At first glance, she seemed to be dressed for the infield at a NASCAR event, in denim pants, a checked shirt, and boots. But on a closer look, the shirt was fitted, the jeans super snug, the boots a designer twist on motorcycle gear. Her notorious lip ring was prominent, and she wore a nerdy pair of cappuccino glasses. When she removed them for a moment to brush the hair from her brow, the effect was almost alarmingly—sexism watchdogs, please forgive me—Italian movie star.
Santa Maria appeared not to notice her effect on the other patrons, but was rather consumed by the subject of her next episode, which she had shot earlier in the day: how society disposes of human corpses and the environmental problems that causes. It’s not easy to, as Santa Maria likes to say, do the math between grim and playful with this one. How does the plain fact of death, she wonders, “match the tone I wanted of the future and sci-fi and—cool?”
Solving that problem—striking that balance between substantive and scintillating, as a way to make science interesting and relevant to the masses—is what “Talk Nerdy,” and Santa Maria, for that matter, are all about. Her goal for the show, and the science section overall, she told Scientific American soon after “Talk Nerdy” launched, is to increase the “scientific literacy of the public at large.”
This desire to help people get science began to emerge, she says, during her days as a teaching assistant. “I found myself enjoying teaching more than doing my own research,” she says. “I would see the look on the students’ faces where they go, ‘I don’t get it, I’m never gonna understand it.’ But once you figure out where they’re getting caught, you can help them work through it.”
Serious. Playful. Teacher. Celebrity. Scientist. Sex symbol. It’s not an easy balancing act to pull off. Fortunately for Santa Maria, the roster of “un’s” that comprise her unconventional ways includes unguarded and unapologetic. So while she’s fiercely proud of her credentials for the work she does, she claims to have little problem with the more commercially calculated elements of her career, including her show’s playful title. “First of all, I am very sex-positive,” she says, “so I don’t look at the double entendre as innocent or not. It’s the idea that science is sexy and it’s cool; it’s fun and you can be a little irreverent with it.
“I know there are people in both camps,” she continues, “even colleagues and friends of mine who work really hard in the science-communication arena and who get a little nervous because they’ve seen the objectification of women in the sciences, and how hard so many women have to work to be taken seriously. Some—especially older—women will look at what I do and say it’s moving them back a step, while other women—especially younger ones—will see it as moving them forward.”
Still, when she is criticized in the “Talk Nerdy” comments section—for being too superficial, or too playful, or too whatever—she answers back almost pleadingly, reminding the critic of her credo: “The science comes first, ALWAYS.” And she admits to being baffled, though not overly perturbed, that she gets more comments on her lip ring—which she has had since she was 15—than on the content of most of her episodes: “They say, ‘Take that fish hook out of your mouth—how am I supposed to take you seriously?’”
On the morning of the burial-practices shoot, Santa Maria leads me through a suite of offices sufficiently well appointed to make the bloggers who contributed amply to HuffPost for free grit their teeth. She greets Jacqueline Howard, the associate science editor, warmly, and they sit down to review David Freeman’s notes on the script.