Radiation safety was of the utmost importance after the Fukushima accident in Japan. Radiation expert and Exchange consultant, Kevin Crowley, was asked by the band Linkin Park to see if the area was safe. Kevin chats with us about how he got to that point in his career and what it’s like to work for The National Academies.
Tell us about your background. Were you interested in science as a kid? What inspired you to become a scientist?
My Ph.D. degree (Princeton University) is in geology. However, I am becoming a science generalist by virtue of almost 20 years of work for the National Academies.
I became interested in science in the mid-1960s when I was in junior high school. I was fortunate to have excellent teachers who were as interested in stimulating our interest in science as in teaching facts. We kept a pet tarantula in our 7th-grade science class, for example, and some of our science assignments involved field collecting plants and insects. My high school chemistry, physics, and biology teachers were also excellent and took a very humane approach to teaching. Even my auto shop teacher used science principles to teach about mechanical phenomena such as friction.
I realized in high school that I enjoyed science and was pretty good at it. I also received encouragement from my parents, neither of whom were scientists but nevertheless could see that I took joy from it. When I entered college I decided to major in science. I have been in science ever since.
Can you describe a typical workday? What are your favorite and most difficult parts about your job?
I divide my time between three primary activities: (1) working on technical studies that are requested by federal agencies and Congress, (2) managing a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to provide scientific support to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, which tracks the health of WWII atomic bombing survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki; (3) and managing the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board at the National Academies. I enjoy all of these activities, but I particularly enjoy the technical studies. Being involved in a study is like taking a graduate course—except that there are no exams! It is also gratifying to see our studies being used to make policy decisions that improve our lives in so many ways.
My workdays range from extraordinarily mundane—meetings, phone calls, administration, and more meetings—to extraordinarily stimulating intellectually. My work has taken me around the world to meet with scientists, engineers, and policy makers and to visit facilities involved in the production, utilization, and disposition of materials used in medicine, defense, and energy production. I just returned from a week-long meeting in Japan that involved two days of meetings with Japanese experts in Tokyo followed by tours of three nuclear power plants, including Fukushima Daiichi.
Were there any films or television shows that sparked your interest in science when you were growing up? What were your favorites? What do you watch now?|
My favorite television shows growing up were My Favorite Martian, Star Trek, and Combat (which followed the travails of a WWII platoon). I do not watch much television now (I do not have cable), but I enjoy watching movies of all genres. My tastes are not terribly sophisticated.
Do films and television shows influence young people to want to become scientists? Should that be the role of science consulting?
Science shows can certainly stimulate interest in science, but I do not think that they are nearly as effective in influencing young people as good science teachers and supportive parents.
What misperceptions do scientists, in general, have about the entertainment industry, and what misperceptions does the entertainment industry have about scientists?
This is an easy question: People often think that the entertainment industry does not care about getting the science right and scientists do not understand that if the show is not entertaining people will not watch it.
How did you become involved with The Science & Entertainment Exchange? What do you think of the program? Do you have a memorable moment?
I was contacted by Marty Perreault to consult on an episode of Covert Affairs. I did another short consult for Marty on the radiation effects on life forms for another television show, and I advised the band Linkin Park about whether it was safe to visit Japan to do a benefit concert after the Fukushima accident.
I found these tasks to be enjoyable additions to my day job. I am also glad that the National Academies are reaching out to the entertainment industry to help get the science right. One of the pleasant surprises to me is that the entertainment industry is interested in getting it right, at least some of the time.
What have you enjoyed most in your role as a consultant?
The assignments have been creative opportunities for me. The Covert Affairs consult sent me into scientific literature to answer some of the questions that were posed.
Is there a storyline you would like to see in a television show or movie that involves an aspect of your field – or science in general – that has not yet been covered?
Scientists are often portrayed as absent-minded and misguided cowards. Some of the recent television shows and movies have portrayed scientists in a more favorable light—for example the CSI series.
The entertainment industry takes its cues for many of its stories from contemporary human and political events. There are opportunities to create dramatic stories using contemporary events relating to energy, environment, and health that have strong scientific underpinnings. The movie The Day After Tomorrow is a good example of how drama and science can work together to entertain.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
Filmmakers are storytellers, and scientists are explainers. They speak different languages but are both involved in the creative process. They have a lot to offer each other. My advice to both groups is to be open to collaborations.
If you were to compare being a scientist versus being a writer what would you say you have in common?
Scientists and writers are both involved in forms of “storytelling”—scientists tell stories about how the natural world operates, whereas writers tell stories about the human condition. Both are creative activities.
Is there anything you would like to add? Is there anything we have not asked you, but should have?
Thanks for the opportunity to be involved in this interview.