Life hacks and laughs… A conversation with Innovation Nation’s Alie Ward

PHOTO CREDIT: Justin Zangerle

If you like your engineering and science with a dose of humor, Alie Ward’s got you covered. She’s the Emmy Award-winning science correspondent for CBS’s “The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca,” and host of the smart and hilarious “Ologies” podcast. But her STEM exploration doesn’t stop there. She’s on the Science Channel’s “How to Build Everything,” and, along with Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame, she co-hosts GE’s “In the Wild” and finds time to be on Cooking Channel’s ongoing show “Unique Sweets.” She’ll also be part of two new science shows for Netflix, and when she’s not doing all that, Alie answers Q&As for NEF.

Q. You studied biology before earning a degree in cinema at UC Santa Barbara. Did you think then that you’d end up where you are today, telling fresh and fun stories about the engineers and scientists who make cool things happen and improve lives?

You know, I think if I would have known I’d have this cool of a job, I would have relaxed a little while I was in school. I always loved the arts but also loved science and I always thought — if I couldn’t pick just one of them — then I had to be really driven in both in case I needed one as a plan B. And I’m so fortunate that my work involves both science and entertainment; it turns out I didn’t have to chose just one. The other aspect of my job that I love is how inspiring the scientists and engineers are; hearing how an idea was born and the resourcefulness and hard work it took to make it a reality are just excellent fuel to keep me motivated in my own life, whether it’s in pursuing new projects or getting through a long travel and shoot day.

Q. One of the things we like about Innovation Nation is how much information and knowledge gets conveyed in a brief amount of time. Does that make it challenging to convey technical information, or is it a good forcing function to help you break down complexity and get to the core of what the audience needs to know?

It definitely is a challenge to convey the technical details in a short window of time but viewers can also do more research on the product or invention after the show. What is most painful to exclude, in my mind, are the amazing details about what might inspire the inventors themselves. We always keep those thoughts in the story if we can, but the full interviews we shoot about perseverance are so inspiring and I wish sometimes we had an hour per segment to include all the details.

PHOTO CREDITS: Stephanie Himango/Innovation Nation

Q. Tell us about the most interesting inventor you’ve profiled.

I was so blown away by Atlanta-based inventor, Lonnie Johnson. The man has so many patents for various inventions, was a NASA engineer who worked on the Galileo spacecraft that orbited Jupiter and also invented the SuperSoaker water toy, which ended up earning him millions of dollars. He uses that revenue to help fund other engineering projects, like batteries with improved efficiency, and to help fund robotics teams and mentorship. He’s just incredibly brilliant and inspiring and it was such an honor to interview him. I fanned out pretty hard and then also lost my mind with glee getting to run around this factory squirting water at targets.

Q. How about the inventor with the best sense of humor…

I have to give that distinction to then 73-year-old Merle Freeman, who came up with the idea for bracelet called Paxie, which helps alert parents about their children’s health and safety. She was so dedicated to keeping kids safe — but also had the most hilarious sense of humor off camera that might make a sailor blush. I adored our conversations when the cameras weren’t rolling, but uuuhhh… I could not relay any specifics in this publication. Trust me.

…so many innovators stress that failure is PART of success. You will have plenty of microfailures — and maybe some big ones along the way — and it’s all part of the creation and evolution of an idea.

Q. While those in the STEM fields take their work and research seriously, humor plays a big part in your storytelling – both on Innovation Nation and your own podcast Ologies. When did you first test using humor in science? Was it a natural fit or did you have to work at finding the right way to weave in puns and laughs?

I think it’s all about balance. I think some people might be intimidated by science because there’s a perception that it lacks a human element; that science is all data and numbers and impersonal. But actually scientists are curious and warm and hilarious and have great stories so it’s been a passion of mine to show that side of science as a way of breaking down that intimidation. Also, science is so genuinely funny. Natural science is all about weird mating behaviors and fear responses and any experiment starts with a question and has countless failures and mishaps before it’s successful. It boggles me why more people don’t approach it with humor but I’m not mad that there’s less competition; I’LL BE HONEST.

PHOTO CREDIT: Stephanie Himango/Innovation Nation

Q. You’ve interviewed engineering pioneers – from the inventor of 3-D printing to emerging engineering entrepreneurs like the creator of a Welsh inland surf park. A lot has been written about the advice successful innovators have for people aspiring to do the same, but we’d like to know: in the course of interviewing so many engineers and scientists, did they share pitfalls they wish they’d avoided along the way, or caution signs they missed as they pursued their dreams?

Please know that I milk these geniuses for life advice ALL THE TIME. It’s like: if anyone knows how to life-hack, it’s folks on the verge of a Nobel Prize. One great piece of advice I’ve heard is not to hoard your ideas because they’re not perfect yet. Rather, get them out into the world and ask for some help and input in making them better. There’s so much worry about imperfection that a lot of people would rather sit on an idea than never try and fail — but so many innovators stress that failure is PART of success. You will have plenty of microfailures — and maybe some big ones along the way — and it’s all part of the creation and evolution of an idea. I definitely took that to heart when I was wanting to make Ologies but was worried it wasn’t good enough to release yet. Every time an innovator would suggest just jumping in and making an invention happen, my producer Stephanie would give me a knowing smirk and a side-eye … until I finally launched the podcast. Turned out — those innovators were right. Just do the thing and figure it out as you go.

All in all, it’s been great to not only deliver science info that has relevance but at the end of the day — and literally at the end of each show — imparts the advice, “Dream big, and don’t quit,” which is a great motto for anyone.

PHOTO CREDITS (from left to right): Stephanie Himango/Innovation Nation; John Murphy/Innovation Nation; Lila Higgins

Q. What innovation haven’t you covered that you’d like to one day?

Recently, Innovation Nation was shooting a story on a jet-powered hoverboard invented by Franky Zapata and it was one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. I’m still reeling from wonder and I can’t wait for it to air. And one story I keep wanting to cover is an app for speed-reading, upping the words per minute to something like 500. As someone who loves reading but is on the go all the time, I just want to put more books into my brain faster.

Q. What feedback do you hear from viewers? Is there a difference in what you hear from STEM folks and non-STEM fans?

I hear a lot of great feedback about how inspiring it is to see rough, ugly prototypes of items that have become so familiar: I love showing viewers that an idea will evolve and get better as you make iterations and fix the things that don’t work. A lot of otherwise-non-STEM fans I think extrapolate those principals to other areas of their lives, which I love. And many STEM fans love hearing the history of inventions and seeing what’s on the forefront in terms of new technology. All in all, it’s been great to not only deliver science info that has relevance but at the end of the day — and literally at the end of each show — imparts the advice, “Dream big, and don’t quit,” which is a great motto for anyone.