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ISU science and tech week to feature aerospace engineer and TV host Emily Calandrelli

A brunette woman with long eyelashes looks over her fight shoulder to smile at the camera. She holds a miniature model of Jupiter in front of her chest.
courtesy of
Illinois State University
Emily Calandrelli headlines Illinois State University's Science and Technology Week with a keynote address Tuesday evening. The first-generation STEM graduate from Appalachia in a male-dominated field found her passion for sharing science with others through television and a chapter book series called "Ada Lovelace Adventures."

Aerospace engineer Emily Calandrelli headlines Science and Technology Week at Illinois State University. Calandrelli is slated to give a keynote address Tuesday, March 28, at the Bone Student Center.

A West Virginia native, Calandrelli is an MIT-trained engineer who interned with NASA. But a decade ago, she made giant leap from studying space to sharing her passion for science with others.

“It just kind of happened,” Calandrelli said. As she was finishing graduate school, she got a call from a production company who was developing an educational space show. They’d seen videos of Calandrelli talking about space and asked if she’d host.

“I had done a lot of outreach throughout my educational career,” she said. “They found that I could talk about this stuff in a way that people who didn’t have a background in aerospace engineering could understand it.”

Calandrelli said yes, and she's found a niche presenting rigorous science in a playful way for both kids and adults. She worked with Bill Nye the Science Guy and hosts Fox's Emmy-nominated show “Xploration Outer Space.” She is the author of the “Ada Lovelace Adventures,” a series of chapter books about an 8-year-old girl who loves science, and also hosts Netflix Jr.’s “Emily’s Wonder Lab.”

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are male-dominated fields. As an undergraduate student at West Virginia University, Calandrelli was often one of just two or three women in 50-person classes.

“That was super intimidating,” Calandrelli said. “Engineering on its own is intimidating because everyone knows it as ‘one of the hard majors.’ And then you walk into a room where you don’t see anybody who looks like you.”

Calandrelli built her confidence by buckling down in the library and figuring out problems on her own. Over time, she found a close community of women in science who could lend each other support.

Arriving at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), however, Calandrelli found her gender wasn’t the only thing that made her different.

“The people I met had these stories of parents who knew all about science and engineering,” she said. “I’m the first person in my family to pursue a degree in STEM. I didn’t know anybody who had a STEM degree. Most of my extended family didn’t go to college. Many of them didn’t graduate high school.”

Calandrelli’s father grew up in poverty and worked his way into the middle class to provide for his family. Calandrelli wanted to pay that forward and ensure a college education would keep her from having to rely on her parents. That’s why she chose engineering.

“I googled all the majors and looked at their starting salaries,” she said. “I found that engineers made the most money. So, I didn’t go into it thinking I’m going to love it; I went into it thinking this is going to be really hard, but I’m going to get a good job and it’s going to be worth it.”

Pragmatism may have gotten Calandrelli into science, but she quickly found out she loved it and had something unique to offer.

“A lot of people who go to these elite colleges come from elite backgrounds,” she said. “I come from coal country. When we’re talking about the science of climate change — which is just how it works fundamentally — that’s something different than the policy of affecting the climate, of preventing climate change. Because the policy piece includes humans, it becomes so much more complex.

“You can educate people all you want about how the science of climate change works, but to actually change their behavior, you have to understand the incentives of those humans. You have to understand where they’re coming from, the problems they personally experience and how to incentivize them to perhaps change their behavior. When you have insight into those humans’ lives and those communities' lives, that can be invaluable.”

Calandrelli says her background also plays a big role in why she developed a passion for science communication and media. She allows others to see her surprise and fascination with science, tapping into the wonderment of exploration.

“I don’t filter my excitement,” she said. “With science, historically we find it to be childish to show our excitement.”

Surprise, Calandrelli said, implies not knowing or expecting a particular result, which some scientists perceive as a lack of training or intelligence.

“But for me, it’s joyful; it’s exciting for me,” she said. “And I don’t shield my excitement from the camera.”

Emily Calandrelli speaks at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 28, in the Brown Ballroom at Bone Student Center on ISU’s campus. The talk is free and open to the public.

Science and Technology Week concludes Friday with the Women in Leadership Conference, concluding with a panel of women working in male-dominated scientific and technical fields.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.