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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Research & Inquiry November 26, 2014

Lights, Camera, Science! Sara Pruss Shares Insights on National Geographic TV

As Associate Professor Sara Pruss sees it, the field of earth science is plenty entertaining without being played up for television.

“We don’t have to spin it too much,” said Pruss, who has taught geosciences for eight years at Smith. “There are cool enough things happening with the earth.”

Yet Pruss also believes that scientists need to seize opportunities to reach a wider public who can benefit from their research and insights. “It’s important to get out in front of people,” she said.

Pruss will be doing just that when she appears on National Geographic Wild’s “The Future of Big Cats” episode airing at 9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 30, as part of the network’s “Big Cat Week.” (Click here for a preview.)

Pruss, who opens the “Ice World” portion of the show and provides commentary throughout, offers her expert take on the segment’s premise: What type of habitat will big cats find on earth millions of years from now?

Producers at National Geographic called Pruss over the summer to see if she wanted to participate in the show. Pruss said they were drawn by her knowledge of a theory known as “snowball earth”—the idea that earth’s surface was almost completely frozen some 720 million years ago.

Producers also knew Pruss was experienced at translating science for a TV audience. Pruss appeared on a National Geographic Channel show filmed in 2008 in Shark Bay, western Australia, a World Heritage site known for its singular geology.

Five months pregnant at the time, Pruss recalled long hours of interviewing in 100-degree heat for that show, “End of Man,” about what the earth’s surface would look like in 250 million years.

The single day she spent filming in Los Angeles in June for the “Future Cat” broadcast was a far easier assignment, Pruss said.

“There were no big lights shining in my eyes or flies in my face,” she noted with a smile. “They asked me about some specific scenarios—what would things be like on earth a million years into the future or 100 million years?”

Pruss said she was able to fact-check a script producers developed for the show based on questions emailed to her and other experts about future circumstances on earth.

“They were very receptive to changing things,” Pruss said. “They built the show around the answers from the scientists.”

Rather than having to memorize lines for the broadcast, Pruss answered questions on camera about potential future habitats for big cats.

“It was important to me to feel comfortable that what I was saying was true and was me,” she added.

Was it hard to communicate scientific knowledge in sound bites made for TV?

Pruss said she relied on her teaching experience at the University of Southern California—where she earned her Ph.D.—and for the past eight years, at Smith.

“I’m an educator,” she pointed out. “I know how to explain things. I’ve learned ways of getting things across.”

Pruss also wanted to communicate her passion for paleontology, a field she’s been interested in since she was eight years old when her family moved to Alaska for a year.

“To me that’s the most exciting part of doing a show like this,” Pruss said. “I thought about my son or some other young person watching and getting excited about learning about Earth history.”

While she understands colleagues who view TV appearances as “pandering or not real science,” Pruss said she feels an obligation to share her knowledge with a wider public.

“I think my generation of scientists is concerned about public outreach,” Pruss said. “We have to get out there in front of the taxpayers to talk about what we’re doing. And if we can get in front of new faces and open them up to something they didn’t know about, why wouldn’t we?”

That’s not to say she agrees with everything about the “Future Cat” show.

“Overall, I think they did a good job,” Pruss said. “Were there some ideas that might be a little far-fetched? Yes. But there were interesting lessons embedded in the show.”

Pruss shared those lessons—including a few spots where she felt information was overdramatized—with her Smith students.

While she was taping her interview in the Los Angeles studio, Pruss said several National Geographic producers gathered around to watch.

“Afterwards they said, ‘I’d love to take a class from you,’” she added. “They really got into it.”