek STEM careers.

“My main outreach is Superhero Science, comic books etc., so as an example of what I love to do, I was doing a science prank show, tied into Mythbusters, at the Clipper SciFest in L.A.,” Tamara recalled. “There was no ability for a full stage show, so we pivoted to a booth and a show floor, with pretty talented kids. You could get a photograph and autograph if you asked a superhero science questions. I became like this Magic 8 Ball. I invited the physics department from UCLA to take up half my booth, worked with the science editor of Big Bang Theory and retrofitted a Jazzercise bike to illuminate light bulbs, to show the amount of energy it takes to light something. Projects like this draw in kids and keep them interested.”

In a world that will need more and more engineers as climate, infrastructure and other challenges continue to mount, Tracy believes the way to the hearts of tomorrow’s scientists — particularly girls — is to tell her story and then put it right to work with students. And within her story is part of the secret sauce to creating value and achieving greatness: find a way to create a better approach or method for the world.

“I chose a career in science and the environment,” she said. “With science, you get to see something you’ve never seen every day, and you’re going to lose, often — that’s what happens with experiments. Until you win. When you win, though, you have the potential to change the world. My degrees combine design and environmental engineering, water and the environment. If you look at every catastrophe in the U.S., you see scientists and engineers not talking to each other, just staying in their specific corners. Well, I’m an environmental engineer, and I am also a hydrologist and ocean scientist, focusing on coastal resilience; I do both.”

Tamara Robertson-Mythbusters-1
Tamara Robertson

At the recent X-STEM All Access virtual event, presented by the USA Science & Engineering Festival, Tracy explained one of her NOAA projects, on which she’s working with NASA: to build an aquaponic system for space travel to clean wastewater using shellfish, shrimp, mussels and snails, a classic application of biomimicry — in which we repeat the natural processes of animals to solve human issues. In this case, shellfish are the ocean’s natural clean water filters, so why aren’t we using them elsewhere… like in their opposite environment, space?

A great question — but what separates Tracy from nearly everyone on earth is that she not only had the presence of mind to ask it, but figured out a completely new system to arrive at a revolutionary way to treat wastewater in space. That ingenuity, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving approach is the same scientific mindset she impresses upon students in what, for her, often feels like playtime in the sandbox.

“I really enjoy mentoring students. I had over 40 interns in my previous job, including 13 in one summer,” she said. “The kids did what they wanted to; this was not an internship where they do monotonous tasks. They explore science and learn what drives them. They research and then build the piece, learning they can build the world around them.”

Tamara’s career followed an entirely different arc. It began with an inquisitive, I-can-do-it spirit, being a young woman trying to crack career ceilings. She knows both the frustrations of feeling stuck, but also fully appreciates the character skills she absorbed from her parents — a point she impressed.

“I grew up in a military family,” she said. “My mother, as a female in a male dominated world, had to work twice as hard for half the accolades, but always forged a path. Dad supported her and showed me the grit and power I would need. They couldn’t afford to send me to college, but instilled other skills in me.

“So I can tell military kids, or kids that feel like their only option is to go into the military, that you can go to college and achieve your dreams. I can tell you, as someone who came from a family with no previous college, no engineers, no one to guide you — there’s still a chance. There are resources, funding and mentors out there. And also try to remember your parents are doing so much more than you realize, giving you an example of being the type of human you want to be in life. You have many options outside of the military, and there are lots of scholarships for military kids.”

The bulk of Tamara’s early professional work came as licensed chemical and biomolecular product engineer for more than a decade for Fortune 500 companies. Her areas of experience include global tech transfers, process & facilities design, pandemic vaccine manufacturing (a handy skill today, for sure! She worked on a swine flu vaccine team for six months in Liverpool), patented additive technology development, and product design. While working with the likes of Starbucks, McDonald’s and Tupperware, she also launched Women in Leadership mentoring programs, started plant-based product initiatives, and engineered shifts to more sustainability in product design and manufacturing.

However, the tireless, diminutive scientist with endless personality also earned something else — a Screen Actors Guild card, initially as a commercial actress. When 2015 rolled around, she made her move into full-time consultancy, speaking and presenting — and eventually onto Mythbusters.

“I always had this creative spark, whether choreographing dance, doing art, or being an engineer,” Tamara said. “I did commercial acting in the Southeast while in college, and it’s been a side hobby since, but I was never able to land the roles I wanted, a nerdy science/engineer, you know, Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory.

“I’d go for these roles, and they’d say, ‘you don’t look like a scientist or engineer.’ I’d say back, ‘Would you like to see my degrees?’ Instead, I only got ‘girl next door’ roles.”

Now, she’s spent the past several seasons on screen, in a much different way than she expected — but it does combine camera and science.

“Every engineer hopes to explode conventional myths. What most don’t realize is that Mythbusters really is reality TV. It was a whole new branch of TV that I, as an actor, never knew I would be going toward. I was so surprised. I never thought I’d land in a TV show like it, getting to play while I hosted, getting to tinker with things. Really cool,” she said.

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January 27, 2022
By Robert Yehling

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