Jessica Cail is a high-flying scientist, literally! Splitting her time between the classroom, the circus tent and the big screen, Dr. Cail wows audiences and students alike with her unique combination of science chops and stunt skills. Oh, and in her free time she is also a beloved Exchange consultant!
You have an incredibly interesting background, after majoring in journalism, why did you switch to psychology, and what inspired you to pursue a career as a university professor?
It seems like a big switch, but it’s really not: all these fields require you to objectively analyze facts and then summarize them as simply as possible for the benefit of others. These areas comingled for me because my alma mater, Boston University, requires its journalism students to have a liberal arts concentration. I had always loved reading though my mom’s psychology textbooks, so I picked psychology. At the same time, George Bush and NIMH had just declared the 90s “The Decade of the Brain”, and a lot of scientific developments were being covered in the popular press. Being a science journalist seemed like the perfect combination of my interests. However, once I started doing research and teaching in grad school, I soon realized that it was far more fun to create the news I was writing about than to cover someone else’s news, so I took the research-academic route.
Psychology covers a lot of territory. What is your specialty, and what fascinates you about it?
My specialty is the investigation of the mind-body connection. This interest has taken me from working with the Department of Defense on ways to detect lies, to altering a rat’s addiction to morphine by simply altering the scent of the room in which it uses the drug. In all these pursuits, I am fascinated by the possibility of using psychology, a field which has been long accused of being “all in one’s head” to alter the physical body.
What have you learned from your students that’s really surprised you?
My students constantly keep me ahead of the academic curve on drugs! I saw the current hookah craze coming years ago when a group of students asked me if smoking tobacco that way was still bad for you. I heard stories about a short-acting LSD that businessmen were using to have a quick trip long before the drug DMT hit the journals. One student’s best friend drank a tea called “Hell’s Bells” made from a local flower and had a hallucinogenic trip that lasted 3 days! I’m constantly looking up slang terms for god knows what substance people are taking these days. As a professor of psychopharmacology, it definitely keeps me on my toes.
You’ve also been working in the entertainment industry – as a stuntwoman and circus performer. How did you get into that line of work? What makes you good at it? What projects have you worked on?
When I was five, my grandfather asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him I wanted to be a ballerina, an astronaut, a fireman, and an archeologist. He said, “That’s a lot of things. How are you going to be all those?” I answered matter of factly, “If I do each one for 15 minutes each day…” So, here I am. My husband is a writer/director/stuntman/special effects guru, so I’ve apparently cannibalized a few of his interests as well. I’ve always been athletic, so falling off buildings, bouncing on spring stilts or cracking double bullwhips became a break from being in my scientific head all the time. So far I’ve been a circus performer in the background of Tenacious D Pick of Destiny, a surfer in 1408, and a whip-wielding villainess on Supah Ninjahs. I’ve also got a recurring part in my husband’s web series The Hunted. You can see me in action here:
How has your work as an entertainer influenced your work in the classroom or lab? And, vice versa –does your academic background play a role in your stunt work?
It does make for some interesting analogies in class: “Your hippocampus indexes long term physical memories called muscle memory, which is what enables me to duck the sword coming over my head before I even remember what’s next in the fight choreography.” On the other side, I try to keep academics and stunts separate. Only a couple stunt coordinators know I’m also a doctor, for fear of them not taking me seriously as a stunt person.
Are your students aware of your other occupation(s)? What kinds of reactions have you gotten?
Yes, I’ve started to admit it right on day one, because it saves that inevitable disruptive moment in which some student discovers my whip demo or website photos, and a wave of whispers passes across the auditorium as the info gets passed around the room. Hey Dr. Cail, why are you writing with your left hand? Well class, I tried out for Ninja Warrior this weekend and I dislocated my right shoulder. I can’t overstate the amount of street cred I earn from that. I think it’s that it makes me a whole and interesting person, rather than a flat boring professor, and that makes them listen to me more. Hey, whatever it takes.
How did you become involved with The Exchange?
I was at a Science of Sci-Fi panel at 2009 San Diego ComicCon with writer-producer Gillian Horvath (Sanctuary, Primeval New World) and we learned about this new consulting service to improve the science in fiction. She convinced me to introduce myself and send in my resume, and I’ve been on-call ever since.
What can you tell us about the projects you’ve worked on? For example, what kinds of questions have you been asked? Has your advice always been followed?
A lot of my questions have been addiction related. I worked on a horror movie in which the lead slowly becomes addicted to action, a couple movies where designer drugs were created to enhance performance but had some negative side-effects, and an upcoming Disney movie which I’m not allowed to discuss on penalty of death.
How does your entertainment industry background help in your role as a consultant?
I think being around so many writers, directors and producers helps me balance the rules of the science with the needs of the creative. I know that writers come to me for only a bit of science to fill a gap in their script. My job is not to turn their work into a doctoral dissertation. My job is to give them as many scientifically-based justifications for their ideas as possible. People always ask me, how do I handle the science when the writers want me to justify the impossible? In those cases, my job is to sprinkle in enough scientifically plausible justifications to make their ideas sound credible. I’ve heard some writers worry about calling in a scientific consultant for fear of a big red pen labeling all of their ideas as inaccurate. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Our job is to support their ideas, not correct them.
What have you enjoyed most in your role as a consultant? What have you learned from it?
I always love working on whatever projects come along, but my favorite was consulting for the Exchange’s article on Villain Science about Bane and the drug he was likely inhaling through his respirator. I even got to talk to Bane’s creator Denny O’Neil on that assignment. So cool.