Kari Byron has some advice for parents wanting their children to grow up to become scientists, technologists or anything else: Your interest in a particular endeavor can rub off.
“If you’re a parent and you’re excited about something, your kids are excited about it,” the former “Mythbusters” TV personality said at the Wildcat Tech Expo at Weber State University.
“If you’re excited about science, then they’re excited about science. If you’re excited about TV, they’re going to be excited about TV. I think it’s important. … It’s easy to say but we have very limited time, but every now and then if you can grab them and do something fun — and usually [something] messy gets the kids most excited — I think that that’s going to be the most inspiring thing, is just show them your passion.”
The TV show aimed to either confirm or “bust” urban legends and the like, and Byron said her interest in such experimentation came at an early age.
“My dad tells me I’ve been training to be a mythbuster my entire life,” she said. “He said that he caught me many times trying to turn my sister into a crash-test dummy. I used to do little experiments on her.”
Examples include trying to get a playground swing to go a full 360 degrees — with her sister aboard. When Byron was about 5 and her sister was 2, the older sibling used a laundry chute for one experiment, until her father saw what was going on.
“I put a bunch of pillows down in the bucket that would catch all of the laundry. And I had been tossing dolls down the three stories of the chute, trying to see if they would land OK. And he came in just before I was going to toss my sister down the chute. And I was like, ‘It’s OK. See? All the teddy bears are fine.’”
In her adult life, Byron has become a science-focused TV personality and an artist. She sees similarities in the two.
“I always thought that science and art were in the same line. I mean, you’re fostering a curiosity. They just manifest in different ways,” she said. “I just think that when you approach science the way that you approach art — getting messy and getting your hands dirty and getting into it — I think you’ll be more interested.”
Byron has found many ways to “get messy” during her career. One “Mythbusters” test determined that — surprise! — pretty girls do indeed fart. Her flatulence was confirmed via a loudspeaker system throughout her workplace. Another had her inside a glass box while 40 scorpions were placed atop her to determine whether there truly is a “smell of fear.”
As her career path progressed, she discovered that acceptance of nerds has become widespread.
“I feel like there has been a revolution, a sort of nerd appreciation, for sure. There’s definitely been a change. Comic-Con has gotten bigger and I think shows like ‘Mythbusters’ wouldn’t be successful unless the world started to appreciate the intelligence of the nerds,” she said.
“As far as technology, we all sit there with our phones in our hands, constantly interacting. … More and more, it’s just what we do. I think it’s the future for us. We're not really building cars anymore; we’re building apps.”
Likewise, the role of women in technology fields has grown.
“It’s really evolved over the years because in the beginning, I guess, they didn’t see a lot of women on TV in roles that were compelling — like, the woman was always the nurse, not the doctor, or she was the assistant, not the scientist,” she said.
“I think the problem has now evolved, because I think girls are interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Clearly, when I was growing up, I was being a mythbuster at 5 and I was interested in all those things. I think keeping them interested is now the question. How do you keep an environment where they don’t get trampled by it?”
Interestingly, technology allows for improved ways for technology-focused people to share their passion, she said.
“We are so blessed with the technology that we can reach out, so if you’re the only girl in a math club, you can reach out to other girls, the only girls in the math club three states over,” Byron said.
Once the only female star on a show with four male stars, Byron can relate to girls who want to break into a field populated mostly by men.
“I think the most important thing is to network, to find each other and support each other, because sometimes we feel alone,” she said. “You’re not actually alone. You just happen to be alone in this one situation. We need to help each other out, lift each other up. And then when you get in a power position, you do the same. You’re going to reach down and help young women out and make them not feel alone, bring them on in.”
While the “Mythbusters” run is over, Byron has found other ways to keep her passion for science alive. She has hosted and produced other shows. She will co-host another “Punkin Chunkin” program this November, highlighting an annual event where all manner of contraptions launch pumpkins over a mile. And she is working with former “Mythbusters” colleagues Tori Belleci and Grant Imahara on a program titled “White Rabbit Project,” set to debut Dec. 9 on Netflix.
“No matter what, if you keep following things that make you passionate, happy and have fun with, you’re always going to have a job,” Byron said.
Apparently, like with her sister, Byron’s passion for experimenting on other people has not waned.
“There’s a kind of program that works with amateur neuroscience, and they helped me hook Tori up with a bunch of electrodes so I could control his muscles, which was so much fun,” Byron said amid giggles from herself and the Weber State audience.
“We did that as a filming project for ‘White Rabbit Project,’ and it was hilarious. I messed him up good.”