Astrophysicist Erin Macdonald (Math, Phys’09) has a way of explaining things. As a graduate student and postdoctoral candidate teaching introductory physics and astronomy classes, Macdonald realized she enjoyed the challenge of distilling complex topics, often without using math or equations, into easier-to-digest information for her students.
“Seeing how that resonated with people and how much more accessible it made science to them was what sparked that passion in me,” said MacDonald, who, in addition to her CU Boulder degrees, received a doctorate in gravitational astrophysics from the University of Glasgow.
Macdonald’s talent and expertise led her career to an unexpected destination: Hollywood.
Since 2019, Macdonald has been the science advisor for the Star Trek franchise. In the role, she helps creators figure out how to portray scientific topics on screen and use real and fictional STEM concepts to heighten plot lines. For instance, the first assignment she was given for the TV show Star Trek: Discovery was to write canons (fundamental principles) for dilithium, a made-up material that has existed in the series since the 1960s.
“Dilithium is totally fictional, but we were using it as a major plot point,” she said. “And so I had to, ‘Yes, and’ all the past stuff that we knew about dilithium and create new fictional science for it that now exists in that universe.”
While there are a lot of people behind movies and TV shows (including herself) who want the science featured to be accurate, there are more challenges to making that happen than figuring out where to draw the line between fact and fiction. From the set dressing to the visual effects budget and the on-screen time available to explain something, the film crew must consider many behind-the-scenes factors, Macdonald said.
One of her favorite examples of letting accuracy slide is Star Trek’s transporter, the iconic, fictional machine that teleports people and objects. In the real world, Macdonald said, it could not work because of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that you cannot know the position and speed of particles with perfect accuracy — so you can’t move and rebuild them somewhere else at the transporter’s level of precision.
But in Star Trek, the transporter is equipped with a component called the Heisenberg compensator, which counteracts any problems caused by the uncertainty principle.
“We don’t know how it works. But it works very well,” she said. “And it’s really an example of acknowledging that we’re breaking physics but letting itslide anyway.”
While working as a science advisor is her dream job, Macdonald, who hails from Fort Collins, had other gigs before she landed the role, including working as an educator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. She began honing her speaking skills at science conventions and eventually moved to Los Angeles. Then she began presenting at conferences, breaking down the science behind science fiction and its interconnectivity with pop culture, which led to gigs as a science consultant and eventually breaking into the TV industry.
“What got me to the position I have now was just looking for all those little opportunities, taking those risks and continuing to perform as best I could”
“What got me to the position I have now was just looking for all those little opportunities, taking those risks and continuing to perform as best I could,” she said.
Macdonald said finding her voice and learning how to express herself authentically — which was challenging for her as a woman working in traditionally male-dominated STEM fields — was also key to her success. In 2022, her experiences and passion for filmmaking inspired her to establish Spacetime Productions, a company dedicated to elevating marginalized talent in front of and behind the camera. It released its first short film, Every Morning, last year and another, Identiteaze, is scheduled to be released in early 2024.
Founding Spacetime Productions taught Macdonald that individuals are sometimes more capable of achieving their goals than they think, whether that means writing a book, starting a company — or making a film.
“Just do it,” she said. “You’ll figure it out, learn along the way and make a lot of mistakes. But it’s fun.”