Imagine this: two pick-up trucks are racing toward one another at breakneck speed, each strapped to a package of explosives. On the sidelines, two teams of scientists work frantically to keep them from colliding and the explosives from detonating.
Though it may sound like something out of a spy thriller, this scene is actually from an unexpected source: The Discovery Channel’s new reality program, "The Big Brain Theory," which pits ten scientists and engineers against each other for a grand prize of $50,000 and a stint at the company that created Las Vegas’s famous “Fountains of Bellagio.”
For The Discovery Channel, "The Big Brain Theory" presents an opportunity to pitch science and engineering to a mainstream audience. But for judge Dr. Christine Gulbranson, the show could also have a different purpose: to reach out to young women who are often overlooked by traditional math and science education.
Looking for Mentors
Gulbranson, the CEO of the advisory firm Christalis and one of the “Top 40 Under 40 Business Leaders of Silicon Valley,” was first inspired to pursue science by her father, a mechanic, and grandfather, a self-taught amateur engineer. “We would sit there and chat about new materials that were coming out for springs for the automotive industry. I was thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really exciting, because you can actually build things and contribute that then are really being used in society.”
Looking back, Gulbranson easily pinpoints the beginnings of her passion for science to these early conversations about mechanics with her father and grandfather. But one thing bothers her about her introduction to this world.
“All of my mentors were men,” she says. “I wish I would have had female mentors accessible to me.”
Even as a child, Gulbranson said she observed clear cultural friction when it came to girls expressing interest in the technical fields. “When I had a ratchet set and I was playing around and watching my dad work on engines, I wanted to get in there and get my hands dirty and work on the engine as well. And my mom would jump in and say, ‘No, don’t you dare let her work on that, I don’t want her to lose a finger,’” she recalls. “I’m wondering if that would be the same response if I was a boy.”
The same sense followed her to college at UC Davis, where she studied physics as an undergraduate. Though she found that she loved the hands-on world of the solid-state physics lab — playing with superconductors, grinding and cooking materials, and working in a fuel hood — she was also practically alone in it. Out of the entire body of undergraduates studying physics, only two were women.
Fixing the Imbalance
Gulbranson believes that the key to reversing the shortage of women in math and science fields is getting girls hooked on the subjects at a young age — as she was — before cultural misconceptions have a chance to take hold. “If you want to grasp the attention of youth you have to do it by the middle school age,” she says. “That’s when you start to lose them because of society’s pressures around them. There is a cultural shift.”
That’s where a program like "Big Brain Theory" comes in. “I wish I had this type of television when I was younger,” she says. “It’s exciting, it’s sexy, it’s cool. It’s attainable.”
Attainability is especially important for Gulbranson, who argues that mentorship and visible, accessible role models are essential in encouraging women to enter these fields. (Perhaps this is an area where "The Big Brain Theory" can also contribute: out of 10 contestants on the show, two are women.)
Gulbranson acknowledges that many obstacles still stand in the way. She points to a pervasive “locker-room culture” among male-dominated corporate boards and other organizations that are reluctant to allow women to join “the boy’s club,” as well as misconceptions that women in power are less likely to innovate and take risks than their male peers.
But despite these frustrations, Gulbranson is hopeful about the new crop of young women in Silicon Valley today, who she sees as challenging these barriers all the time. “We’re seeing more of the younger generations breaking down those boundaries and saying, ‘Hey, I can take risks right along with the guy next to me. So let’s go do it.’”
WATCH: The Big Brain Theory Series Preview