Taryn O’Neill originally from Vancouver, is an actress, writer, web series producer, and lover of STEM. In fact, she formed a group of like-minded actresses called the Scirens: Screen Sirens for Science (made up of her, Gia Mora, Tamara Krinsky, and Christina Ochoa), whose mission is to advocate for science literacy, be that through sharing science news or inspiring science-infused entertainment. O’Neill has starred in Granite Flats for three seasons, wrote an unproduced female Sci-Fi action series for Stan Lee, and has a degree in Economics from Duke. In this I&T Today exclusive, the martial arts enthusiast and former competitive figure skater shares what got her interested in science, the importance of STEM, and her favorite science-y movies.
Innovation & Tech Today: Why STEM? When you were growing up did you love science class?
Taryn O’Neill: No, I wasn’t a science-orientated kid when I was growing up. I liked science but it wasn’t any sort of a passion – though I do fondly remember my 5th grade genetics project. I was actually a competitive figure skater, so my life was very regimented and focused. But I was definitely curious: I was the kid who sat on the lawn, wondering, looking up at the stars, trying to understand the idea of the Universe.
Luckily I came back to these ‘big’ questions when I started acting. The further I dug into acting, the larger the viewpoint of the world I had. I was forced to look at the human condition, our place in the world, and the psychology behind it. (There’s a great neuroscience element to acting – Thalia Goldsmith has done some really interesting research on the topic.) And then when I started writing, I got to dig even deeper. I don’t know why I gravitated towards science fiction. I was never into Sci-Fi as a kid, though I did love Harry Potter and Buffy, but after I produced the Sci-Fi webseries After Judgement, the genre just spoke to me. I liked ‘what if’ stories, especially about what our future will look like. But once I started exploring Sci-Fi stories, I found that I wanted to make the fiction as theoretically plausible as possible.
I was obsessed with finding truth in my crazy ideas. And this opened the door to researching real science, physics especially. And once I went through the door, the light bulb went off. My whole world view changed. Understanding the laws of nature that govern our existence gave me this new inspired outlook. I derive so much joy from my news feed everyday seeing the work of scientists. I wake up and think, This world is amazing!
You know, when I was in school studying science, it felt forced, like there was no relevancy to the real world as to why I was supposed to be learning physics or chemistry beyond a grade. Unfortunately, I think this is pretty common. But now that I do understand how important and inspiring STEM knowledge is, especially with the looming challenge of climate change and a world that is becoming exponentially more dependent on technology, I want to share this knowledge and passion as much as I can through my work. I like to think of us Scirens as a Trojan horse – people wouldn’t expect a quartet of actresses to be advocates for STEM! So we can reach people who wouldn’t normally be exposed to science news.
I&T Today: Do you find people are surprised to hear that Taryn O’Neill is interested in science? Are those stereotypes changing?
Taryn O’Neill: It’s changing. People might be still surprised, but then they’re like, Oh okay. That’s awesome. As opposed to Why? Why on earth would you do that? The correlation between the arts and science is not so foreign now. And that’s thanks to big celebs like Will.I.Am taking a stand for STEM education. And for people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and astronaut Chris Hadfield becoming mainstream media personalities. And I have to say that it’s such a pleasure since we started the group that we have next to no online hate.
I&T Today: Wow.
Taryn O’Neill: Right? It is amazing. It’s the internet after all so I expected there to be some sort of backlash. But ultimately I think people know we started Scirens because we are authentically passionate about science. We didn’t start it to make money off of it. Of course, I’d love to ultimately make a living here at the cross section of science and entertainment!
I&T Today: What is the importance of keeping the ‘A’ in STEAM, and what value do the arts brings to the STEM skill set?
Taryn O’Neill: The middle letter of STEAM is the glue that binds everything together. It allows the wonders of STEM to be understood and shared. The reason I’m into STEM is that I first found the A – I first found the arts. That began my search for meaning in the universe and led me to #STEM. It’s weird because I realize that I always write #STEM in a tweet just so people are clear what I’m referencing. But science and art are just different sides to the same coin. We’re exploring the story of life. It all comes back to the narrative. Science and Art just use different paint brushes to illustrate the stories. And I think one can’t do its job without the other. Technology is integral to creating and distributing entertainment and a scientist needs imagination and good storytelling skills to share the significance of her findings with the public and the institutions that fund the work.
I&T Today: What are your top 2 or 3 favorite movies related to science or science fiction?
Taryn O’Neill: Contact. I loved the big questions that Contact posed and the portrayal of a female scientist who studied the stars. Alien is a big favorite of mine – and I normally don’t like horror films – but it was ahead of its time portraying a strong female character who was an engineer AND who kicked alien ass. Signorney Weaver will always be a hero to me. And my favorite all time movie is Blade Runner. It is phenomenal how that movie holds up. Come to think of it, the seeds of my science and Sci-Fi passion were planted back when I first watched it in film class at Duke. So thanks Ridley Scott! I guess we need to work together now.
By Charles Warner and Melissa Hirsch
Photos by Cathy Baron Photography