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Wonder woman

Emily Calandrelli, SM ’13, is the aerospace engineer behind Emily’s Wonder Lab, a new TV show designed to get all kinds of kids excited about science.

Emily CalandrelliEmily Calandrelli
Netflix

In summer of 2019, Emily Calandrelli and a television production crew filled a shallow pool with a blue goo called “oobleck.” While cameras were rolling, she challenged five barefoot children to make their way from one side of the pool to the other without getting stuck in the sludge.  

Composed of cornstarch, water, and food coloring, oobleck is a non-Newtonian fluid, meaning that its viscosity changes under pressure. When force is applied, this gunky goo acts like a solid, and keeping it that way requires constant pressure. 

The first child tried to slowly walk across the pool, and got stuck in ankle-deep slime. The second tried stomping across, and the third tried jumping, but both sank to the bottom before reaching the other side. The kids did crack the problem. Running with small, quick steps to keep a more consistent stream of pressure on the oobleck, the fourth child made it to the other side without sinking. 

The oobleck experiment gave the kids a gooey lesson in fluid mechanics and scientific investigation. The camera crew got footage for Emily’s Wonder Lab, a Netflix science show for viewers ages four and up, and Emily Calandrelli, SM ’13, got to show the world a new kind of science host. An aerospace engineer by training, Calandrelli is young, deliberately unpretentious, and wildly enthusiastic—and at the time, she was nine months pregnant. When Emily’s Wonder Lab premiered in 190 countries last fall, viewers flooded her social media. 

Emily Calandrelli on set
Emily Calandrelli, SM ’13, filmed the first season of her science show for kids while 36 weeks pregnant.
COURTESY PHOTO

Bridges to STEM

Calandrelli is trying to be the STEM role model she didn’t have growing up in Morgantown, West Virginia, in the 1990s. She loved math and art, and she was always curious. But from a young age, she felt a divide between kids like her—whose families were at best one generation removed from poverty—and the “smart kids” whose parents were professors at West Virginia University. In late elementary school, a teacher recommended that she test for the school’s gifted class. Calandrelli read the questions, froze with anxiety, and failed. She internalized the failure as “one sign that I just didn’t belong in that group.” 

That self-image of being pretty good but not elite followed her to high school. As peers stacked their schedules with ambitious scholastic extracurriculars, Calandrelli maintained good grades and did activities she loved but, in her words, “wasn’t very good at.” She was a majorette for the band, played basketball, and ran track and cross country, staying at the junior varsity level all four years. When the time for college applications rolled around, schools like MIT felt out of reach. She was admitted to West Virginia University, compiled a list of typical salaries for each major, and chose engineering because it paid the most. 

“I went into college thinking, like, ‘This is going to be awful. The next four years of my life are going to suck, but I’m going to get a good job in the end,’” she says. “I was trying to be very practical about it. I didn’t know anybody who was an engineer.” 

Calandrelli was terrified to start classes. Fearing failure, she avoided honors courses. But once the semester got under way, she was surprised that she could keep up. She understood the material and wanted to know more. Her grades were exceptional—testing anxiety from elementary school became a distant memory. 

“They’re not just saying, like, ‘This is useful. We like the science,’ but they’re saying, ‘Thank you for this representation,’” Calandrelli says. “Their kids are saying, ‘Look, it’s a scientist like Mommy.’” 

She was excited about engineering, but she wasn’t confident she could really be an engineer until the professor teaching her introductory course assigned a group project that involved building a model bridge using only the materials provided, which included drinking straws, tape, and string. Her group members slacked off, so Calandrelli did the project herself. She researched strong but lightweight bridges, designed a suspension bridge, consulted civil engineers for feedback, and spent all night constructing the model alone. The experience was initially depressing—while she built the bridge, one of her teammates was throwing a party. But when the project was named best in the class, her mood and self-perception shifted.

“That was a turning point for me,” she says. She began to believe “that I could actually be good at this.”

At the end of her first semester, she had a 4.0 GPA—which she maintained throughout college—and decided to take on the most adventurous engineering endeavors she could. Those included a semester learning theme-park engineering at Disney World in Orlando, studying abroad in Turkey, building a greenhouse outside Mexico City with Engineers Without Borders, and conducting experiments while floating in reduced gravity aboard NASA’s astronaut training plane, the “Vomit Comet.”

Aerospace and airwaves

The rest of college passed in a flash, concluding with a whirlwind of accolades, including the prestigious Goldwater and Truman scholarships. Along the way, she’d also completed two research internships at NASA, where she met Tommy Franklin ’09, an aerospace engineering student from MIT. 

They stayed in touch, and when Calandrelli was applying to graduate schools a year later, Franklin connected her with his former advisor, aero-astro professor Edward Crawley. Franklin, who would eventually become Calandrelli’s husband, wasn’t the only one putting her on Crawley’s radar. Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, had met Calandrelli at a luncheon at WVU and made sure Crawley knew that her application was coming his way. 

“You could just tell from the first 10 minutes when you met her, even as an undergraduate, that she was going to go someplace and do something interesting,” Crawley says. 

In 2010, Calandrelli began doing space transportation research in Crawley’s lab, helping develop the systems architecture that would be required for human missions to Mars and near-Earth asteroids. She intended to pursue a PhD but found that she was also interested in technology policy. 

She earned dual master’s degrees in aero-astro engineering and technology and policy, but before she found a job in either field, television came calling. Some TV producers had found promotional videos Calandrelli had shot for WVU’s engineering program. They were making a STEM-focused children’s series for Fox called Xploration Outer Space and were looking for a host. Calandrelli signed on as host and co-producer, and soon after graduation, she was working her MIT contacts for ideas on how to shape the first season. Within a year, she was back on the Vomit Comet, filming a segment alongside astronaut Cady Coleman ’83. 

Calandrelli in Vomit Comet
As host of Xploration Outer Space, Emily “the Space Gal” Calandrelli shows kids what reduced gravity is like on the “Vomit Comet.”
COURTESY PHOTO

As Calandrelli continued to host the show—its sixth season began airing in January—she scooped up an Emmy nomination and moved into an executive producer role. She has also been a field correspondent for the Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World and coauthored five STEM-themed early chapter books in the Ada Lace series.  

“Emily is the real deal. She’s passionate about space exploration and scientific literacy,” says Nye, the self-proclaimed “science guy,” author, TV host, and CEO of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that advocates for space science and exploration. “I’m sure the world will be watching as her star continues to rise.”

Landing her new show on Netflix wasn’t easy. Five years ago, Calandrelli partnered with Maria Pepin, senior vice president of children’s programming at Bunim/Murray Productions, to pitch a scripted series wherein Calandrelli would play a scientist who brought kids into her lab to solve problems of the day. They took it to multiple networks and even made a pilot for one, but the project fell through. Calandrelli also pitched a science series for adults, but again, networks passed, saying that her target viewers wouldn’t relate to a solo female host.

“They had asked me if I had a boyfriend that could cohost the show with me,” Calandrelli says, “which was very annoying feedback to hear.”

Years passed, and then someone who had seen Calandrelli’s pitch for a kids’ science lab series moved to Netflix and wanted to revisit the idea. While the Netflix team turned out to be lukewarm on that show, they still wanted Emily to host her own series for kids. Emily’s Wonder Lab was filmed over six days in the summer of 2019, and Calandrelli and Franklin welcomed their first child a few weeks later. Premiering last August with a snappy theme song urging kids to “stay curious and keep exploring,” the show garnered praise from parents. One review called Calandrelli “the feminist icon your kids need.” 

Representation still has a long way to go in STEM fields and STEM communication. Calandrelli is quick to point out that racism permeates both arenas alongside sexism. She believes that her growing platform comes with increased responsibility to educate herself on social justice issues and to showcase the fact that scientists and budding scientists come from diverse backgrounds and have different physical abilities. 

As of mid-March, Calandrelli was still waiting to hear whether Emily’s Wonder Lab would be renewed for a second season, but she hasn’t been idle. Since wrapping up production on the first season, she has written another children’s book, called Reach for the Stars, which will be published in the spring of 2022, and she has been doing free virtual talks and experiments with thousands of students across the country. In these talks, language is simple. Concepts trump technicalities. Excitement is front and center. She’s determined to show kids that they can be scientists and engineers even if they don’t fit the typical mold.

“I just want to make it feel more accessible to more people,” she says, “but especially to those who may not already consider themselves one of the ‘smart’ kids.”