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Caltech Associates Welcome the Nerd Brigade

Four women who are passionate about science recently spoke at California Institute of Technology about their career choices and their involvement in founding the Nerd Brigade group.

Caltech Associates hosted “Renaissance Women: Taking a Non-Traditional Path in the 21st Century” on Tuesday, April 12 at the Athenaeum featuring optical engineer Holly Bender, science communicators Crystal Dilworth and Meg Rosenburg, and investments associate Teagan Wall.

The four science advocates and other members of the Nerd Brigade focus on science communications, which is explaining science-related topics to non-experts. They perform community outreach to ensure science is accessible and fun, and rather than intimidating.

Dilworth, Rosenburg and Wall received their doctorate degrees from Caltech and Bender became affiliated with Caltech through her career at JPL. The beginnings of the Nerd Brigade group can be traced back to the filming of the 2011 movie “Piled Higher & Deeper,” also called “PhD” on Caltech’s campus. The movie was based on a web comic popular among graduate students.

Rosenburg was on Caltech’s theater board at the time when PhD Comics creator Jorge Cham wanted to make a live action version of his comic.

“He happened to live in Pasadena and was a former instructor himself,” she said. “He just emailed the theater group at Caltech to see if they would be interested. As the only graduate student on the panel, I was the only one who knew what the comic was and how significant it was. I knew if we passed on this opportunity, we would be missing out on a really big deal among this community of grad students. It sort of coalesced from what was initially going to be a few web short videos into an hour-long feature film.”

The movie was partially funded by Caltech and the majority of the cast and crew were students, staff and faculty there, according to Rosenburg.

“It was a real community effort that came out of it,” she said. “When it was finished, it was screened in universities all around the world.”

Rosenburg took the role as producer for “PhD,” which led to her meeting Dilworth, who was a main character in the movie.

“I acted in the movie, but when the movie finished Meg and I ended up taking business development roles with PhD Comics for a little bit after that,” Dilworth said. “We helped with the distribution of the film.”

They also co-founded PhD TV.

“It was an off-shoot of the web comic,” Dilworth said. “It was live action. It was animation. It was any way to communicate about not just science, but about scientists and showing their lives. That’s what made the comic really special. Everyone really saw that the problems that they were having were the same as the problems everyone else was having around the world because they were all in Grad School and they were all engaged in a similar pursuit.”

She said that their involvement in PhD TV opened up the science communications community as a whole, allowing them to make many connections.

They then worked together again on a television show called “TechKnow” on the former Al Jazeera America network and further productions of Caltech Theater.

“Between all of those different communities coming together is how the Nerd Brigade formed,” Dilworth said. “We continue to do events like hosting science alums during First Fridays at the National History Museum. We go on trips on our own which turn into science communication opportunities. So content from a trip to Meteor Crater could be a YouTube video, podcast, blog or list of informative tweets.”

Wall said having a community of friends such as the Nerd Brigade is useful. For instance, when a science communication opportunity comes up that one person can’t take, they can find someone they trust in the field to take it.

“A lot of us work on YouTube, in TV, on podcasts or in the written word all in service of science communication,” Dilworth said, mentioning how a friend hosting a Women in Science panel needed experts.

“I don’t think anyone in the brigade is a scientist and only a scientist,” Wall said. “I don’t think anyone is interested in just being that. We all have several facets of our life that are very important to us. It’s showing that scientists are people. In order to be a scientist, it doesn’t have to be your whole life.”

The Nerd Brigade was formed in 2014 and is comprised of 12 women and men. For more information, visit www.nerdbrigade.la.

Caltech Associates, which is a support group for Caltech made up of more than 2,000 individuals, is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Member support enables Caltech students, staff and research to gain new knowledge and lead innovation. For more information or to join, visit associates.caltech.edu or call (626) 395-3919.


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