The tattoo on Cara Santa Maria’s inner right forearm isn’t exactly the kind of ink drunken sailors get. “Yeah, this is Archeopyeryx Lithographica,” she says of the pencil-length array of bones. “It’s actually the Berlin specimen, which is a pretty famous transitional fossil, because some people call it a bird, some call it a dinosaur. Personally, I like it because it’s kind of a fuck-you to creationists.”
Got it. It doesn’t take much time with Santa Maria to discern that almost everything is personal with her. Not that she’s touchy or overly self-involved. But her work as the writer, voice, and face of Huffington Post’s “Talk Nerdy To Me”—a weekly video series on science-related stuff that ranges from the topical (Tennessee’s anti-evolution law) to the evergreen (death)—meshes so thoroughly with her personality and passions (or are they obsessions?) that it’s nearly impossible to untangle the threads. For one thing, it won’t be a surprise—given her explanation of the tattoo—to learn that she’s a devout and outspoken atheist, and that this influences her coverage of everything from biology to the environment.
In January 2012, when HuffPost launched its science section, Santa Maria was elevated from a utility player in the site’s science-oriented programming to become the anchor of the “Talk Nerdy” vertical. With a master’s in neuroscience and a zeal for research, Santa Maria was certainly qualified. But her boss, David Freeman, the former managing editor for health topics at CBSnews.com who was brought in to overhaul HuffPost’s science coverage, says her mandate was “not just to alert people to important issues, but to make it fun, accessible, and playful.”
Delivering serious science coverage in a playful package was a tricky, and critical, challenge for HuffPost, as its various efforts on the beat prior to launching the new section had been widely derided—by this publication and others—for trafficking in pseudoscience and New-Age hooey. Most problematic were a number of misleading columns that made spurious connections between things like vaccines and autism, and antibiotics and cancer.
As it happens, playful comes as naturally to Santa Maria as her commitment to good science. The evidence, once again, is in the ink. Tattooed on the left side of her rib cage is a quote from her hero, Carl Sagan—“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself”—which to her means “there is no greater consciousness,” only us and nature. And she notes that she’s also got a skull and crossbones on board. Where? “I’m not going to tell you,” she says. As a teenager, Santa Maria got inked up, not defiantly—her mom accompanied her—but “because it was cool.”
In the same way, “Talk Nerdy” surrounds its intellectual ambitions with thrashy guitar, whizzing graphics and animation, and Santa Maria herself, whose flirtatious eye contact with the camera enforces an enthusiasm that she seems barely able to contain. On Halloween, she donned various costumes—werewolf, zombie, etc.—for a show about rare syndromes.
The “Talk Nerdy” formula—a smarty-pants expert who also happens to be charming and attractive on camera—is pretty standard. But the Web adds a useful interactivity to this proven broadcast strategy. HuffPost wouldn’t provide specific traffic numbers for “Talk Nerdy,” but its active comments section suggests what should be obvious: Santa Maria plays well to the male-heavy, geeky, and obsessive nature of so much of the Internet. (For the record, she says her most-viewed episode to date is “What Happens When You Die?” an exploration of the brain chemistry of impending death. Its comments section was closed at 7,728.)
It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Santa Maria caused a stir one day last November when she arrived on the sunny terrace of a sandwich joint near her office in a new-media ghetto of Beverly Hills. But studiously casual heads did turn. Whether that was due to her ration of online visibility or just the overall aesthetic is hard to say.
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.
Santa Maria writes—and rewrites—her own copy, often in what amount to all-nighters, in bed, with Killer, her rescue mutt, curled at her feet. Now, with time running short, she is worried that her tone is too real—all biology and ecology—for a piece about something that is very spiritual for most people. She and Howard prune a couple of points that seem askew, notably, a bit about late slugger Ted Williams’ cryogenically frozen head being abused in a southwestern lab, which is judged to be “creepy” by Santa Maria. “I didn’t write this story to be creepy,” she says. “That shifts tone too much. That’s about promotion and not content.”
As her shoot time approaches, Santa Maria hustles downstairs to producer/editor Christopher Sprinkle’s office, alerts him to the changes in copy, and promises to meet on the set in 15 minutes. “I’m gonna do a quick-and-dirty today; I don’t feel like being too made-up.”
Santa Maria’s bio smacks of a Web-era fairy tale. She was raised in the prosperous Dallas suburb of Plano (“It’s a rich town, but we weren’t a rich family; we lived in an apartment, which is pretty rare there”) by an engineer father of Italian descent, and an educator mother who is Puerto Rican. Her parents, both converted Mormons, divorced when she was young, and she split her time between them. By high school, Santa Maria had become an unlikely combination of stoner, cheerleader, and nerd. She majored in psychology at the University of North Texas, but diverted to biology and neuroscience for her MA.
By 2009, she was living half-broke in New York City and studying at Queens College for her doctorate when she chanced to meet comic and political gadfly Bill Maher. During the romance that followed, she relocated to LA and made a Maher-produced pilot for HBO (a sort of template for, and not coincidentally bearing the same title as, “Talk Nerdy To Me”) that didn’t get picked up. Maher is pals with Arianna Huffington, though, who told Santa Maria that HuffPost would love to have her voice in its new science section.
Santa Maria’s early video efforts for HuffPost leaned heavily on matters of sex and mental health. She hesitated before opening up about her own struggle, since childhood, with depression so severe that (as she told an interviewer on the website The Mental Illness Happy Hour) there were times she had to “stare somebody you love in the face and say, ‘You can’t help me.’ ” Despite a warning from a mentor at AOL that, “Whatever you put out on the Internet will never go away,” Santa Maria ultimately decided to use her own story to inform her video reports on depression. In a December 2011 episode of “Talk Nerdy,” she says her depression wrecked relationships of all sorts: “I felt worthless, I felt guilty, I had no self-esteem. I couldn’t eat or sleep. If I started to cry, I couldn’t stop.”
Since going public, she has not been shy about asserting that her daily 20-milligram dose of Celexa is not only a key to productivity, but “to being good to the people I love.” She says that she was, and probably still is, difficult to be in a relationship with, “because I am a bundle of contradictions; I am simultaneously headstrong and determined and a total mess who needs a lot of attention and is kinda needy and insecure.”
For all the seeming self-absorption, Santa Maria is quick to laugh, a patient listener who seems eager to compliment her colleagues, and for part of an afternoon at least, a study in consideration. More than once, without a trace of sarcasm, she asks a member of her team, “Can you do me a big favor?” when the task really was part of the person’s daily routine.
The more she talks, the easier it is to understand her fastidious desire to reconcile the contradictions of her show—and of her role as a science teacher and budding Web personality. A question about the career advantages of her looks, then, leads to a discussion of who her audience is—mostly men, late teens to probably mid-40s—and how she would like it to be broader, more diverse, more female.
But it is also clear that she is beginning to understand the expectations—and limitations—that come with even a small dose of celebrity. “With the lip-ring thing,” she says, “lately I’ve been thinking, I’m almost 30—how old is too old to have the lip ring? Will people be saying, ‘Why does that old lady have a lip ring?’ Now I have to think not just for me, but for all these people who watch the show. Sometimes I want to cut off all my hair or dye it blue like I used to, but it’s, ‘Uhh . . . probably shouldn’t do that.’”
On the set, as Santa Maria rigs her own microphone into position and hand-coifs her long brown hair, she continues to worry over the script. “I hope this sounds pretty conversational,” she says. “I don’t know why this was such a bitch for me to write. I keep wanting to go off on a rant about tradition and religiosity.”
With the cameras rolling, she delivers the material smoothly. “Most of us have been to a funeral and we’ve seen a coffin get lowered into the ground,” she says, “but what’s happening inside that coffin, especially after weeks or months?” She and Sprinkle pause with unspoken assent when a truck rumbles by outside—the stage is an ad-hoc affair wherein a window that was sheet-rocked off still admits traffic noise—and Santa Maria picks the story back up once the truck has passed: “It’s pretty hard to become one with Mother Nature when there’s cement, wood, rubber, steel, and embalming fluid protecting you from the elements.”
Four minutes later, she wraps it up and heads back to her desk, still muttering misgivings about the feel of the piece. Soon, though, she is cooking up her next episode—quite possibly about climate change, another subject she takes very personally. “I get pretty political in my theories,” Santa Maria says, then gives one of the head-tilts that punctuate her on-camera delivery, embodying that particular contradiction that situates her somewhere between her beloved Carl Sagan and, say, Tina Fey. “When I think it’s necessary to get through the b.s. that arises because of politics, I’m gonna address it.” Got it.
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